Mr. Pierscieniak has 15 years professional experience in Technology Consulting: as technical program manager specializing in delivery of integrated enterprise-scale solution and business process optimization expert for Fortune100 companies. Focusing on aligning tactical execution with long-term corporate vision, he leverages his background in software architectures and systems engineering to translate strategic organizational objectives into turn-key business solutions. Mr. Pierscieniak has a BSCE degree from the University of California - San Diego, PMP, CSM, Six Sigma Green Belt, Software Development Frameworks certification, and Microsoft PSP/TSP (Team Software Process) expertise. He is an active member of PMI, ASQ, Agile Alliance, Richmond’s chapter of BringIT, and the online Consultants Network.
Project Management Leadership (part 3)
Sep 29 2010
This month’s blog entry explores the complex relationship between project success and project leadership. Risk of failure is potentially higher for IT projects than commonly acknowledged and, by all accounts, it would appear that success hinges less on strict adherence to methodology than on leadership. Leadership, of course, assumes manifold forms, but in the context of this discussion I narrow it down to its core: the moral/ethical responsibility of project managers to "tell it like it is," so that appropriate decision-makers can make effective decisions in a timely manner.
This is the third and final part of the Project Management Leadership series, the first of which was published on 8/18. Here we make the link between success, leadership, and ethics explicit. Ethics in project management elude rigid definition,but realism (rather than optimism) is critical to every organization's ability to think critically and to maximize the opportunities for effective and timely decisions at every organizational level.
The Definition of Leadership
The danger with any of the BoK's (i.e. PMBOK) or methodologies (i.e. PRINCE2 or TCMF or CCPM) is that their level of abstraction is so high as to render them largely meaningless "out of the box". Strict adherence to methodology, as we’ve seen, does little to blunt failure. In fact, failure of effective leadership combined with the failure of effective communication, are consistently identified the two top project management problems. PMI credentials and certifications are no substitute for leadership and leadership is grounded in experience. It’s not at all counterintuitive that a virtual tide of classroom-trained PMPs has done little to improve project success rates.
Leadership, even within a limited project management context, can assume many forms. For project managers, however, it’s the persuasion or the influence to recalibrate the thinking of those who wield power, that we can identify as the core of leadership. Somewhat unsurprisingly, many recently-certified PMI certificate-holders lack the experience to exercise such leadership. Deliberately differentiating between process and process-intent, telling it like it is and holding ground, succinctly framing-up decision alternatives, communicating transparently with management’s decision makers: these might be said to be prerequisites to translating effective project execution into project effectiveness. And business success.
Application: Ethics in Leadership
Recent events in the financial sector have highlighted the issue of the ethical dilemma often faced when increasing pressure to perform, deliver and maximize profitability butts up against moral and ethical compliance.
It is quite common for consultant to be given marching orders based upon ‘sales driven’ targets, where estimates, requirements, contracts, etc., which are more aligned with the objectives of the delivery organization (revenue plans, utilization needs, billable hours, larger/longer engagements, follow-on work, etc.) and not necessarily fully motivated by the client’s best interest.
Organizations that consider project management a revenue generating, billable activity, rather than part of a standard delivery and oversight methodology, usually put PMs in the fundamentally ambiguous position of ‘singing for their supper’, often to justify their own very existence on a particular project. Indeed, as research shows, the client’s perception is more important than any quantifiable measure of success. This forces PMs to make decisions, even about the overall validity and value of a project as a whole, where conflict between their obligation to the client’s best interest (as summarized by the Code) and the best interests of their employer cannot easily be reconciled.
From my observational experiences over the last 15+ years, it seems that, at least within the IT space, we as PM’s are often handcuffed from forcefully exercising our moral & ethical responsibilities by the conflicted position of simultaneously serving many different masters.
A way to address this practical dilemma, the only way to address it, is through transparency to all stakeholders. Potential for conflict-of-interest is not particular to consulting; it’s inherent to all business scenarios in which individual stakeholders represent multiple overlapping organizational involvements, where concern for potential influence cannot be discarded. While it is disappointing that the PMI has stepped back from a subject matter where unambiguous ethical guidance could have been of some considerable benefit, there is no reason why project leadership should be impacted, if complete disclosure is made. In fact, project stakeholders will benefit, if project management embraces transparency at all levels across the leadership hierarchy.
In a research whitepaper presented at the annual NASA Cost Symposium in 2009, the authors “have presented evidence that cost and schedule growth is pervasive and biased toward underestimation.” This is hardly unexpected, at NASA or elsewhere.
Most senior managers are ‘can do’ type people: they regard themselves as optimists who must convey that message to their team, if they are to successfully give their organization the chance to succeed.
As a corollary, the conclusions of NASA’s research, however, have wide-ranging applications: “If unwelcome (even pessimistic) opinions are suppressed, while optimistic projections are welcomed and rewarded, an organization's ability to think critically and realistically will be undermined.”
According to Debbie O’Bray, chair of PMI’s ESDC and a former chair of the PMI Board of Directors, ethical responsibility “includes having the courage to share bad news even when it may be poorly received. Also, when outcomes are negative, [it includes the obligation to] avoid burying information or shifting blame to others…. These provisions reinforce our commitment to be both honest and responsible.”
Project success, therefore, with respect to the project leadership role, is to objectively and independently evaluate and assess, in order to guide and manage based on realism (rather than optimism), providing stakeholders with unbiased recommendations, to maximize the opportunities for effective and timely decisions.
I find this link to be key. Processes and methodologies merely provide a roadmap to the IT organization. Without the ability to act objectively, decision makers are not likely to make optimal choices. It must be said that decisions must be made proactively throughout the project life cycle, not just at baseline or at predefined milestones. Whenever the external context changes, there is a need to pause and reevaluate. The news might be ‘good’ or it might be ‘bad’, but failure to act, even a delay in doing so, places the project in jeopardy.
About the Author
Kristofer Pierscieniak (BSCE, PMP, SSGB) is a Lead Consultant with CapTech Consulting. Over the last 15 years in the IT industry, he has managed software development efforts for a number of Silicon Valley Fortune 100 companies: Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Microsoft, among others. He has seen projects (and project managers) succeed and fail. Based on hands-on experience, Mr. Pierscieniak has come to view transparency as the common thread of success and strongly believes that “telling it like it is” is the professional obligation of all consultants.