I was thinking back today about a conversation I had on a plane about ten years ago. It was my first long distance “onsite” as a control systems guy, and I was very excited. Next to me on the plane to Hertfordshire, Connecticut was a grizzled old technician, about a month away from retirement. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, but the name “Bob” would suit him, so I’ll call him that.
We got to talking about what brought both of us together in that plane that day. I was off to startup some machine with a program that was “almost done”, and Bob was coming back from a service call on some CNC machines.
I spent most of my time on that flight listening to his lifetime of stories. I distinctly remember his right hand was missing the little finger and the tip of the ring finger. “A press did that to me,” he said. “Didn’t get my hand out of the way in time.” I figured it probably happened years ago, before all the new safety standards were in place. “No,” he laughed, “just four years ago. Make sure you keep your hands in your pockets!” He pointed at me with his right hand as he said it, just for emphasis.
What really got Bob talking was when I told him I wanted to be a project manager some day. “Why the hell would you want to do that?” he said. “You like white hard hats and clipboards, do ya,” he smirked. I got the sense Bob had seen a lot of project managers come and go in his day. You might say he viewed them with a critical eye. Still, we talked a bit more, and Bob related to me a kind of “system” he had for spotting, what he called, the “Doomed Project Manager”. He said all you have to do is listen for some key phrases, and that’s enough to tell you if a PM is a rising star or on the next train to dooms-ville.
Now I’ve been very fortuitous in my career. I’ve never actually heard anyone I’ve worked with ever say anything like this, and that’s certainly a testament to the professionalism and dedication to excellence of all the teams I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Certainly, I’ve never said any of these things. Still, I think Bob’s advice might ring true for other teams that might be struggling with their own instance of a doomed project manager. Therefore, here are Bob’s Clues to Doomed Project Managers, as closely as I can remember them:
1. “We just need to buckle down”
“If I had a nickle for every time a PM talked about buckling down,” said Bob. “What this really means is he doesn’t see any obstacle that can’t be overcome with lots of unpaid overtime. I imagine old King Tut buildin’ his pyramid talked to his people a lot about buckling down.”
“The problem,” said Bob, “is that they get addicted to it. The solution to every problem on every project is to buckle down. They don’t learn to plan it better next time, have the parts ordered a week earlier just in case, have the drawings reviewed by someone else, or whatever. Why bother when you can make it someone else’s problem?”
2. “We’re a little behind, but I think we can make it up”
“On the surface, this sounds a lot like the buckle down thing, but there’s a subtle difference. In fact you’ll often hear them used together, like we’re a little behind schedule, but I think we can make it up if we just buckle down. What you’ve really got on your hands here is an incurable optimist. The best predictor of future performance is past performance, but this fella thinks yeah, it’s been going bad so far, but for no reason whatsoever, I think it’s about to turn around and go the other direction.
3. “We know you like to do things the right way, but…”
“I’ve been around a few years now, and I find I’m now the guy they call in to go fix stuff that’s already behind schedule and over budget. So I really think it’s great when they pull you into their office and say we know you like to take the time to do things right, but we’re way behind schedule and over budget here, so take whatever shortcuts you can to get it to work, and we’ll have to fix the rest on the next job. The irony of this is apparently lost on the poor doomed PM, because it’s almost always the rushed, half-assed job that he told the guy before you to do that got him into this mess in the first place.”
4. “We didn’t have time to…”
“This is my favorite,” said Bob. “The customer comes to you and says the widget doesn’t do what he wanted it to do, and you say of course we can do that!… but let’s take a look at the spec to see if it’s supposed to be included, or if it’s an extra. You call the PM and he says, I remember them saying in a meeting they didn’t want that, but we were over budget and behind schedule so we didn’t have time to update the spec. Then you end up doing days of rework to make up for the 30 minutes of typing he saved. The PM’s whole job is to plan, document and manage the scope of the job. If he wasn’t doing that, who was managing the project?”
There were some other clues I just can’t remember, but those were the ones that stuck with me. Does anyone have clues of their own they would like added to the list?