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Project Management – Really?
By Terry Rankin

I’m not sure if I heard or read this elsewhere or came up with it on my own, but it has become a favorite aspersion of mine in the past few years: “everyone wants a project manager – until they get one.”

Here is a representative paraphrase distilling dozens of ‘strategic objectives’ I’ve encountered in several enterprises:

We will implement a ‘project culture’ built upon a foundation and framework of PMI PMPBOK, SEI CMMI, Agile/Scrum or other project, program, and portfolio management concepts, values, principles, expertise, proven methods, best practices, and leading technology to establish an enterprise-wide PMO with strategic leadership responsibility and operational planning oversight as well as monitoring, measuring, and continuously improving tactical project execution for all of our mission-critical and customer-facing lines of core businesses ….

The oxymoron of “implementing a culture” aside, this regurgitation of acronyms, soundbites, bromides, and other 21st-century corporate self-help surreal newspeak is sadly widespread and actually passes for visionary leadership in far too many organizations where the daily grind in the business trenches is a very different reality.

Successful triple-constraint (time, scope, money) management to quality results and worthwhile outcomes is necessarily an intentionally and intensely 360-degree exercise: focus must always be in all directions at all levels at all times. From a strategic perspective, the dynamically balanced ever-changing definition, organization, and management of a portfolio of enterprise programs and projects is an ongoing exercise in forward- and backward-looking immediate, near-, and long-term (re)vision (re)casting, strategy (re)formulation, (re)analysis and (re)planning. Tactically, the essential processes are communication, collaboration, and control, with responsibility, authority, and power widely distributed and shared, where risk, failure, and mistakes are the fertile soil of lessons learned, creativity, growth, and refinement – not the basis for any motive or form of suspicion, criticism, aspersion, punishment, ostracism, rejection, or dismissal.

Enterprises who succeed in this discipline and approach somehow manage to combine rationality, creativity, stewardship, and accountability as a way of business life (they probably do it personally as well). But it is very hard, especially in a time and world where fear, greed, vanity, exploitation, and corruption offer much faster tracks to hyperprofits, megawealth, and gagafame. Is it surprising then to find more casual disparity and flagrant hypocrisy than professional diligence and rational truth when comparing corporate pronouncements and posturing on one hand with what actually occurs on the other? Hardly.

For the dominant truth is that the very same ‘leaders’ who cry so loudly and publicly for a project culture in their domain may have fantasies, but they lack the will and commitment to actually achieve anything beyond ever-tighter micromanagement of microtasks, under furtive scrutiny and stealth management by disinformation and misdirection …. As if sorting and rearranging sand particles or building sleight-of-hand-made sandcastles on the shore will control tides, halt tectonic shifts, and flatten tsunamis.

What does this have to do with semiotics? Simply that it’s a vivid example of a real-world business context in which the symbolic interaction and communication, the very language itself, of project management lacks the indexical power to make any differences that truly make any real difference. It’s as if the semiotic systems (minds) involved in the semiotic process of project, program, and portfolio management are enchanted by mysterious sirens who have somehow ensnared them in a recursive cycle of perverted or corrupted semiosis, yielding nothing but delusion and dysfunction.

Terry Rankin is a (mostly) sapient being and career technologist (by practical default) who befriends few, offends many, and alienates most, it seems, due to chronic impatience and acute intolerance in coping with the crawling grind and inevitable exsanguination of most human interrelation – who loves you nonetheless despite those contrary behaviors and misanthropic sins. His blog is often abstruse and deliberately esoteric (some may too hastily think elitist), but nonetheless universal in scope and vibrant when grasped (or so the blogger likes to think), as all worthwhile philosophical metalogue will be.

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