Letter 3 – Destructive Triades

A destructive triad is the combination of three elements that sustain a certain adverse effect. Does this apply to project management? Yes, for example, the triad of managers-training-certification! Each separate element initially pursues noble goals. The destructive effect often arises later when the goal shifts from noble to numbers.

A manager responsible for project management is looking for an intervention to professionalise. A commercial or non-commercial organisation develops a method or competency model as an answer to that demand. Training providers respond to this by developing training courses. The triad is there!

The method or certification may increase the chance of project success. The problem, however, is that the interval between training, certification and effect is difficult to measure. You should expect it to take several years. Because we still want to measure, the focus usually shifts to numbers of people trained and certified. The manager can now say that the majority of the project managers are certified, the trainer is happy with the turnover from the training courses and the certifying body proudly announces that the millionth certificate has been issued. Are projects better now? We do not know.

Take the PRINCE2 method for example; people were trained en masse. Mainly within software development, but later also in other sectors. The success was more commercial than at project level. You do not want to know how much money this method was sold for by the British government to a commercial company. So, the endeavour was not nearly as noble as we thought.

The mixed success of project management led to it being swapped en masse for agile working and suddenly everyone was being trained in SAFe. By now, it is no longer about better projects but about numbers and money, a lot of money. Currently, the p3 method is backstage waiting to generate many millions in turnover for the certifying institutions and training providers.

Method – trainer – manager it keeps itself going. Because such programmes are not cheap, it is difficult for decision-makers to recognise that they have not delivered what was expected of them. This is known as cognitive dissonance. I know several trainers who try to make the best of it by teaching participants pragmatism and telling inspiring tales. As the training organisation gets larger and purchasers of large organisations work with preferred suppliers, these trainers are trapped in yet another triad of trainer-hr-trainer. Money-consuming systems sustain themselves this way.

How can we change this? I come with three recommendations.

1) To the project manager, I would like to say: see the method (or framework) as a toolbox from which you only take what you need at a certain moment and realise that there is a lot in it that you will probably never need. Pragmatism and intuition are leading in this. If it doesn’twork, throw it away! If it works, be happy. Are you forced to do it? Then consider another employer, there is always work for you if you are good.

2) To trainers, I would say, don’tjoin a provider that is only interested in numbers. Find one that specialises in project management, there you may find some passion. Listen to the most experienced project managers in the training. If they do not like it, this is not opposition but a signal that things are not going to work. Project management offers little room for dogma. Most factors that influence a project lie beyond the reach of the project manager. Dealing with the unexpected seems to me a more important skill than knowing what tolerance is.

3) To the manager or the official who decides on such a programme, I would say that in addition to training project managers, you should also streamline the processes in your organisation. This will help you more than a method. Sit down with your own project managers and design your own way of working. That is cheaper and, moreover, you get much more support. If you do want a training course, don’tlook for it among the larger training providers, but look in your network for a ‘small one’ that is still passionate. With the former you are a number, with the latter a customer.

These are my thoughts on destructive triads. Which ones do you see in your daily practice? Or is this just a figment of my imagination? I look forward to the discussion.

Letter 2: Do not expect it from someone else

This is the English translation of my Dutch newsletter on my LinkedIn profile.

My previous letter was obviously not what you were waiting for, it was an announcement for a series in which I share with you my thoughts on why project management is still not working.

The thought I want to elaborate now is related to an experience I had years ago when I was in Egypt telling a group of project managers about PRINCE2. There was a time when I considered giving training in it and, to my ‘shame’, I have to admit that I once memorised all the processes. Something that is of no use, of course, but does say something about how this kind of certification tempts people to memorise pointless things. I have my own thoughts on this, which I will undoubtedly explain in one of the next letters. But lets return to my experience in Cairo.

I explained to my Egyptian friends what the role of the principal should be according to this method. They looked at me in amazement and said: “But that is exactly what the project manager should do!” That was spot on and they were absolutely right. It is, of course, important to make tasks and responsibilities clear and understandable; nobody can be against that. But that is project specific. The problem with PRINCE2 is that the responsibilities consist of a long list of ‘bullets’. Do you think a principal is going to read the role description in the manual? I am sure they will not. After a one-day course for clients, they have forgotten about it after a few days. What were you trying to achieve?

What has happened in the past decades? Masses of junior project managers and students from business schools have heard from trainers, who often never managed a decent project themselves, what the responsibilities of the various roles on a project are. They take it for granted because they have insufficient experience to judge its value. Then, when they enter the day-to-day practice, they expect others to take their roles according to the manual. As a result, an entire generation of professionals has grown up waiting for someone else to do it.

That my dear reader is one of the reasons why project management does not work. Tasks and responsibilities are renegotiated time and again. Sometimes very explicitly, but most of the time we negotiate our way out. What does this mean for project managers? The answer is simple, although not easy: when something needs to be arranged, you arrange it. Do not point the finger or wait for someone else, but take up the gauntlet yourself. Do not complain about poor principalship or inadequate management support, but arrange things yourself.

Is that everything? No, it is not all, because if it were all I would have written a book or a white paper about it. What I haven’ttalked about at all is the maturity of an industry, an even bigger cause of why project management still doesn’twork. I also have yet to talk about the destructive triads, the short-sighted self-interest, the institutionalised polder and much more. But these are cliff-hangers for future editions.

For now, the central message I give you is that you should not wait for someone else. On the contrary: arrange what needs to be arranged, because that is project management!

Weerbaarheid als vaardigheid?

Hoe ouders hun kinderen opvoeden verandert in de loop der tijd. Twintig jaar geleden vroeg ik mij af hoe dit de relatie tussen manager en medewerker zou beïnvloeden. Als je dit zou kunnen voorspellen dan heb je de leerdoelen voor een managementtraining twintig tot dertig jaar later. Een gat in de markt! Dat is er, helaas, nooit van gekomen. Achteraf verklaren is een veiliger optie.

Voor corona behoorde de Nederlandse jeugd tot de gelukkigste ter wereld. Een groot compliment aan de ouders hoort daarbij. Toch is er ook kritiek. Wie heeft er niet gehoord van de termen ‘pampergeneratie’ en ‘curlingouders’. De succesvolle serie de ‘Luizenmoeder’ leek op een documentaire waarin de satire de werkelijkheid angstig benaderde.

Deze wijze van opvoeden heeft naast goede aspecten ook minstens twee generaties burgers voortgebracht die niet zo goed met tegenslagen om kan gaan. Die vinden dat gezagsdragers verantwoordelijk zijn voor het voorkomen van alle tegenslagen. Dat hebben ze hun ouders immers ook zien doen. Neem bijvoorbeeld de hele discussie over de gemeende negatieve gevolgen van twee jaar coronamaatregelen voor de sociale ontwikkeling van jonge mensen. Psychiaters, psychologen waarschuwen voor de negatieve gevolgen daarvan. Hoe is het zover gekomen? We hebben verleerd om jonge mensen weerbaar te maken!

Hoe jij in je kinderjaren hebt leren omgaan met tegenslag is sterk bepalend voor jouw verdere leven. Als je denkt dat gezagsdragers dienstverleners zijn in het voorkomen van tegenslag dan kom je teleurgesteld uit. Dat lezen we dagelijks in de media of deze nu mainstream of alternatief is. Alles wat ook maar enigszins riekt naar tegenslag is nu de schuld van het leiderschap en als het leiderschap dan iets doet dan klaagt men over een dictatuur. Voor corona was dit nog niet zo duidelijk, maar het mooie van een crisis is dat het de zwakke plekken in de samenleving blootlegt.

Nu heeft elke oudere generatie zo zijn gedachten over de jongere. Ook ik ontkom niet aan die vooroordelen. Begrijp me daarom niet verkeerd ik wil niet terug naar vroeger. Nederland staat er veel beter voor dan veertig jaar geleden. In die zin ben ik optimistisch gestemd. De ‘jeugd van tegenwoordig’ om maar eens een ouderwetse uitdrukking te gebruiken zal uiteindelijk de harde lessen ook wel leren. Laat ik nu opnieuw een voorspelling doen.

In het komende decennia krijgen wij een flink aantal tegenslagen te verwerken. Tekorten spelen daar een sleutelrol in. Nu de horeca weer (gedeeltelijk) open mag is er een tekort aan personeel omdat die bij de GGD’s zijn gaan werken. Je kunt je afvragen of de laatste teveel salaris biedt of misschien wel de eerste veel te weinig. Niet iedereen zal terugkeren naar zijn oude vak. Wie wil er overigens, met alle bedreigingen in het achterhoofd, nog werken in de zorg, of als BOA, of als politie. Overal zijn er tekorten. Ik las ergens dat met het huidige aantal monteurs de energietransitie 150 jaar zal duren. Er zijn tekorten in het onderwijs, defensie, zorg, politie, de woningmarkt en ga zo maar door.

Wanneer we naar de kibbelende meute in de Tweede Kamer kijken dan is er ook een tekort aan vertrouwen in elkaar. Op een gegeven moment zal de realiteit ons geen keus meer laten. Dit zal leiden tot veel tegenslag en teleurstelling. Er zal een nieuwe tweedeling ontstaan. Tussen hen die weerbaar en hen die dat niet zijn. Ik hoop dat die eerste groep voldoende groot zal zijn om de publieke opinie te beheersen. Daar ziet het overigens op dit moment nog niet naar uit.

Er is ook een video waarin ik dieper op dit onderwerp in ga, surf naar YouTube>