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’twaswork, 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’twasjoin 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’twaslook 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.