Should Project Managers Work From Home?

It’s August 2013 and at the time of writing this post there are now just 117 shopping days left until Christmas, or 140 days if you’re happy to do your Christmas shopping online – a trend which has shown no sign of abating over the last decade (more on Christmas later).

Working from home... Isolate yourself from domestic distractions

Working from home…?
Avoid domestic distractions

Something else interesting has been happening in the past decade – there’s been a marked trend towards working from home (WFH). A recent CBI survey in the UK showed the percentage of organisations offering staff the capability to do so was 59%, up from 13% in 2006.

The Business Case for Working From Home

The drivers and potential benefits are relatively easy to understand:

  • Increasingly family-friendly government policies encouraging people to work, inevitably mirrored by businesses
  • Increased domestic pressures on families coupled with ever demanding jobs
  • The increasing ubiquity, reliability and falling costs of enabling technology (e.g. high speed internet, video conferencing, telephony, secure remote access)
  • A desire to reduce costs on both the organisation’s part (e.g. fewer people in the office means a lower requirement for office space) and on the part of the worker (time and money spent commuting, expensive suits, lunches, etc.)
  • Some people claim to be able to focus better at home, whilst others simply feel special and trusted by being allowed to do so
  • The ability to WFH has a legitimate place in providing business continuity should the worst happen to the office (I used it as a contingency against the 2012 London Olympics causing chaos in The City, for example)
  • It can also be a factor in attracting and retaining the best staff, too.

So in principle at least, the reasons for WFH and the associated benefits are legitimate.

Projects

Globalisation and outsourcing mean project teams are now rarely co-located on the same continent, let alone in the same building. If you’re running a video conference across multiple time zones, attended by people in London, Hong Kong, India and the US, do you really want to have to do that at midnight from the office, knowing you’ve got a two hour commute in the rain at the end of it, after the tube has stopped running and there are no taxis? These days you’ll probably just look to host it at home from your laptop and enable the other participants to do the same.

Even during a more traditional working day there’s no doubt that being able to escape the noise and interruptions of the office and find some contiguous and quiet blocks of time (e.g. to review documentation) is an attractive proposition. WFH is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to do so.

Of course there are plenty of reasons for people not to WFH. Some people will always try to abuse the privilege. But as long as you consider each request on its merits (essentially, ensuring that the nature of the work to be done can be performed as effectively or better remotely), and you fundamentally trust the individual, I see few reasons why it shouldn’t be employed to good effect on a project.

So, there are clear economic benefits to all parties, increasingly few technical impediments, and on occasion, WFH can benefit the project.

And the Project Manager?

I still have this nagging question in my mind, though – beyond members of the project team, can the project manager himself/herself work from home and still be effective?

It’s not that the PM is necessarily any more valuable as a team member than the next man, but he/she is usually more visible to stakeholders, and expected to be so, and that can cause a problem when he/she suddenly decides to WFH, in the process becoming, well, instantly less visible. They’re the go-to person when something goes wrong or needs changing, and they need to be readily available.

The PM sets an example, a standard, the culture to which the project operates. There can be some downsides if he/she works remotely:

  • If you work from home, you can’t then deny your team’s requests to do so. Having a geographically dispersed team increases the management challenge.
  • Relationships can suffer and it becomes harder to integrate new starters.
  • If you’re not there, you could be the last to know when there’s an issue.
  • If neither you or your key people are around when something does go wrong you’ll be less effective at handling issues as they arise.
  • Overall it could create the impression that you’re not in control.

Ultimately, your overall effectiveness and personal brand can take a hit.

Top Tips for Managing a Project from Home

If you absolutely must do it, here are my tips for Project Managers working from home, many of which apply equally to anyone working on a project remotely:

  • Be contactable – all the time, all day. I can’t stress this enough. Give your team and sponsor as many ways to contact you as you can. Publish a dedicated landline number for them to contact you on and always, always answer it. Enable call waiting. Leave your cellphone switched on. Ensure you have a desktop client that’s compatible with your organisation’s own video conferencing infrastructure (chances are Skype won’t be – something more robust like Lifesize ClearSea probably will). If you use Google+ setup a Hangout for the day so team members can come and go as required.
  • If you’re going to be using video (and I’m personally a fan), it goes without saying, don’t do so in your dressing gown at 10am whilst eating your toast – you wouldn’t do it in the office so don’t do it at home.
  • You’ll be spending a lot of time on the phone – invest in a decent wireless headset that’s compatible with your fixed landline and your mobile. You may look and feel like a bit of a muppet, but after several hours on the phone it will be the best $200 you’ve ever spent, I promise.
  • Don’t try to chair progress or steering meetings from home. It simply doesn’t work. You need to be in the room to have any chance of keeping control of those sorts of meetings. By all means run telephone conference calls remotely, but if everyone else will be there in person, you need to be, too.
  • Make a point of proactively checking in with every member of your project team at least once during the day, and do the same with your sponsor. It sends a strong message that you’re still engaged and on the case, being proactive.
  • Don’t deny your team members legitimate requests to do the same and WFH from time-to-time. Make sure they’re supported to do so so. Give them access to the right tools, and clearly set out what you’re expecting of them.

More generically, no matter what your role, if you are going to work from home:

  • Be clear on your reasons for doing so. Set clear objectives for the day and make sure they are the sort that can be best achieved remotely. If they can’t, change the objectives or change your location. You’ll ultimately be more effective and less exposed to accusations that you’re slacking.
  • Set aside your own space to work – a study or spare room is best so you can close the door. You need to exclude all domestic noise (like Barney the dog barking at the postman) and ensure the family know not to interrupt you.
  • Have a proper breakfast, at your usual time, and make sure there’s not too much delicious food in the fridge (no, really – wandering between the study and the kitchen, then munching on whatever free food you find there is one of the biggest productivity killers, and it makes you fat). Take scheduled breaks and stay focussed in between.
  • If you do have to go out briefly, be honest and open about it. Don’t make-and-take calls from the car, the doctor’s waiting room, or from outside the school gates at home time. Make sure people know you’ll be off the grid for an hour and again when you’re back up.

Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

I promised you more on Christmas at the start of this post. Why? Well, it occurs to me that every year Santa Claus (should you be a believer), delivers (literally) the world’s most challenging logistics project. He does so with a very small workforce (elves and reindeer), using limited resources, across multiple timezones, to an increasingly demanding and cynical customer base (over 7 billion of us at the last count – most of which don’t submit their requirements until a month before the live date).

Despite these challenges, he does so on time, every year. Every year we trust in his ability to do so, to the point where we faithfully promise our children he’ll be here, on time and to spec. Oh, and for 364 days a year… he works from home.

Santa Claus, Project Manager Delivering, consistently, on time, every time

Santa Claus, Project Manager
Delivering, consistently, on time, every time

PS: Whether you’re a believer or not, please make a diary note in December to reread this entry, then sit down with your children (no matter how old they are) and watch the 1994 movie A Miracle 34th Street. It partly inspired this post (well, at least that last closing paragraph). You’ll like it, I promise (just don’t try and watch it whilst you’re supposed to be working from home).

Guest Post: 5 Tips for Managing Projects with Fewer Resources

In the second of my series of guest posts, Jason Westland, CEO of ProjectManager.com, offers his top tips for successfully delivering your project after your resources are unexpectedly cut. Read Jason’s post below.

Introduction

Jason Westland... "...don’t panic. You can cope with fewer people"

Jason Westland…
“…don’t panic. You can cope with fewer people”

More and more of the project managers I know are having to get their projects done with fewer people. That’s partly as a result of the economy and redundancy ‘initiatives’. But it’s partly because companies believe we should be able to do more with less. Project teams are under pressure and it’s common to be leading a project where you don’t have everything that you would like.

If this happens to you, don’t panic. You can cope with fewer people – it’s not easy, but it can be done! Here are my 5 tips to saving your sanity when your sponsor cuts your team.

1. Restate the benefits

Restating the benefits has two possible effects. First, you may be able to convince your project sponsor that your project is so important that your team/budget/equipment/etc. shouldn’t be cut at all.

Second, the team members who are left need to feel that their work is valued and essential to delivering this strategic project. The more they understand about the benefits of their work and why they are doing it, the more motivated (hopefully) they’ll be. The more motivated your team, the less likely they are to be taking long lunch breaks and turning up to work late. Even if you keep their productivity at the same level as it was before someone was taken off the team, this will help you keep the project momentum going.

OK, so motivating your team isn’t going to recoup the months of effort you would have got out of an additional person. It can, however, make those left on the team feel as if they aren’t on board a sinking ship.

2. Think creatively

Get the project team together and be honest about the situation. Losing a team member (or two) will have an impact on what you can achieve. However, they can help you – several brains are better than one. Brainstorm some solutions or options and don’t rule anything out at this point.

Would it help to cross-train some of the team? Can you pay overtime? What could be outsourced? Does anyone have a child who is a student looking for a summer work experience placement? Think of all the ways that you could get extra help within the scope of your budget.

3. Take shortcuts

Cut, cut, cut. Cut back on project management admin tasks. While purists will say this isn’t good practice, there is a lot of project bureaucracy in many companies. Think about what you can lose without jeopardising good practice. For example, check you’ve got templates and checklists for all the repetitive admin jobs like organising meetings, or set up your project software to run automated reports.

Consider what shortcuts you can take with the project work as well. There could be some fast tracking to do that would save you some time, or you could run tasks sequentially that were scheduled to run in parallel.

4. Flag up the problem

Your sponsor does know that you are struggling with a resource down, don’t they? If not (and even if they do) it really is worth putting this on your issues log. This at least flags up that you have recognised that there is a problem and it spells out what the impact might be. You could risk delivering late, or there being additional bugs in your product, or you might go over budget. Losing resources can have serious impacts, and let’s face it, sponsors don’t always think everything through before making decisions.

By highlighting the problem you’re making it clear that you are doing the best you can, but that there is a chance that they won’t get the quality product that they wanted.

5: Change your priorities

The reality is, with fewer resources you can’t deliver the same result in the same time with the same budget. So you should talk to your project sponsor about what’s really important. If he or she insists that the deadline must be met, you need to talk about what can come out of scope. If he or she insists that meeting the budget is the most important, discuss extending the timescales of the project.

There’s nearly always something that you can do to compromise on the assumptions of the project and ensure that the sponsor gets broadly what they are after. And there’s nearly always a couple of requirements that are just nice to have – could they be taken out of scope or moved into a Phase 2?

Have an honest chat about what you feel you can achieve with your newly reduced team and work with your sponsor to realign the project priorities.

It’s not an easy situation to be in, but you can find ways to cope when your team members are pulled onto other initiatives at the last minute. As a final thought – be supportive of them. The chances are that the person leaving the team is also in a difficult situation. He or she may not have been given a choice. It might be a great opportunity, so don’t blame them or make them feel worse than the probably already do. Your job is to look to the future and deliver the best possible outcome for your remaining team and sponsor that you can.

© Jason Westland and ProjectManager.com, 2013

About Jason

Jason WestlandJason Westland is CEO of ProjectManager.com, an online project management software company. He’s also the author of the book The Project Management Life Cycle. You can find and connect with Jason on Google Plus at +Jason Westland.

Should you wish to feature your guest post on my blog, please get in touch via the Contact page with an outline of your article.

Gambling on a Successful Outcome

Project Management – a Risky Business
Image Credit: fineartamerica.com

My last post (Risky Business), whilst ostensibly a piece about the inherent dangers of flying helicopters, actually underlined the importance of successfully eliminating risk to ensure successful project delivery. Of course whilst eliminating risk is highly desirable when running your average aerospace project, it has its downsides. It’s usually prohibitively expensive for all but the richest of sponsors, and often results in cost overruns and protracted timelines.

Nor is completely eliminating risk always the best strategy in every case, even if you do have relative freedom over your live date and a sponsor with deep pockets – luxuries few project managers enjoy. On rare occasions it can actually be undesirable.

Morbid Curiosity (or love of other people’s failures)

We’re a morbidly curious species – if you completely eliminated risk on a dangerous sporting event or stunt, for instance, no one would turn up to watch. When Felix Baumgartner’s parachute successfully opened when he leaped to earth from the edge of space last year, the number of people viewing the event online dropped from 8m to half that amount almost instantly, reducing the sponsor’s publicity in the process. Consciously or otherwise, in the minds of those viewers, Felix’s parachute, by opening successfully, had all but eliminated the residual risk to the point where the event wasn’t worth watching anymore.

Risk Management for Dummies

The project manager is compelled to continuously identify and assess potential threats (risks) to the project and choose the most appropriate and effective risk management strategies in each case, and to repeat this process systematically.

Consider a gambler about to play roulette. Applying project management principles to manage the risk his options are:

Reduction He could choose to bet less than he was originally planning – in that way there’s (quite literally) less at stake. His risk is reduced, but so is the potential upside.
Avoidance He could choose not to bet at all. Walk away from the table and his risk is eliminated, but again, so is any upside.
Transfer He could place two bets to insure against a bad outcome from one (so for example, place $10 on number 7 at odds of 35:1 and a further $10 on black at evens). Risk transfer is a form of insurance – he’s basically paying the casino to assume some of the risk. That would cost him more, of course (technically it’s called a risk premium), and as with all insurance policies, there remains a residual risk that it doesn’t pay out. Both bets could lose.
Acceptance Ultimately, by placing his bet and doing nothing else, the gambler risks losing his entire stake. In the absence of any other risk strategy from the above, he’s accepting that risk.

Acceptance is absolutely not an excuse for not managing risks on projects whatsoever. Taken as the default strategy without due consideration of all the options, acceptance of risk is nothing short of gambling with your sponsor’s resources that you’ll achieve a successful outcome.

Risky Business

The R22 - perfectly safe (as long as you never forget how dangerous it can be)

The R22 – perfectly safe
(as long as you never forget how dangerous it can be)

I re-acquainted myself with the general impossibilities of flying a helicopter the other day. In the process, I once again completely ignored the advice of my old next-door neighbour who always explained to me that if the engine on a helicopter fails, I’ll have just 1.6 seconds to take corrective action or I will die.

As it happens, where the Robinson R22 helicopter is concerned, he’s technically and statistically correct, but I’ve no idea what 1.6 seconds actually feels like when it all goes quiet at 5,000 feet, and I’m certainly not going to be worrying about it too much. I’ve got more chance of being killed by a donkey, a champagne cork or a mosquito, apparently.

Safe?

The reality is, flying anything (with the possible exception of a pig, a magic carpet or a Boeing 787 Dreamliner) is perfectly safe… as long as you never forget how dangerous it can be. Do you really think heirs-to-the-throne Prince Harry and the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William for those of you reading in the US) would be allowed to fly helicopters all day if it were that risky?

OK, I’ll concede that Harry’s Apache could be a tad dangerous, especially if you’re a member of the Taliban. But clearly you’re much better off being in the cockpit of Harry’s helicopter than being sat in your terrorist training camp in Helmand whilst being lit up like a Christmas tree by the Apache’s targeting system.

And if I’d twisted my ankle on the summit of Snowdon one day and had missed the last train back down, I’d be rather pleased to see Wills approaching in his Sea King. I certainly wouldn’t be too worried about the consequences of hitching a lift back with HRH.

It all comes down to a question of risk.

Eliminating Risk

The point about air travel is someone else has already taken care of most of the risks for us (the aircraft designer, the manufacturer, the test pilot, the regulator, the operator, the maintenance crew, the weather forecaster, the pilot, the air traffic controller, the airport’s resident bird ‘scarer’, and so on). They’ve done so to the point where most of us would accept that those risks that do remain are… well… acceptable. The residual risks are worth taking because of what we get at the end of it, with relative certainty.

And so it is with projects.

Unique Perspective

The project manager’s job is to look down from altitude at a world apparently at peace and, with the benefit of that unique perspective, always recognise and accept that it isn’t… then do something about it.

I’ve written about the correlation between effective risk management and successful project delivery before, but it’s absolutely true and worth of repetition. Fail to manage risk successfully on all but the most certain of endeavours and you’re risking failure.

The Business Case for Asking Awkward Questions

Chair

No hard evidence… only hard questions

I’ve just come across a dogeared copy of the very first magazine article I had published – a discussion on the maturity of the IT business case and business’s ability to evaluate one (yes, I know… it didn’t win a Pulitzer).

It was originally run by FX-MM magazine, ten years ago… in print. A decade is a long time in IT terms. However, many of the core messages are as true today as they were back then. In the last 10 years it seems the sophistication of the average business case hasn’t evolved a great deal.

This latest post draws on some of those from the original article.

No hard evidence… only hard questions

There is no hard empirical evidence to suggest a correlation between high spending on IT and exceptional business performance.  The only certainty with IT is that it’s going to add cost – usually lots of it. Some high performing companies spend less on IT than poorer performing competitors, and both good and poor performers often spend a considerable amount.  Look at the facts:

  • IT spending now represents the largest area of capital investment in business today (Source: DMR).  It is also one of the largest revenue items after salaries and benefits, growing 20-30% in real terms each year for the last 20 years.
  • Most executives see expenditure on IT as essential, but are unclear as to the ROI they are achieving.
  • Compass once estimated that worldwide spending on IT averages 7% of total corporate costs and Gartner has suggested that the average ROI from IT in the same period was just 1%.
  • Studies indicate that two thirds of IT projects are late, over budget, or cancelled mid-point.
  • 50-60% of CEOs agree with the statement, “I do not feel that my organisation is getting the most for its information systems investment”.
  • KPMG have stated 45% of IT projects fail to produce the planned benefits – a fact backed up by the Standish Group who analysed 8,000 projects and concluded only 42% of the forecast value was delivered
  • AT Kearney once asserted that 74% of companies claim to be satisfied with their IT investments, but only 44% of companies are actually successful in measuring the contribution IT investment makes to business results

Given all that, how can an IT director put together a credible business case? Or to put it another way, how can a company be sure that it is actually getting value from its investment in information technology?

Paradoxically, whether you’re the one putting together the business case, or the one being asked to approve it, the answer is, in part, about knowing what difficult questions to ask.  Consider the following questions and you’ll be a little more comfortable that your spending on IT is adding value (not cost).

What are the business benefits of this particular IT investment?

Things like scalability, flexibility and availability don’t really count.  These aren’t business benefits at all (technically they’re capabilities).  Any credible IT infrastructure should be more than capable of delivering high availability, and scaling, without you having to pay extra for it.  Unless your business is growing like mad, or it needs to be open 24 hours a day (like a website), you don’t necessarily need scalable infrastructure or 99.999% availability.

How are we going to realise those benefits?

Business benefits rarely if ever flow simply as a consequence of putting new technology on the floor.  Once the IT project has delivered, the business usually needs to do something else to realise the benefits. It needs to be crystal clear how it will exploit the capabilities the IT investment delivers for business benefit. Unless it can do that, a lot of IT investment won’t necessarily add value. What will the business be able to do differently once the IT project is complete?

Whose neck is on the block to deliver the benefits?

Which individual (collective responsibility usually means “someone else”) has assumed responsibility for realising the forecast benefits? If the business case relies on things like headcount reductions, be clear which groups of people will be displaced, and when they are actually leaving, and ensure budgets are reduced at the end of the programme, or you’ll run an expensive IT project and simply maintain today’s cost base.

How are you going to measure the benefits?  How soon after the IT project has been completed will I start seeing the benefits? What are the associated targets?

Pink and fluffy benefits like improved customer satisfaction and social responsibility are lovely, but make sure whoever’s accountable for delivering them is also clear how to measure and quantify them… in financial terms. Make sure each measure has an ambitious target and link remuneration to achievement of those targets

Ask the horse before you listen to the mouth

Where has this sort of investment been successful before? What business benefits did they forecast? What did they actually get? How did they quantify and measure the benefits?

Look for a reference site – preferably more than one. Speak to those who have had success with similar investments, not just the salesman. The sales guy will only plug you into his pet clients anyway.

You may need to think broadly when choosing a reference site.  Some of your competitors may be understandably less keen to talk to you than someone in another sector.  I know of at least two Formula 1 teams that have spoken to airlines about how they improved their aeroplane turnaround times, and then applied what they learned to reduce their cars’ pit stop times.

How will putting this technology on the floor help the company to break into China, increase our market share, speed up product development times (or whatever our particular strategic intent is)?

The clearer the linkage between the proposed IT project and the strategic intent of your business, the more chance you stand of reaping benefit from the investment.  For example, how can replacing Windows XP with Windows 8 at a cost of £10m reduce your costs and improve customer service?  Well, it probably can’t.  However, if you’re a service provider, and delivering services online backed by a Windows 8 infrastructure will enable you to do so at a fraction of the cost, and your customers are willing to use the Internet for whatever it is you do, and you can actually reduce costs by a lot more than £10m when your customers start taking online services, and your business has the stomach for the change, then that’s a sound IT investment. But anyone who tries to tell you that you need Windows 8 in order to reduce costs or improve service without articulating how isn’t telling you the whole truth.

What is the NPV and IRR, and what discount rate did you apply to the cash flows?

Many people haven’t got a clue when it comes to financial appraisal. I’ve been presented with several business cases over the years, with multi-year paybacks, with no discounting of cashflows whatsoever.  Insist on it, and ask basic questions like how IRR relates to NPV and what discount rate they’ve used.

When does payback occur?

With an Internet year widely accepted to be in the order of 3 months, any modern financial appraisal of an IT investment claiming payback in 5 years time has about the same chance of maturing any time soon as the front row of a One Direction concert.  Whilst today’s conditions may support the investment, organisational, industry and market forces will be completely different in five months time, never mind five years time.  Ask what plans exist to flex the investment case in line with changing market conditions.

Is this the best use of funds?

Would we actually be better off spending this money on a new building, an aggressive advertising campaign, developing new products, seeking new markets, funding a redundancy programme, or rewarding the sales department with a week’s team building in Dubai without their partners?  How do you actually trade competing requirements for the same finite funding?

I once suggested a business case should receive half the investment sought if the proposer could find the other half by cancelling existing projects. They duly did, and when I asked what impact the cancelled projects would have on the business I was told “not much”, which sort of begs the question why they were ever doing them in the first place.

An uncertain business

IT investment appraisal is an uncertain science – it can be increasingly hard and difficult. Back in the 1970s, things were a little easier.  Implement a payroll package and you could lay off most of the payroll department. Investments were self-funding.

Today’s IT investments are more complex.  IT has the potential to transform business models, but business models don’t transform themselves just because you’ve implemented the latest Microsoft thing.  The business has to consciously make the change, a process that has very little to do with technology at all. It’s no accident we talk about eBusiness and not electronicB.

The bottom line

Whether you’re proposing an investment or being asked to approve one, the key is to always ask the right questions, no matter how difficult those questions may appear. In reality, there are few truly difficult questions. If you know the all the answers, even the most seemingly difficult questions are generally pretty easy. If you don’t, they’re impossible.

Guest Post: The Influx of Project Managers into Project Management

In the first guest post I’ve featured, John Laverick discusses the impact of a flood of new entrants to the contractor market, and whether it’s necessarily a good thing for the client. Read John’s post below.

Increase in Supply

Fish Out of Water

John Laverick: “It takes a certain type of person and takes a certain group of skills … which cannot be learnt by taking the standard PM courses”

With the current economic climate which has resulted in high-level professionals suddenly finding themselves unemployed, it’s not surprising that the number of ‘project managers’ offering themselves for work on a contract basis has gone through the roof. I differentiate here between IT/ Business Project Managers and Project Management within the construction sector, which I see as a very different role – and one that I don’t think has suffered the same dramatic increase in supply. The increase in supply has led to a decrease in average project management rates but also a decrease in quality delivered to clients. Ironically, as I will expand on later, this has led to an increase in the rate card for those at the top end of the spectrum.

Decrease in Quality

So why the decrease in quality? To enter the contract world, the majority of professionals are fairly confident of their ability to deliver and are probably joining the lifestyle from a position of some seniority. I have indeed come across several who have been former clients, formerly managing groups of contractors on behalf of their organisation. So these are often senior management calibre. They enter the contract market and pick on the rather generic title of project manager as it seems like a pseudonym for someone who just gets stuff done. How difficult can it be? Find the end objective and work out how to get there. Simple.

There are two main reasons why this type of contractor finds it tricky to succeed. The first is the corporate model, the second is that project management isn’t merely another term for senior manager. It takes a certain type of person and takes a certain group of skills which cannot be learnt by taking the standard PM courses of PRINCE2 and PMP.

Corporate Mentality

I strongly believe that project managers within organisations need to be contractors. As soon as one gets to any senior level within an organisation, the corporate mentality takes over. Each individual is incentivised by their career prospects (either in that company or their next step). As a result, almost every move they make, every decision that they take has to be run through a decision tree which says how will this affect my career. How will this affect the corporate relationships that I need to develop to progress my career? For that reason, the decision making process is immediately flawed. A good project manager will be focussed on delivering the scope agreed to the cost agreed in the required timescale. Simple as that. The corporate manager knows too much. At every turn, there are opportunities to flex the scope, decisions which need to be taken in the projects best interests but are taken as a way of advancing the career. Or worse – not taken at all. The contractor doesn’t have these ties. He or she is purely incentivised on the delivery of a single (or a group of) projects. They are measured on their ability to control and deliver to the original project constraints (Scope, time, cost). The ex-corporate manager would be much better suited to a portfolio management role where they are tasked with balancing the delivery of project with the wider corporate objectives. Two things stop the recently redundant manager doing this though. Firstly, there are few contract roles of this type and to achieve a contract role as a Portfolio manager, ironically the client will generally look for proven experience of delivery as a contractor. Secondly, the very reason that that role suits them is because it should be a corporate role. Therefore they are rarely on the contractor market. Vicious circle.

The Best and the Rest

The best end up establishing themselves in the interim sector of the market – that is performing permanent corporate roles on a temporary basis. The rest try mistakenly to rebrand themselves as project managers, pitch at low rates and then come unstuck once it becomes clear that the difference between the corporate mindset and the contractor mindset is marked.

Let me be clear here. I am in no way playing down the skill sets of corporate professionals. To operate for years in the same global corporation, to manage the relationships, the politics to create strategic direction is a much sought after skill set. All I am saying is that it is not one necessarily suited to project management which is where many are repositioning themselves

The flip side of the massive increase in supply into the project management sphere is the increase in the reliance of clients on recommendation and previous contact. Agencies are swamped by CVs, are targeted by procurement departments to deliver low cost resource but Client Delivery Managers are aware that this low cost approach does not necessarily deliver results. This results in the route to contract changing – agents are now administrative billing functions rather than recruiters but also in the rewards increasing as clients target individuals rather than generic skillsets.

© John Laverick, 2013

About John

John Laverick

John Laverick owns Rockhopper Consulting. With extensive experience gained in his field whilst working at PA Consulting and the UK Post Office, he is now a management consultant specialising in Project Management and Service Management. You can contact John directly through his Linkedin Profile.

Should you wish to feature your guest post on my blog, please get in touch via the Contact page with an outline of your article.

Related Posts

Are You More Invested in Publicity than Privacy?

What goes online stays online.
It gets read, shared, syndicated and replicated.

Something strange is happening with society’s attitude to online security. These days most people (whether they realise it or not) are far more invested and interested in publicity than privacy.

Double Standards

There is general public uproar about the recently disclosed activities of the NSA and GCHQ (never mind what China are up to). The US and UK governments argue it’s worthy counter-terrorism activity, whilst accusing the Chinese of industrial espionage. That claim is somewhat undermined by this week’s revelation that the US is spying in the EU – maybe the US are worried they’re slipping behind Europe in the race to create the worlds largest federal bureaucracy.

Whatever the underlying reasons for intelligence gathering, the reality is citizens in the west live under a blanket of security the intelligence services help provide. Yet some of us seem to have no hesitation in complaining when we are given a small glimpse into the manner in which they do so. It’s a strange reaction. Look at the facts…

@MI5

Far from being truly concerned with privacy, we’re now voluntarily sharing more and more of our most intimate personal details online for the whole world to see. I’m writing this post from a hospital bed whilst recovering from a particularly unpleasant series of tests on my prostate. See what I mean? Somehow it’s now socially acceptable to say that stuff online to a readership of who knows how many (although thanks to modern analytics we know that, too).

The reality is, thanks to social networking, I can now legitimately find out more about you online in 10 minutes than I could have done 5 years ago by searching your hard drive or, God forbid, having a conversation with you. And if I knew what I was doing I could clearly find out a lot more – I’m a bit techie, but quite how my 16 year old daughter’s nerdy new boyfriend knows precisely who’s viewed her Twitter timeline, when, and from where in the world, I’m not so sure.

So given all that, why would anyone who is actively creating content online complain that somewhere in the world supercomputers (which incidentally are not remotely interested in gossiping) are busy sniffing and analysing our electronic activity 24 x 7. Yes they capture and pass anything suspicious to a security-cleared analyst for review, but unless your case is being handled by Edward Snowden, it’s ultimately helping keep you safe on your commute. It’s not like @MI5 is suddenly going to retweet all that stuff (although if you bother to look at @MI5’s Twitter account you might think otherwise 🙂

Hard-won Freedoms

By all means complain. It’s your democratic right, hard-won by others and doggedly maintained in-part by good intelligence. Personally, if it’s a choice between being blown up by a terrorist or having some computer sniff my emails and blog posts for keywords like Semtex, I’ll take the latter. For the most part it’s a government agency doing the snooping, not some grubby tabloid newspaper, overweight private investigator or barmy stalker. You trust the government with your most intimate health records, so who really cares if an email to your best friend Jimal gets autocorrected to Jihad and someone from the NSA takes a look, just in case.

Feeble

What the security services do is very necessary. Minds and resources immeasurably superior to ours see to it that it happens. Accept it. Complaining about it is about as sophisticated as some of the more feeble attempts people take to try and avoid it. For the record, the following won’t stop ever stop someone somewhere knowing what you’re up to:

  • Setting your LinkedIn profile to “anonymous” when you view someone else’s profile
  • Protecting your tweets
  • Locking down your Facebook profile
  • Turning off location services
  • Withholding your phone number and changing your voicemail PIN

What goes online generally stays online and can get read, shared, syndicated and replicated anywhere. If you don’t want your most intimate thoughts being seen by the intelligence services, your employer, your ex or your mother, don’t put them online in the first place. They’ll be visible… no matter how well you think you’ve hidden them.

Encryption

The only thing that might actually work is encryption. Business has been doing this for years. With the same technology now so readily and cheaply available to the public, I’m amazed more individuals don’t do the same.

  • Encrypt your web traffic
  • Encrypt your email and instant messages
  • Encrypt your online storage
  • Encrypt your hard drive

And if you think implementing and maintaining all that security is going to be a pain, just try having your prostate probed.

Going Native – from Contractor to Permanent Employee

Uncle Sam

Taking the King’s Shilling

If you were a long-time-served contractor, would you ever consider a permanent role?

The most read and shared post on this blog to date has been my piece on the pros and cons of contracting, and whether a permanent member of staff should make the leap. However, it’s not a one-way street. Every now and again a contractor goes the other way, too, and crosses over.

Not for Everyone

I had this theory when I first started consulting and doing freelance work – I would do a handful of assignments before finding my ideal job in my ideal company and settle back down into life as a permanent member of staff. 14 years on (and 18 separate assignments later) I’ve never really been tempted to do so.

You could argue that I have just not found those ideals yet, but I actually think I’m simply an interim, at heart. I love the freedom it gives me, both to focus on doing the job without the clutter that comes with being staff, the variety and the ability to have extended breaks in between roles. I’m also pretty comfortable with the risks life as a freelancer brings.

Freelancing long-term isn’t for everyone though, and I have however seen a number of contractor colleagues go permanent. I’m rarely surprised when they do.

From Contractor to Permanent Member of Staff

Those that go back have tended to have pretty clear motivations. It often follows a pattern – used to be permanent, drifted into contracting through redundancy, didn’t like it much, and took the first permanent job they were offered.

I’ve also seen particularly capable, experienced, long-term contractors take permanent roles as part of a retirement strategy – as a means to slow/settle down as the ageing process marches on.

It’s also been used as a strategy to advance careers. The boards of many FTSE 500 companies are peppered with ex-consultants who’ve made a name for themselves as interims, and been made offers they couldn’t refuse to go permanent (admittedly sometimes with disastrous results – Fred Goodwin, anybody?).

It got me thinking though – regardless of your medium-term desires or otherwise to take the king’s shilling and go permanent, there’s still an obligation on all contractors to integrate pretty quickly and seamlessly into the client’s organisation, and some people are better at this than others.

How to Integrate

I know contractors who assume they have credibility precisely because of their status. They’re usually wrong. Some staff can be incredibly (and sometimes justifiably) suspicious of contractors’ motives, particularly in organisations where their use is not the norm. I’ve always worked on the basis that we have no credibility until its been demonstrated… earned. You can’t build an immediate reputation on something you say you are going to do in the future.

So what can you do to integrate yourself into an organisation without going the whole hog and taking a permanent contract? Lots of things, actually, but it ultimately boils down to three simple points:

  • Mindset
  • Don’t be different
  • Be the same

So for example:

Mindset – it’s a subtle thing, but the psychology of saying “we” instead of “you” when referring to the client in meetings and conversations is an extremely powerful way of a) demonstrating integration and b) making you feel integrated. Most contractors move from saying “you” to “we” naturally over time as they integrate – doing it proactively from day 1 takes effort but pays dividends over time.

Don’t be different – don’t act like you’re somehow different, much worse somehow better. You’re not. I know contractors who flaunt their perceived status in ways that would make disgraced investment banker Bob Diamond blush. Leave the Maserati at home.

Be the same – don’t fight established method. It’s always easier to adopt the client’s way of working than it is to fight against it and try and impose your own. Unless they’re extremely dysfunctional, the way they do what they do works for them. You should respect that and do it too. That includes melding in with cultural things like dress-down days, for example.

This clearly isn’t a prescriptive of exhaustive list. The challenge is to quickly work out what normal looks like in each situation and behave accordingly.

Going Native

There’s a balance to be struck with integration. For some organisations one of the attractions of using contractors is their independence, diversity of experience and the fresh perspective they bring. These qualities get eroded with time the longer a contractor stays in-post.

Sometimes freelancers go beyond being integrated – they go native. Some of those independent qualities are lost and the client ends up paying premium contract rates for what has in effect become an employee.

In the UK we have legislation that considers contractors to be permanent members of staff after they’ve done the same role for two years. Not all clients enforce it (I know contractors who have not moved roles for 7 years), but many increasingly do and actively manage the exit of contractors after two years.

The choice for those contractors is often find another role or go permanent. Should you do so? As ever, be clear on your motivations and whether going permanent will help you satisfy them. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do, but don’t be surprised if you end up in a place you didn’t really want to be.

$242m – It Could Happen to You

Euro Millions

My Actual Ticket

On Tuesday June 25, 2013 the Euro Millions lottery jackpot will be an estimated £157m (or $242m – even at today’s exchange rate that’s a lot).

The odds of winning the Euro Millions jackpot are 1 in 116,531,800. Inspired by one of my more recent posts “The Lottery – a Tax on Stupidity” and the 1994 Nicolas Cage film “It Could Happen to You” I’ve purchased a ticket.

If this ticket wins the jackpot on Tuesday, I’ll share it equally with everyone who reblogs (here’s how) one of my posts (you choose which) before the draw takes place at 2030 GMT on June 25, 2013.

A copy of my ticket is shown on the right. You can check the results on Tuesday on the UK National Lottery site.

Dr Watson Will See You Now

IT has the ability to change lives for the better.

IT has the ability to change lives for the better.

Can an IT project enable the human race to beat cancer?

IBM’s Watson computer is beginning to recommend the very best options for cancer treatment, and is increasingly getting it right.

IT-Enabled Trends

My last post offered up a view of the difference between a project, programme and a portfolio, based on a definition with business benefits and value at its heart. The ability to realise tangible benefit from investment in IT is critical to being able to deliver value from change.

McKinsey has just updated their predictions for the Top 10 IT-enabled business trends for the decade ahead. In it they point out… the word’s stock of data is doubling every 20 months; big data is all the rage; the proliferation, ubiquity and complexity of social media is increasing; there are now 12 billion internet-connected devices on the planet (and billions of people in developing economies about to go digital); 50 billion personal sensors of everything from temperature to the wearers’ heart rate are about to go online; mobile payments continue to grow, now running at $1trillion per year.

Business Case Evolution

Look at how the business case for investment in IT has evolved over the last 40 years or so.

  • Stage 1 (Automation) – it was relatively easy to wring benefit from IT in the 1970s. Implement a huge mainframe in a bank, automate manual transactions and processes like “bean-counting” (an oft-used UK term for accounting), fire thousands of people and save loads of money.
  • Stage 2 (Knowledge Work) – all that automated transaction processing started to create lots of data and businesses soon realised they could use that data to their advantage. IT transformed data into information and provided it to the people who didn’t get fired in the 70s to enable them to make better decisions.
  • Stage 3 (Business Model Transformation) – 20 years ago the internet was a plaything for academics. Now it’s not only transformed businesses through enabling the ubiquity of eCommerce, it’s also spawned countless new ventures that wouldn’t have been sustainable business models without the web.

So what’s next?

Well, my personal view is that understanding those three stages is no longer enough. There will always be potential for processes to be automated (Stage 1), although much of the low hanging fruit has now been had. You only have to look at the growth in risk modelling in places like the insurance and banking industries (Stage 2) to see sustained and ongoing potential for IT to support decision-making. Clearly you can’t do anything online without Stage 3, whether you’re an established bricks and mortar business going online for the first time, or an internet start-up. The problem is, business model transformation (Stage 3) is actually old hat now – it’s been around for almost 25 years. eCommerce is hardly transformative anymore.

Stage 4

Something interesting is beginning to happen, however. IBM’s own supercomputer, “Watson”, having recently beaten humans on the US TV game show Jeopardy, is now beginning to offer up treatments for cancer. It’s basically automating knowledge work in what is arguably one of the most worthy applications of technology yet. If that push succeeds, imagine the impact it will have, not just on the human race directly, but also on our perception of the ability of IT to change lives for the better. It will fire our imagination to come up with better-and-better uses of technology.

Only this week it was reported that the Chinese are now building mainframes whose performance blows away that of IBM’s Watson. Technical innovation marches on and so does its potential.

Kurzweil: “...reaching that tipping point where we add more time than has gone by”

Kurzweil
“…reaching that tipping point where we add more time than has gone by”

Not to be outdone by McKinsey or the Chinese, Google’s Ray Kurzweil got in on the act this week. Never one to make a conservative prediction, he claimed in the next 10-20 years (“probably less than 15”) we will develop technology advanced enough to keep us alive forever. Basically, Kurzweil is saying increasingly rapid advances in technology will extend life expectancy faster and further than we age.

The Project Management Challenge

What does all that technical stuff mean for the project management challenge? Well, actually rather a lot, I suspect.

I’ve put together countless business cases for investment in technology. Using the 3-stage model above it was usually a relatively straightforward process. But I would struggle to look IBM’s board in the eye and tell them I have the chance to dramatically improve cancer survival rates using one of their business machines. Someone clearly did, though. Someone, somewhere, is managing a programme to treat cancer with IT at its heart. If successful, it will positively change lives and make a healthy return for IBM.

I’m not suggesting we’re all going to be running IT-enabled programmes looking for a cure for cancer any time soon, but Project Management capability does need to evolve. It’s never really been enough to simply understand IT and be able to implement stuff (Stage 1). The Project Manager has always been required to see this in a business context, to understand how the capabilities IT projects deliver can be leveraged by the business to deliver benefit. Increasingly, without that perspective, the PM will find it evermore difficult to understand why they’re doing what they do, to manage business stakeholders, to understand what’s important and make decisions.

The Future Health Benefits of IT

Can an IT project enable us to beat cancer or live forever? I don’t know. At the moment, Ray Kurzweil (bless him) seems to be struggling to even come up with a cure for male pattern baldness, but who knows – maybe Google Glass really will ultimately be that good.

Regardless of whether technology satisfies man’s quest to cure baldness or beat cancer, it sort of puts bean-counting into perspective, doesn’t it?