The new PM: Comedy, seduction and consequences

No, this is not a commentary on Julia Gillard’s office politics. It’s about the playing fields of project management (PM) not covered by the PMI qualification – the biggest and sometimes only ticket that allows you on the field. It’s about herding the realities that arise as projects become more innovative.

Here’s an example: The project was a strategic marketing assignment for a food company. Razor-sharp research-based communications activating consumer perceptions and preferences. And a new kid on the block with new tools trumpeted by a salesman with 500% confidence. With sudden sales success they were plunged into a shotgun marriage with a global market research firm. Two lead suppliers with different methodologies; instructed to collaborate to deliver the mother of all acquisition and conquest strategies.

Three project leaders, two IT PMs, nine subcontractors making a cast of 40 scattered across Australia, before counting the client’s internal stakeholders.

FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies expect fast; there was zero time for sensitive relationship building between the global company and the kid. Thanks to the skillful IT PMs on both sides, survey software was merged and stage one – an online survey – was delivered on spec, on time and on budget.

The client decided that new kid’s findings should guide stage two. However, global company’s stage two project leader — über-proud professional and unmovable (UPP-U) — would have no track with the decision. He was not going to let some upstart interfere with his show.

What happened?

Even while NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) cloaked the project, the client progressively imposed additional cones of silence around selected emails and phone calls. Suppliers were reminded of the other PMs office! UPP-U resolutely did not concur with the client’s decision on the message platform to be tested and follow-on matters of method. He fought back.

So the client, a force not to be reckoned with when fired up, instructed the bewildered new kid to arrange with UPP-U to observe all focus groups; a ton of travel not envisaged and not part of new kid’s contract. UPP-U countered with technical trickery; the kid couldn’t because when focus groups were conducted in schools and clubs there were no observation rooms. The client then decided he and his loyalists would personally observe all focus groups.  

New kid’s JIT (just in time) tool magician prepared a special (and untidy) pen and paper survey for focus group participants. Knowing the client’s high expectations, kid’s project leader fiddled furiously with the formatting to get it pretty and despatched it. One day later she realised that a question was missing. Not catastrophic but not good. She called the client, with the corrected survey ready to re-circulate. The client, wanting to protect his preferred supplier decided that a known consistent bias was preferable to the damage done by disclosing the error to UPP-Us troops. 

Meanwhile, the client was ducking missiles from analysist who wanted to use a different tool, lamenting constraints imposed by the on-the road sales team (stuck with them under a contract) and assessing what balance of acquisition and conquest to offer to a CEO wanting growth without rocking the boat. At each stage he had to decide who to invite to briefings about the project. Skilled at serial seduction, he messaged each email, update and major briefing to internal stakeholders to maintain their comfort and ensure continuing support.  

When the dust settled the marketing department was closer than ever to the voice of the customer and using subtle new insights to hone innovative offers. The CEO was delighted with the impressive final report that gave the board plenty of room to choose how high, or low, to reach.

Marketing quarantined the road team by “awarding” them far-flung territories likely to enjoy their cowboy capers and opened up completely new channels for new segments.  Six months later the shotgun marriage morphed into a fruitful alliance. 
PIMBOK and other project management methodologies cover planning, risk assessment, resource management, control, reporting and more.

Perhaps the biggest PM challenge — managing and micro-managing changing expectations — does get some coverage. Needing more emphasis is the dogged dual focus across the daily ebb and flow of perceptions, misperceptions, frissons and fruitcakes; and the final consequences/deliverables; skills for skateboarding the slapstick comedies of errors, surprises, twists and turns; preventing a wobbly turn of events from snowballing into tragedy; serial seduction skills and the ability to use the cone of silence.

Our resident young optimist Potter, showing signs of irritation said, “I just want the list in plain management speak”. He was challenged to team up with resident sceptic and former PM Megan and to come up with the points within the week.


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