Why Projects Succeed: The Right Resources

Slalom Consulting Roger Kastner

A Consultant Manager with Slalom Consulting, Roger works with clients and other consultants in the delivery of Organizational Effectiveness and Project Leadership services and helps practitioners achieve greater success than previously possible.

Project success is dependent on having the right resources, doing the right work at the right time. Presuming that the successful Project Manager will have shepherded the process to identify the appropriate scope and aligned the critical path and schedule dependencies, let’s talk about having the right people assigned and performing the work.

The right resources will have three characteristics: capability, experience, and motivation. In other words, they can do the work, they’ve done similar work before, and they’re inspired to succeed.

Capability
When identifying scope and associated tasks and deliverables, the successful Project Manager will also ensure that appropriate resource capabilities are identified. By identifying the correct resource requirements, the successful Project Manager will be able to request the correct resources. Doing so will help ensure that the project doesn’t have people with skills less than required to do the job, and it should also prevent over-clubbing, that is, assigning a resource with a skill-level well above what is required.

It’s pretty easy to understand why you would not want under-skilled people on your project, but why would over-skilled people be just something to avoid as much as under-skilled?

Well, it’s the same as in golf where you wouldn’t bring out your driver to tee off on a 135-yard hole (unless you want to pay for someone’s window a block behind the green). Over-clubbing on resources can have as disastrous effect as under-clubbing.

While junior resources in senior roles can create defects and rework when their efforts fail to meet expectations, senior resources in junior roles can also create rework when they over-engineer solutions that do not fit into the rest of the solution.

As an example of creating too much work, I once took over a project from a Project Manager who, in an attempt to please the business sponsor, tried to collect a level of detail on the project at a finer grain that what was normally collected by Project Managers in the organization. This created an unrealistic expectation with the business sponsor, and ultimately failed when team members rejected the idea of tracking their time at the task level when the Project Management System only required time tracking at the project level. Additionally, since team members were employees and projects were only billed for 40 hours maximum regardless of how many hours were submitted, as long as tasks were completed on-time, there was no impact to schedule or budget. In fact, because of all the over-time employees spent, the project budget was spared a 10% surcharge (if the hours were actually charged), so when the Project Manager reported the hour overages, the Project Manager painted a false picture of the budgetary impacts of the work taking more hours than estimated.

A simpler example is the time I worked with another Project Manager who knew MS Project backward and forward. I’m pretty sure she was able to guide satellites and program her home TIVO based on her power user knowledge of MS Project. She would literally spend 3 hours a day in MS Project and could report on incredible details about her project, (e.g., Monte Carlo-like scenario planning with her Critical Path, and average labor rates for Tuesdays), except for one: how it was going. She spent so much time gathering and crunching data in MS Project, she sacrificed time spent talking to team members. When the team announced a two week slip, flipping the project into red, the Project Manager was as surprised as the sponsors.

Experience
“Are you experienced?” – Jimi Hendrix

OK, I’m pretty sure when Jimi Hendrix sang “Are you experienced?” he was not asking that question from a Human Resource perspective (well, sort of?), but experience definitely has a positive impact on results. The more challenging a project, the more valuable it is to have resources who have experience doing this type of work.

Years ago in Seattle the voters had approved three successive initiatives to create a mass transit system in the image of the monorail from the 1962 World’s Fair which would stretch 14 miles from the north end through downtown and out to West Seattle. The county started buying up property and raising taxes, and then the Finance Manager for the project published the details for how the project would be financed. $4B in project costs would ultimately cost the county $11B due to interest payments over 30 years. As quick as one could say “take the bus,” another initiative was on the ballot and our monorail dream was crushed.

Now, $11B in interest payments for a $4B project sounds outrageous. Funny thing, it’s pretty standard. The Kingdome which opened in 1977 cost $30M to build and when we demolished it to create the great white taco (aka CenturyLink Field), we still owed $300M (talk about being leveraged!).

So why did the Monorail project go sideways? The Seattle Times reported that the Finance Manager had never worked on a mega construction project before, and therefore, did not know the nuances of how to handle these types of situations and how to message the project financial plan. Inexperience killed the Monorail.

Now, I love the challenge of attempting something new, but I also will only do this when working with some safety net, usually under the guidance of a strong mentor or coach.

A pre-requisite for experience to be meaningful is that the individual pay attention to the lessons learned from the experience. I’m sure we know Project Managers who tout 10 to 20 years of experience, but if the type of project they are managing now are not that different from the ones they started on at the beginning of their career, maybe they have 1 year of experience, 10 to 20 times over.

“I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.” – Thomas Edison

Experience should be the collection of successes plus the summary of lessons learned from failures. I have much more faith in someone who can apply the lessons learned from mistakes versus someone who has not failed yet.

Of course, it’s a lot easier if we can learn from other people’s mistakes. In Steve Farber’s “Greater Than Yourself,” he promotes the idea of seeking out opportunities to give back by coaching someone your junior to give them the guidance and oversight to help them grow. The successful Project Manager should be proud of their mistakes and should strive to teach others what they learned from them.

Motivation
Motivation is a two way street: sender and receiver must both be turned on.

Sure, leaders should provide a vision for a project, and the successful Project Manager will be able to align the vision with the interests of each individual on the project and/or team, and each individual must be willing to receive the inspiration in order to become motivated.

The Gallup organization conducted research on the willingness of employees to participate in organizational change found that 17% of employees, nearly 1 in 5, will actively disengage in these efforts. While that’s a lot of people like Wally from Dilbert, that means 83% of employees are open to change and can be motivated to buy into a new direction.

Author Daniel Pink wrote in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that employees need three things to be motivated, and those three things are not cash, money, and compensation. While conventional wisdom, as captured by Jack Welch, says that “you get the behaviors you reward and measure,” Mr. Pink cites research that found that when tasks require more cogitation than simple routines, cash rewards actually reduced performance. Instead, once people are satisfied with compensation, the three things that motivate employees are: autonomy, mastery, purpose.

You would think that autonomy is because easily and easily to achieve these days as people complain about having to do the job of two or three people (managers are too busy to micromanage, right?), but this type of autonomy refers to being empowered to make decisions on how they do their work.

Mastery means allowing employees to have the opportunities to obtain the skills and grow their talents that can be applied to the work.

Purpose is a synonym for vision, and employees need to buy into the purpose of a project in order form them to be motivated.

“Tell me why we are doing it, and allow me to determine what we do and how we do it, and make sure I have the knowledge to do it right, then I’m all in.” Does this sound like something a motivated employee might say?

It sounds like something I might say, and as the Information Age has inverted the organizational pyramid as far as where the information for how work gets done resides within an company, I think focusing on mastery, autonomy, and purpose is an approach that makes a lot of sense. We still need leaders to point their people in a direction (i.e., provide a vision), and then work to bring out the best in people by connecting them to that vision without getting in the way by telling their people what or how to do the work. And the successful Project Manager will understand the difference between aligning with the vision and assigning the work, yielding to the team to identify the right solutions and assign the work.

Summary
When giving the Why Projects Succeed presentation to audiences and highlighting my top ten success factors, I always feel a little embarrassed when I come to the “Right People” success factor. It’s the most “brush your teeth and comb your hair” of all the success factors and usually one person says “well, duh.” (OK, sometimes that person is me.) However, top talent is not always available on projects and the successful Project Manager will need to understand how to resource their team and what to look for, and lookout for, when reviewing resource assignments.

The right type of capable, the right kind of experience, and the ability to be motivated are keys to having the right resources on teams. And just like Soylent Green, project success is made of people.

About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

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