AOM 2011 – WEST MEETS EAST – DAY ONE
Each year I make a pilgrimage to the Academy of Management (AoM) conference. It’s the largest global gathering of people interested in all things management and this year it’s in San Antonio and has attracted over 9000 people. It’s hot (the weather).
People ask me why I go, and the answer is really simple. I want, and need, to stay up to date with the thoughts and activities and requirements of the people who hire us. To do that I need to listen and learn to what they are saying. What they see are the biggest issues facing them; what they hear is changing and what is being done to address current and future threats and opportunities.Projects, programs and portfolios are usually high on the list of things they are interested in so I try to get to a cross section of sessions – some directly relating to PM and others to more general management stuff.
This year the theme of the conference is West meets East and there are way more sessions that interest me than I can possibly fit into the schedule – is there a law that says all the good sessions will be concurrent?
Day 1 and I have my schedule all worked out, and leap into the fray with enthusiasm, dedication and commitment. Session 1 promises to be fabulous and I feel all bright eyed and shiny. It’s about action research – or as I’ve come to know it, research that happens along side the event rather than observations made afterwards. I’m particularly interested because in projects and programs there is precious little research carried out throughout the life of an endeavour. There are lots of reasons for this and I’ve deduced the three main ones:
- It’s easier and better for researchers to adopt the published body of knowledge about project and program success and judge projects against them retrospectively and determine that failures in application of tools, processes etc are the root cause (you know, those formulaic health checks with tick boxes and recommendations to do the paperwork and method better – I often joke that I could produce one for any given project without even meeting people or looking at anything and it would be as right and useful as any of the others, oh, and the same goes for post implementation reviews);
- While some orgs may agree to being watched during a project, when they near failure the standard response is to cancel the research and withdraw the rights to report on it; and
- Both, the people who want the outcomes and, the people charged with delivering them know that most likely they will fail and don’t want people along for the ride.
The problem with both these is they aren’t helping actually point out what works. The last great piece of research on a successful project was Rocky Flats and that’s now 4 years old. And while the project/program and its leaders won acclaim; and the action research conducted during the life of the project pointed to a whole lot of things that lead to success (other than the body of knowledge or methods) people seem to have arrived at a collectively unconscious position of ignoring the evidence and continuing to do what doesn’t work.
Why? Well I think it’s simply easier to follow the pack and do what everyone else is doing. Sure they might fail, but so does everyone else so it’s ok.
I think I’m getting a big jaded and want to stand up and yell that there has to be a way – but I don’t. Instead I am turning my mind to how to get the message across but lyrics to the song, “…they’re not listening, they’re not listening still; perhaps they never will” are on a loop in my head.
Perhaps the next session will provide some clues.
Wow, this session is interesting, it’s on the correlation between portfolio management offices and the success of projects, programs, portfolios and enterprises. Wait for it – it’s negative. Oh dear. A lovely sound bite though in summary “compared to it’s diffusion in practice, evidence of benefit is very small”. “A dubious consensus of the benefit to organisations is widely accepted”
I did get a definition of a PMO though that I think is useful in that it makes no claim of increasing the success of initiatives or the organisations that hire them. Blichfeldt and Eskerod (2008) define Project Portfolio Management as “managerial activities that relate to the initial screening, selection and prioritization of project proposals, the concurrent reprioritizations of projects in the portfolio, and the allocation and reallocation of resources according to priority”. I can live with that – it makes no claim whatsoever that PPM/PMO actually contribute to improved performance (deck chairs? Titanic?). I conclude after listening a bit longer that the message is, PMO’s are admin functions providing lots of information about where things across the portfolio are up to… So, who is making things succeed? Or in reality, not succeed?
Another definition I like – “Project portfolio is a group of projects that compete for scarce resources and are conducted under the sponsorship or management of a particular organisation or area within an organisation”. I’ll keep this one for reference.
This email is getting too long so I’ll finish with a few lines from the day’s remaining sessions:
“It’s increasingly common to move staff off succeeding projects to help out failing ones. And like a virus this results in the succeeding one being infected with failure”
“As staff switch back and forth between projects and tasks productivity gradually decreases and overall performance becomes increasingly degraded”
“There is no empirical evidence regarding the effect/benefit of portfolio management”
“The root cause of failure is over allocated staff – this made me laugh out loud, it’s not the allocation; it’s the planning, the PM skills and expectation management, um, isn’t that supposed to be project management? Meaning that the real root cause of project failure is a failure of project management.
And my favourite of the day – “there is evidence that organisations with higher project success have a higher portfolio performance” Meaning where more projects go well the better the organisational outcome. Right.
Ok, back tomorrow, best regards, DianePortfolios Programs Projects – simply making them happen