Who’s Accountable?

The caller wanted to get my thoughts on a program manager they were thinking of hiring.

A fog came over my brain and I was transported back two years.

It was a good day. Things had gone my way. I had space to think.

The ‘phone rang.

The program was in serious trouble.

How could that be? Just yesterday at the steering committee it was green!

The key players assembled.

How? I kept asking.

One by one each person explained it.  One by one as they became emboldened and relieved to tell me what was going on they disclosed the true status of the program.

I realized the program wasn’t green at all.

$25m spent, 18 months along, 6 months to completion, at least another 12 months and unknown $ needed.

The excuses and blame came thick and fast.  They

  • didn’t do the estimation
  • tried to fit the work into a number and date they hadn’t developed
  • hoped it would be ok
  • hadn’t known how to do what was being asked.
  • followed project and program methods, processes, tools and governance
  • were let down by the supplier
  • tried to tell me and I wasn’t listening
  • believed if they got me to hear what they wanted to say, I’d have replaced them with someone who’d say what I wanted to hear

Bottom line?  They told me it was my fault. I’d made a target, arbitrarily set a budget, put in place the governance and expected to get the result I wanted. I wasn’t open to hearing them. Bollocks.

No one had come to the Steering Committee and told us it couldn’t be done.  No one had quit rather than fail.

For 18 months this team had been working on something they had no confidence in delivering. For 18 months they’d been reporting what they thought I wanted to hear. For 18 months they tried not to think about today – the day when the truth would become obvious.

Perhaps it was my fault. I’d picked the program manager, someone I knew, someone well-schooled, experienced and accredited in the science of project and program management.  He self righteously stated that all the program management artifacts are in place. The program had been well managed. Bollocks.

Sitting across from my boss, I felt sick. I didn’t want to tell him either. My instinct was to sit on the news, process it and hope I’d come up with a way to make it ok.  To go back to the team and look in detail at what they’d done and where it had gone wrong, and fix it. I didn’t want to tell him I’d screwed up. I didn’t want him to know we’d potentially wasted time, money and opportunity that would at best now be delayed and potentially lost all together.

My boss? He’d been where I sit now. He’d employed based on competency and familiarity. He’d trusted the project and program management world of processes, procedures, methods, tools and language. He’d learned that none of those things are nearly as important as a program lead who can see the end game, who can see the whole picture, who can plan and allocate resources so things are achieved, who’s willing and able to tell the truth so it’s heard and acknowledged, who’s willing to leave gracefully rather than steward failure.

Why hadn’t he shared this with me before? He told me he had. I hadn’t wanted to listen, I believed I would be better at it than he clearly had been.

I made a decision there and then. Next time I’d hire a program manager who’d tell me the truth no matter what. Projects and programs are no place for the timid, no place for people on the income continuity plan, and no place for yes men.

I was brought back to the caller and their question.  All I could think to say was, “he’s a perfectly adequate program manager”. “Yes, I’m aware that’s not a compliment.”I related the above story.

Whose fault was it? Who’s accountable?