by Michael Kropff, Management Practice Associate at Taos
A long time back I read Stephen Covey’s classic “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and leveraged them throughout my career as I progressed into the profession of Project Management. What I discovered is a new set of rules emerged. Even with excellent references like the PMBOK rolling out to help guide PMs, a new secret code came forward that was like the Pirate’s Code in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”. This unwritten code sometimes was trumpeted as “law” by some and “guidelines” by others, but the gist is I found those that practiced this code were able to generate massive amounts of churn, get lots of visibility and generate project black holes where companies burn tons of money in a PMO dumpster fire. The net effect was to waste productivity like a Dilbert Zone nightmare and experience scope creep resembling a flesh eating bacteria. The one common characteristic is they all follow this code which I call the “7 Habits of Highly Dysfunctional PMs”. This code is quite entertaining for PMs and provides much excitement and drama in what would be an otherwise mundane and productive life for most project team members.
Habit 1: Be reactive – Covey always argued that being proactive meant owning up to commitments and work on things one can do something about. The Highly Dysfunctional PM lives in the world of identifying why things cannot happen, pushing delays to arenas they cannot control and holding off any initial planning until everything is completely funded, scoped and provided timelines to them. “We cannot start until we have our project codes” is a classic quote from those PMs that would prefer to wait and react as opposed to engage, ask questions and shape the project while being conceived. Reactive PMs are great at tracking everyone except themselves, preferring to ask status as opposed to being engaged in identifying the added value they can provide by stepping forward when surprised when deviations occur to the plan. The Reactive PM congratulates themselves on successfully employing the tactic when they see the crestfallen faces of the project team. They move on to seize “control” by lecturing the team about the need to plan more up-front instead of throwing out surprises. Good thing the Reactive PM is there to save the team from themselves! “*disappointed sigh* I guess we are just going to have to wing it now” quips the Dysfunctional PM while project team members know they are going to need multiple beers at the local “Wingstop”.
Habit 2: Begin with your End in Mind – Where Covey advocates understanding what the desired state is and why, the Highly Dysfunctional PM digs into lining up the folks to chuck under the bus when it pulls out because the Execs are tired of everyone waiting around to get things started. The trigger of the bus pulling out is the Dysfunctional PM announcing that they have their project codes and it is time to get rolling followed by update requests for everyone to provide details on where everything is while they were off slaving to get project codes. “It is not a good idea to get bogged down with too many details” is the mantra of the Highly Dysfunctional PM. Generally a healthy dose of gallows humor follows those that work on dysfunctional project teams knowing ultimately that no matter what they say the tread marks become a badge of honor for project team member. Caveat-laden emails and defensive responses to Subject Matter Expert (SME) inputs are always excellent signs that the bus is coming in. In a frenzied burst of Schadenfreude and Meinenfreude contrasts Project team members find themselves competing for who got run over worse. “I think Jack broke their leg when the bus pulled out …” followed by “You think that is bad, not only did I get both legs broken the exhaust pipe hit me in the head and I got a diesel exhaust gassing …” ultimately leading to the Pythonesque “Just a bus ran over you? I dream of that …”
Habit 3: Put Urgency First – Just a subtle deviation from Covey’s “Put First things First”, the Highly Dysfunctional PM strives for getting the team to focus on Urgency at all cost. Where Covey focuses on Importance being addressed first the Dysfunctional Project Team conversations are loaded with synonyms for getting things done immediately with no regard if they really matter. The Highly Dysfunctional PM pulls out the arsenal of urgent synonyms in a machine gun staccato: “critical … dire … top priority … high priority … “ Playing the urgency card is centered on the fact that importance has no bearing to deciding what is urgent, it is more important to field perception that the PM must be on top of everything urgent. A project deliverable completion can be delayed by pulling everyone into urgent meetings to get status on activities such as finishing the deliverables the team is working on. The immediate need of finding out what is going on becomes more important than completing the task. It is highly humorous to watch team members blow their stacks exclaiming: “We have had 2-hour morning and afternoon status meetings to cover the same topic, would it not be better to let us do the work?” At that moment the Highly Dysfunctional PM replies: “We need to know where things are so we can report status, can you please explain where you are and what you have done in the last 4 hours?” Employee Assistance Programs thrive on the rich discussions that follow. Instead of getting concrete deliverables like Business Requirements Documents, well defined SOWs, well researched BOMs lots of meetings are convened with action plans to toss it all over the fence and play Vendor pin ball instead.
Habit 4: Think Win – To the PM the center of their world is only the project they lead. Nothing else matters and anything else is a distraction. Where Covey emphasizes trying to create Win/Win scenarios between competing projects, project team member’s personal needs and organizationally imposed executive fiat, the dysfunctional PM will hear none of that. To Win, the Dysfunctional PM ignores Subject Matter Experts inputs that run contrary to their half-baked Charter, employs the “sand-in-fist” micromanagement approaches (as opposed to scooping sand piles with an open hand) and exhorts project team members that they need to learn to “do more with less” when being questioned on the Dysfunctional PM’s “Win Theme”. The project team members immediately all come up with a consensus opinion where they can do more with one less PM.
Habit 5: Seek First to be Understood, worry about Understanding later – The Highly Dysfunctional PM lives for the Project Kick-off. In what becomes a farce of a meeting they can proudly declare they have a project code, and roll out a half-baked charter they made up after a quick web search to find motivating buzz words. A proud declaration follows that they have been blessed by the big Kahuna to make this happen and it should be the most important event in everyone’s life. This is contrasted from Covey, who stressed that getting understanding of what the project team is dealing within the organization, their current technical constraints and challenges then expressing what the vision is and soliciting a way forward to get there. The Dysfunctional PM has no time to hear the minions whining and instead believes they need to be pushed into the Project Abyss kicking and screaming. “We all need to apply out-of-the-box thinking, use all our available resources and work smarter …” states the Highly Dysfunctional PM. The project team members translate this to “When does the hurting stop? This idiot has no clue to the weekends we will be committed to because they are not considering any of the issues, constraints or the fact our staff has been reduced by 25%”. Meanwhile the Dysfunctional PM raises the idea of bringing in student interns and providing everyone midnight McDonald’s Happy Meals to motivate the troops to pull the schedule in and make up for labor shortfalls.
Habit 6: Synchronize – The Highly Dysfunctional PM believes success is all about making sure everyone is totally dialed in on the mythic (both literally and figuratively) project plan they are working on. They insist everyone should talk with each other (requiring meetings), work out all the details and provide roll-ups (requiring meetings) and provide status updates daily (…yep, more meetings. Two-hour tag up ones). Where Covey advocates creating Synergy where the cooperative interaction is far greater than the sum of individuals, the Highly Dysfunctional PM doles out assignments, buries them with arcane requests and tells them to work it out while lecturing everyone about not wanting to see “groupthink”. In order to facilitate better Synergy the Highly Dysfunctional PM will roll out a “Roles and Responsibilities Matrix” call it a RACI and then tell them to run off and figure it all out against that half-baked charter previously produced. At this point functional managers are getting urgent groupthink requests from project team members for meetings to discuss ways to transition to other projects.
Habit 7: Sharpen the Axe – The Highly Dysfunctional PM always prepares for the inevitable outcome by laying the groundwork with sponsors; explaining to them that resources are not committed, functional managers are too busy to properly engage and the project team members did not properly scope the work or provide correct scheduled timelines to deliver on time and within budget. Where Covey is advocating PMs on fostering a learning organization and pushing the growth of themselves and their team members, the Dysfunctional PM is all about securing the next dose of funding, pushing for obtaining more qualified project team members to replace the ones that just left and rolling their half-baked scope into something one can smoke. Project team members realize that breathing that smoke is like sniffing glue while the Dysfunctional PM believes that smoke creates innovative approaches and ultimately the utopic vision of their corporate domination in the executive suite.
In Summary, these 7 Dysfunctional Habits promote an environment rich with drama and promotes robust change organizationally on a quarterly basis. The constant leadership churn guarantees a healthy usage of the corporate Employee Assistance Program and always opens the door for Individual Contributors to see career growth into new roles created by organizational chaos that ensues. Employees completing the rare successful projects are always guaranteed vibrant resume’s and if they survive riding the corporate bus undercarriage have battle scars that truly mark them as worthy for survivor benefits and possible reward of working with that same PM on the next bus crash. The Dysfunctional PMs can walk away with hero status as being the ones shepherding Red programs to completion even if they were the ones that created the mess in the first place with the reward of becoming Directors or Executives themselves. We leave tabulating the generated technical debt as an exercise for the reader, and advise downing a couple of aspirin before getting started. If aspirin does not suffice one can always smoke what the Dysfunctional PM produces.
Michael Kropff is a Taos Management Practice Associate (PMP, ITILF, CSM, CSPO and MS in Project and Systems Management) who has completed recent assignments at VMware and Juniper. He is equally versed in Functional and Dysfunctional PM tactics preferring to take a tongue-in-cheek view of the world. He wants to acknowledge Andan Lauber and Chris Crabtree for their timely contributions to this blog.