The Blowtorch - The Worst Tool in the Exec's Toolbox

The Blowtorch - The Worst Tool in the Exec's Toolbox

 

The Blowtorch - The Worst Tool in the Exec's Toolbox
The Blowtorch - The Worst Tool in the Exec's Toolbox


Last week it was one year since CNN published their expose that veterans died while waiting for medical care, despite the goal set out by the VA (Veterans’ Administration) that patients only have to wait 2 weeks before getting an appointment. It was revealed that patients were often added to unofficial waiting lists that meant it could be months before they received an appointment. It later was revealed that VA Managers received bonuses on meeting the two week target.

As a PM who has worked with government PMOs, when this story broke I had a suspicion what might be the issue, even without knowing much more about the story. My immediate guess went like this:

As a PM who has worked with government PMOs, when this story broke I had a suspicion what might be the issue, even without knowing much more about the story. My immediate guess went like this: Administrators replied, “Okay, that is a great goal – I would like an increase in budget and personnel to make this a reality.”

PMO – “We have been told there is no increase in budget or resources that will be made available. You have to work within the constraints you already face. And we will start pulling reports that will show the length of the waiting list, and if you get out of compliance, your hospital will show up “Red” on the weekly status summary we give to management.”

So now the Administrators protest (to no avail) and have to start reporting on the length of wait time for patients, and if they show up as RED on the status report, they are told to fix it or they will be replaced. After all, they are jeopardizing the annual bonuses of the VA Managers! So the Administrators are caught between a rock and a hard place: they are given nothing to help decrease wait times, but longer wait times will not be tolerated. And “speaking truth to power” will get you the usual reward – fired. 

So the VA administrators have to keep 2 sets of books – the “official” list that lets the PMO show you as GREEN, and allows the VA Managers to collect their bonuses and clap themselves on the back for a job well done, and an “unofficial” list. Since there is no transparency on the unofficial list, it probably starts to grow more than it should. The whole sorry mess is all too typical. Management setting unrealistic goals, but will brook no argument about such reality, especially after cementing the goals by tying bonuses to them.


I could make the guess about the VA story because something similar happened at one of my previous clients. The PMO would publish the weekly status report and all the Program Managers would do anything to avoid being in “RED” status on the list. One of the metrics was how the projects were performing against the budget forecast; you did not want to see your budget over, or underspending. 

So the Program manager would lard costs from an overspending project onto an unrelated project that was underspending. This had to happen because even if the PM had found ways to make their project cheaper, if your project came in more than 5% as an underspend, you showed up on the naughty list. So don’t try and save the client money – you will just get punished for it!

If you did show up as RED, your manager would break into a cold sweat – He knew that someone was going to get blowtorched, and his focus was that it shouldn’t be him. So the pain had to be passed down the line until it came to the PM, who might try to palm it off on some of the team, but usually the PM took the heat, and often was let go.

I had a close shave myself. I was leading a high profile project and because the lengthy PMO approval process often delayed the next phase of budget funding, my project was temporarily showing as overspending. I was standing behind the PMO Program Manager as she typed on her keyboard and she spoke to me over her shoulder. “I can’t see how to deal with the report showing the project Red. Someone might just have to fall on their sword – Might have to be you.” Good job she couldn’t see my face since the shock was written all over it. I escaped soon after.

At the clients I visit, the CIO usually sets the culture for the IT organization. If he starts blowtorching his reports, that is the way it is all down the line. If a CIO sets a culture of using PMO reports to expose problems, not to blowtorch but to focus on what can be fixed without apportioning blame, the productivity and morale are high, and the PMO actually can report on issues. Then management can strategize on priorities and solutions. But that seems to happen at only at about a quarter of my clients. At the rest, prepare to be roasted!

The Author : Stuart Hamilton


About : 
To structure the delivery of complex, large-scale transformational projects while managing and coaching multidisciplinary and matrixed teams. Day 1 assistance to develop strategy, roadmap, and execution plan, then execute and manage the implementation.
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