Friday brought news of another company outsourcing part of their IT. The details are sketchy, but it appears that all the COBOL programmers (many counting days until retirement) are going to have their jobs moved half way around the world. Soon after, it sounds like the IT infrastructure and operations will follow. Friends lamented about more jobs going overseas. I had to ask what other options management had. I did not hear any alternatives.
To the dismay of my cohorts and their potential pink slips, I am less concerned about outsourcing the administration of servers, networks, and base applications. For most companies, those are not the systems unique to their mission. These days, those functions are utilities. However, outsourcing customized systems that are at the heart of how a company does its business and distinguishes itself to its customer, is very risky. It may be the only option now; however, it could have been avoided.
It was a classical interview in all respects, except they kept asking, "Can you handle stress?" After while, I replied that on my last project gas mask training was a first-day requisite, meetings were routinely held in bomb shelters, there were written emergency evacuation plans, and uniformed men and women with M-16s were common sights on the city streets. That was stress. I should have known better. Stress comes from the unknown, the events in life for which we have no plans.
The other day, while playing with my nine-month old Granddaughter, I counted the number of times she tried to do something and failed. If I had that much trouble, I would give up. Then I reflected on how many successes she has ever hour. Day by day, she changes—in a marked way. Making new sounds, crawling, climbing, signing, putting toys together, they are all big steps. She repeatedly tries until she gets it right, resulting in more successes in a day than I have in a week... maybe a month, even though she fails at more things in an hour than I do in a year. Maybe, if I were to increase my number of failures, successes would skyrocket.
"Why is it that when you get hired you are no longer the expert?" A chuckle rippled through the audience; however, the woman asking the question was serious. I turned the question back to the audience of director level managers, "Why is this the case?" There was silence. Finally, I proffered that it was management's lack of understanding the skills of the people working for them. "Who in your organization can you implicitly trust?" More silence. It is sad that organizations know so little about the people that they hired—the people on which they stake their company's future.
With the coming of 2011, it is time to reflect on our past and contemplate the future. We think about our families, our friends, our successes and failures; we think about our jobs, our professions, and the world of possibilities. We must reaffirm our ship's direction, stay the course, make corrections, or find a new destination. As project managers, we must look at the recent changes in the discipline and translate those into a plan for our professional development—a plan that meets our needs and the needs of the discipline.
A speaker at a recent conference asked the well-dressed audience, "When is the best time to listen?" As with most presenters' questions, there was a host of blank stares, a few people rustled in their seats, and the remainder diverted their eyes to their laps as if a sudden important message had appeared on their notepad. After a pregnant pause the answer came, "When someone is talking." A relieved, yet embarrassed, chuckle rippled through the suit-clad audience. The advice is a good start; however, listening entails significantly more effort.
The project was out of control. Within a two-week span, the project manager reported a slide of at least six months. To put the postponement in perspective, the original project plan was a total of nine months. Accusations came from everywhere. The customer complained about the project manager, requirements analysts were frustrated with the customer, the project manager was pushing on his leads to close requirements gathering, there was infighting within the team, and management did fnot know whom to believe. The organization was in mayhem and the only solution was to hire an external auditor to sort out the facts.
It happens hundreds of times a day around the world, the CIO calls an urgent IT Management Committee meeting. She has heard that one of the projects in the portfolio, a seemingly simple project doing a routine upgrade, is projecting a 20 percent cost overrun and will be three months late. How can a project go that far off track since the last week's executive team meeting? Managers scramble to get their stories straight, determine who to blame, form opinions and alibis, and pummel the project manager for failing to manage the project correctly, even though he has been saying the project is in trouble for months. The project has drifted from its initial intent and now the ultimate goal is to find someone to blame.
As mentioned last week, alignment is of the utmost importance. Achieving alignment, at first glance, is easier when the supplier works for the same company as the customer, say an IT organization delivering a new application to a business unit. However, from my experience there is little difference. In fact, exploring a vendor's world, where access to the customer is inhibited, sheds significant light on techniques to improve the customer-supplier relationship. Classically, vendors must wait for a request (RFP or RFQ) before they can get access to the customer. Exploring ways of "fishing up stream," as an eloquent account manager friend of mine says, is critical in improving project success. To understand this we need to review a couple of case studies on vendor success and failure.
I have always enjoyed cooking and rarely thought of it as a chore, let alone a project; however, when my wife became ill, I became the household chef and had to learn a new way to cook. Every evening was a project with varying degrees of success. Eventually making multi-course meals from scratch became easier. I used to joke that cooking Chinese food was two hours of chopping fresh vegetables and ten minutes with three blazing woks.