Sunday, 31 October 2010 00:00

The Dearth of Competent Middle Management

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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.

Corporate Culture

Something has broken down in middle management. How could it fail to see the impending doom? This layer is supposed to monitor projects, consolidate information, and provide guidance to project managers and executives. With trouble, these managers are now in a position of reacting rather than directing. They try to push the problem down and eventually come in to "help" the project. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a project manager than hearing, "Hi, we're from management and we're here to help." Their form of help is to request reports, slice scope, and impose time constraints rather than determine the root cause of the delay. The result is a poorly developed product that is still over budget and requires excessive time and money to maintain. In the end, middle management gets credit for the rescue, the project team receives the blame, and customer is displeased with the product since it has no value.

The problem stems from middle management's culture. They fail to report or act on actual status, which eliminates the opportunity for small mid-course corrections. Their hope that the project will correct itself, despite the fundamental flaws in the assumptions, is a panacea. For them, ignorance is much easier than resetting expectations and gaining alignment.

To exacerbate this problem, current business culture rewards the fire fighter and penalizes the pragmatist. The urgent rescue produces immediate gratification at the cost of a robust solution and yields only short-term benefits rather than properly addressing the problem with logical analysis and resolving the root causes of the problem.

It is all About People

In all of this, the people assigned to solve the problem—middle management—are the problem. For whatever reason—the Peter Principle, ignorance, inattention, or the desire to be a hero—middle managers by and large are not monitoring projects or correcting the problems as they appear. Ignorance is no excuse. Attempting to blame incomplete project reports is only denying the manager's fiduciary responsibility to validate the project's progress. No matter how one looks at it, middle managers are not doing their jobs.

Over the last few months, I have accrued numerous theories on why this is happening:

  1. The Peter Principle has been taken on a new dimension. With the rapid expansion of businesses prior to 2008, qualified resources were difficult to find, too many people were promoted to fill positions without a thorough vetting of their qualifications.
  2. Companies over emphasize short-term gains. As underscored by events such as quarterly earnings and maintaining triple constraints, companies focus excessively on "the now" versus a long-term view of the product's value.
  3. Everyone admires the hero that comes in to fix the problem. At least in the US, the imagery of the white-hatted cowboy riding in on a gallant steed to solve all the problems in one swift, albeit short sighted, swoop continues to capture our imagination and wonderment. We as a society envy their abilities.

Although these are all perfectly valid, I have to stick to my personal view that at its root companies are tantalized by technology, processed by process, and removed from their resources. This prioritization must change. We need to hire people that have experience, not certifications; we need interpersonal communications, not status reports; we need old-fashioned management, not a checklist for grading performance.

Tantalized by Technology

Sarcasm abounds on how technology has made our lives simpler and less hectic—cars are easier to maintain, nearly instant communication has reduced our stress, and technology failures rarely cause anxiety. However, some of us are old enough to remember the days when we could tune cars in our own garage, escape from the phone by leaving the building, and power failures were not predecessors to panic attacks. As such, technology should not be our first line of defence or offense. Demote it to a tool used after the right people are in place to perform the job in the most efficient manner. The proper priority is people, then process, and, in a distant third, technology.

Back to the Basics

Put down your cell phones, close email, walk down the hall, and talk to the people doing the work. One-on-one interaction, with all its body language; casual conversation, with its innocuous but vital titbits; and the ability to quickly correct a misunderstanding are at the core of communication and leadership. Doing this will identify the real status of the project, identify and help solve problems, backfill for the project manager's deficiencies, and quietly create success. It will lack the flash, urgency, and attention of the flamboyant failure; however, quiet and trustworthy success will build confidence and credibility in the manager and the leader. Success that provides value is always recognized.

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