Problem Solving Requires the Right Question

The December Harvard Business Review has an article, Is the Rookie Ready? (You have to subscribe and pay to read the whole thing.) The story is this: Kristen is the new project manager, reporting to Tim. The old PM left because Tim, who'd been her manager for 6 months didn't know how to work with her. Tim hears from an old customer two weeks before Christmas, “Please help us and send a team down to install your software, the stuff we rejected a year ago because it was too expensive. Oh, and we need it by Jan 1.”

Tim agrees (Big Red Flag here). He asks Kristen to go install and make the standard software work (no customizations) and to take whomever she needs. Kristen doesn't think this is a such a good idea, but Tim tells her it's her job to make it happen. He tells her to tell the team ‘we're going to do this.'

The question to the famous commentators is, “Is the Rookie Ready?”

Wrong question. Michael Schrage suggests hiring back the old PM. But, then he says “Kristen is in over her head.”  NO. KRISTEN IS NOT IN OVER HER HEAD. TIM IS A TERRIBLE MANAGER. We can't tell if Kristen is in over her head.

Sorry for yelling, but I just couldn't take it. (You should have heard me while I was reading the article 🙂 Anyone would be in over his or her head, because the only way to solve this problem is to have someone intimate with the product install it. Even then, this is a 6-week project. Why would Tim agree to a 2-week install? Sure, the customer wants it. Customers want all kinds of things. They can't always get what they want, when they want, for the price they want.

Tim is a terrible manager, because he keeps taking the best programmers and making them managers (part of the story I didn't summarize). If they want to be managers, that's fine. But it's not clear Kristen wants to be a manager. And, he doesn't even push back on the customer. And, Tim has allowed a standard product without a standard install.  (Ok, it's a big product. Maybe a standard, unattended install isn't possible. Maybe it really does need 6 weeks to install. So, why isn't there an install group that does this??)

Why would Tim agree to do a special install over the holidays without asking for more money? Why would Tim even think this is acceptable to do without asking the team who will do it? Because Tim isn't the one giving up his vacation. The fact that he even thinks this is acceptable behavior just astonishes me.

It's time to ask if this project is strategic to the company. (Where are all the other managers? Why is Tim getting this call? HBR, I can write a more realistic story than this.) Maybe this is not even a project to take on.

If they'd asked me to comment on this story, here's what I would suggest:

  1. Decide if the project is strategic to the organization. Why has the customer changed their mind on what's too expensive? What is an acceptable fee for doing this project in their time frame?
  2. At the same time, before committing anything to the customer, ask the team if they are willing to make this happen in the requested time frame. If not, what is an acceptable time frame? Would that time frame change if they had the experienced project manager back? What would make the time frame decrease?
  3. If the project is strategically important, and the team is ready to commit to something, negotiate that with the customer. Never assume it's fine to commit your team to work they haven't committed to.
  4. Organize timeboxes of work starting now and through the final deliverable, so there is transparency about the project's progress. If the project falters, you still have the option of getting the experienced PM back and see if that makes a difference.

Tim is creating management debt by making bad decisions. He's not managing the project portfolio–what other projects are now crises? He's not managing the people. He's certainly not building a trusting relationship with his people. What the heck is he doing?

I'm so worked up about this because I worked for a jerk like this once. He committed all kinds of deliverables on behalf of my project to the customer. Half the time, he didn't even tell me. He never once thought what was good for the organization or even the customer.

Managers like Tim kill an organization. They create management debt by not managing people correctly, by not managing the project portfolio correctly, and by not managing the customer correctly.

The question is not whether the rookie is ready. As Paul Muller, one of the experts who commented said, “Every manager has a first crisis, whether it's three days or three years after assuming the role.”

The question is not “Is the rookie ready?” The question is why is Tim employed at the organization? Why has no one seen the messes he has made?

11 Replies to “Problem Solving Requires the Right Question”

  1. Oh, my God, you have no idea how close to home this hit for me. I won’t leave a mile-long comment about it, but that final sentence of the post summed up my exit interview when I was laid off in 2008. I’ll stop there. Great article, long time, no talk to. Hi!

  2. I have worked for “Tim” in the past. This actually sound eerily similar to a situation I faced at that job.

    Enterprise client, project was “critical” to the business, my 2nd day on the job and a “make it happen” mandate with zero support from management.

    What I did was ask the team who would be implementing it. They all said “not likely, but we probably can…”

    Needless to say the project failed miserably and I failed to say “no” from the start. That failed project was brought up by “Tim” and other management folks regularly about ‘how terrible of a job’ I was doing.

    Needless to say I burned a bridge at this organization and simply quit without any prospects. In fact, within a month the implementation services team all quit except for 1 person.

    Scary thing was this pattern repeated itself before I got there and during my short tenure. I was shell shocked but it was a HUGE learning experience.

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  4. Excellent rant on ‘management debt’, JR – “Tim” is the rookie, not “Kristen”. To accept such a proposition, in particular for a client who rejected their software in the first place …. I’m shaking my head in disbelief.

  5. I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with. I didn’t pay for the article, but the summary indicates that at least two of the three respondents agreed that Tim is a terrible manager.

    As for what the question should be, I imagine everybody involved in the project would be asking themselves what they should do. The people who helped promote Tim to his current position are an example. So are the people who helped promote *those* people. (It wouldn’t be the first time incompetence was promoted.) For the purposes of the case study, the author chose Tim as the subject.

    As for it being an unrealistic scenario, well not enough info on my (stingy) part, so no argument.

  6. To be honest I’m surprised that you’re surprised at all.

    1. Most of big organizations (vendors) doesn’t really care about these kind of issues on top management level. Even if they did any analysis of this case it would probably end at “this customer is important for us (hey, everyone is) and Tim did what was necessary to keep good relation with them.” Any failure would be addressed to Kristen but there would be tons of excuses, Kristen being a newbie being most notable one.

    2. Many clients, especially big ones, create this kind of situations on and on and don’t understand it can be really a big problem for themselves too. If it was so and Tim would reject to do what they wanted they would go further – to Key Account Manager and other people who know less about managing projects and people but understand business value of the customer. Finally someone would agree and the situation would look the same.

    Now, I don’t say Tim is a good manager or that decision-makers shouldn’t try to find more reasonable solution. Far from that. What I say is there are loads of Tims and alikes and there’s nothing to be surprised or enraged about.

    We just have to learn how to deal with these situations even when we aren’t allowed to choose the most reasonable path.

  7. Having the courage to know when to engage and when to politely decline an opportunity is both a matter of objective judgement and organisational culture – as your readers observe, neither will work in isolation from the other.

  8. I read the printed version of the article yesterday and I can see why Tim is such a liability. He is clearly the problem.

    Of course, the whole problem is manufactured. A Spanish company might request that you install something in 2 weeks, without any decent notice period, just before Christmas. They just wouldn’t expect that anyone [worth their salt] would actually agree to such a [stupid] thing.

    As manufactured scenarios go this one is a doozy. It might be standard practice in the U.S. to forget about something as important as Christmas when making a business decision but I never came across this whilst working in the U.K. or N.Z.

    Tim is violating Rands rule #1 – “Don’t be a prick”.

    Whilst the company might want that casino biz back it has managed to get by without it for the last year or so. The casino company chose to go elsewhere, so they now go to the back of the list, behind the customers that stayed with the company’s products and the new customers awaiting their first install.

    I’m not saying they go all the way to the back of the queue but they can wait until the New Year has broken. After all, they have been getting by until now.

    Kristen is a star because she is trying to honour the promises she made to people. Promises that were very reasonable at the time they were made. Promises those people consider to be promises their employer made to them.

    Tim is a “prick”. I think its time he did a bit of install work himself if he thinks it can all be done in 2 weeks.

    As for getting his old team leader back in to do the job, he can do that too. Doing so, will totally undermine Kristen in her role. This still leaves Tim as rule violator #1.

    Nah, if anyone isn’t ready its Tim.

  9. As manufactured scenarios go this one is a doozy. It might be standard practice in the U.S. to forget about something as important as Christmas when making a business decision but I never came across this whilst working in the U.K. or N.Z.

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