Who Solves Which Problems?

Many years ago, I was part of a task force to “standardize” project management at an organization. I suggested we gather some data to see what kinds of projects the client had.

They had short projects, where it was clear what they had to do: 1-3 week projects where 2-4 people could run with the requirements and finish them. They had some of what they called “medium-risk, medium return” projects, where a team or two of people needed anywhere from 3-9 months to work on features that were pretty well defined. But they still needed product managers to keep working with the teams. And, they had the “oh-my-goodness, bet the company” projects and programs. Sometimes, they started with a small team of 2-5 people to do a proof-of-concept for these projects/programs. Then, they staffed those projects or programs with almost everyone. (BTW, this is one of the reasons I wrote Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management. Because one size approach to each project does not fit all!)

The management team wanted us, the task force, to standardize on one project management approach.

In the face of the data, they relented and agreed it didn’t make sense to standardize.

It made a little sense to have some guidelines for some project governance, although I didn’t buy that. I’ve always preferred deliverable-based milestones and iterative planning. When you do that, when you see project progress in the form of demos and deliverables, you don’t need as much governance.

There are some things that might make sense for a team to standardize on—those are often called team norms. I’m all in favor of team norms. They include what “done” means. I bet you’re in favor of them, too!

But, when someone else tells you what a standard for your work has to be? How does that feel to you?

I don’t mind constraints. Many of us live with schedule constraints. We live with budget constraints. We live with release criteria. In regulated industries, we have a whole set of regulatory constraints. No problem. But how to do the work? I’m in favor of the teams deciding how to do their own work.

That’s the topic of this month’s management myth, Management Myth 28: I Can Standardize How Other People Work.

If you think you should tell other people how to do their work, ask yourself why. What problem are you trying to solve? Is there another way you could solve that problem? What outcome do you desire?

In general, it’s a really good idea for the people who have the problem to solve the problem. As long as they know it’s a problem.

How about you tell the team the outcome you desire, and you let them decide how to do their work?

4 Replies to “Who Solves Which Problems?”

  1. Down and up. From the top down, there was a desire to standardize. From the bottom up, there was evidence that one size did not fit all.

    I find this to be the case in so many things in companies. The objectives at the top and the needs at the bottom frequently don’t line up. I wish that the top would seek to understand the bottom’s needs, rather than the bottom having to argue for its needs, before implementing new policies and programs. The needs at the bottom don’t obviate the objectives at the top, but perhaps there are concessions to be given and compromises to be struck.

    1. HI Jim,

      I can understand what senior managers want: a way to understand the work that is going on. In all my years of work, I have never seen standards supply that understanding. I have seen standards obfuscate the understanding. Oh well.

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