Jan 12, 2011

Burning Questions for 2011

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin in Culture & Change Management, Project & Program Management, Human Capital, Portfolio Management, Strategy Execution | 1 Comment

Chatting with my boss the other day, the term "burning questions" came up more than once, which struck me as significant. I jotted it in the margin of my notes and later, in the search field of my browser.

To my surprise, Burning Question turned out to be the title of a new book about marketing. What was unsurprising was that the question they came up with after a global soul-searching tour was pretty lame.

I suspect those who are in charge of project management in large organizations have questions in mind that might actually get a fire started if applied to paper (good thing I am writing this on a laptop!):

  • How can we possibly get through a budget year in which we have allocated 270% of our resources to projects with competing deadlines?
  • Who is the CEO today, and how long might he/she be around?
  • How come we all have to abide by the PPM guidelines for prioritizing projects ... unless we are the brass, who actually have the clout to re-prioritize?
  • Why does this schedule pretend a person can work 20 hours on one project and 20 on another and have it add up to a 40-hour week? When does this person take a bathroom break or grab a cup of coffee? What about the time it takes to switch gears?
  • Who is going to tell the C-level the portfolio is unrealistic?

Okay, perhaps this is an overly negative list of questions, but you get my drift. The "burning questions" for project management are not pie-in-the-sky ponderings about the meaning of life but the questions of dedicated, but frequently frustrated, project managers who struggle daily to bring projects to life. They struggle, it sometimes seems, against their own organizations - organizations that depend on projects for growth, change and competitiveness.

Answering these questions will be important for the profession, and also for organizations and the wider economy as we try to learn to do more with less.

So, maybe it would be a good idea, this January, instead of making resolutions for the year, to frame the questions you would like to explore and discover the answers to. Harvard Business Review recently suggested something similar in a blog post subtitled "Do Experiments, Not Projects." It's focused on IT projects, but one can easily see how an experimental approach could lead to innovation. Likewise the Appreciative Inquiry approach to change and growth with its focus on the positive and the possible (instead of the broken and problematic) may be a good place to start to get at the thorniest problems facing your team or organization.

We often jump right in trying to "fix problems" before we have truly understood what the root causes are or what alternatives might exist. One of the most mind-blowing meetings I ever attended featured a calm and clear-headed person asking the very upset staff members of an organization, after each problem recitation, "And that is a problem because ... ?" It turned out that the presenting issue was far from what really needed to be changed.

When we find ourselves asking "Why am I doing this?" we should be able to turn to our organization's strategy and see a clear link between where the company hopes to go and the steps we are taking today. If strategy doesn't answer the "Why?" of work, it isn't being properly set or managed.

Asking better questions, of ourselves, our processes, our strategies, and others might just be the key to a happier New Year. We might be able to clear away the inessential and work on the right projects. As the Japanese poet Masahide wrote hundreds of years ago:

Barn's burnt down -
I can see the moon.

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    1 Comment on Burning Questions for 2011

    Carla Reed, PMP says:

    Overallocation of resources and lack of knowledge of the organization’s business strategy are two of the biggest issues facing project and program managers today.  With the onslaught of outsourcing and the need to mesh the strategies of the outsourced organization and the provider of the service, project management can get very confusing to say the least.  The ability of those in the strategic planning to marry the strategic objectives of multiple organizations at the table has become an important part of managing project portfolios.

    Posted on January 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm

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