Sep 30, 2018

The Long View from Far Away

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

Measure the right things. Start with people.

Sometimes you have to get a little distance from familiar things to see them in perspective.

I experienced this in September during a three-week break, out of the country, away from it all, and on a bit of an enforced “device fast” with no wifi or mobile data. In a brief airport interlude, 10 days into my trip, when I opened my email and started scrolling through the Google alerts that I have set up for various topics of interest related to project management and strategy execution, I suddenly realized there was a striking pattern in one of my alerts: project portfolio management (PPM) stories were always and only about software tools.

Naturally, PPM tools are important facilitators of the data side of PPM; they’ve made enterprise PPM more achievable, and added an agility to the tracking and reporting process that was once only dreamed of. They even have made some inroads in to the thorny issues surrounding resource management. But PPM is not a thing … it’s a process.

Being a process, it has all kinds of squishy innards: power and control, resistance to change, data hoarding and all the other “ills that flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet says. And, it also encapsulates what is great about the human side of business: the ideas, priorities, values and aspirations of the people who plan and carry out the work of an organization. There’s no way to automate that process unless, first, people have decided what is most important to invest in, and why. You have only to look at the challenges listed by participating organizations in our 2013 State of PPM study to see that there’s a vast geography of issues to encounter and master before you get to the tool implementation phase. I won’t belabor this point, because I and others in my company have written about it before, here, here and here.

Thinking about this as I sat, phoneless, in the shade of a grape arbor in a village that has changed little in the last 45 years, the PPM-tool focus seemed to be just another aspect of our world’s technology distractibility. Like toddlers, we are attracted to the flash, whizz-bang and blue light of our newest toys. The impact that cell phone usage is having on relationships, parenting and social skills is well-documented. But it isn’t just the gadgets, devices and tools that create mental noise, preventing us from recognizing important patterns or reacting to cues in the environment. We have a more general slavish devotion to modern systems that gets in the way. Case in point: on the table before me under the grape arbor, an article in The Economist about measuring African trade. The authors note, with barely concealed surprise, that African people have carried on a vast informal trade network dating back millennia, which has little recognition of national borders or government regulations, which often involves cashless transactions (cattle for cloth, produce for fuel), and which carries on in an entirely separate stream from the transactions that feed into economists’ accounting of the health of African markets.

Well, do tell, as my late mother-in-law would have said, drily, as she put up the hundreds of jars of summer produce that fed us all, but which were not tallied as wealth on her income taxes. That we constantly miscount and misidentify resources was brought home to me by a recent study in North Carolina that showed my Western part of the state as a food desert … ! This area, home to literally thousands of backyard gardens, dozens of farmer’s markets and farm to table restaurants, and countless families who hunt, fish, forage and raise their own. Distracted by data, these researchers had missed the human reality on their doorstep.

I saw a similar story unfolding around me in Greece. Although The Economist and other media have been telling me how wretched the economic situation is in Greece, pounding a drum of doom for several years now, in my last two visits to the village where I lived with a Greek family in 1973, and to which I have returned several times over the years, the reality on the ground looks very different. In a country whose official unemployment rate is over 40%, everyone on “my” island seems busier than ever. I woke the first morning to the sound of a backhoe in the street above me (thankfully that was a short-lived operation). The taverna was thronged with locals and tourists every night. Poking around the island on back roads, I was gratified to find people going “back to the future,” bringing 1000-year-old olive groves back into production, planting new vineyards on land that had been in their families for 800 years, restoring farmhouses, expanding beeyards, repairing olive presses, rediscovering ancient foodways at farm to table restaurants, packaging and marketing local products. A diamond necklace sparkled on the throat of my hostess, who as a young girl fetched and carried water from the village well and dreamed of getting away to the big city. Instead, she – and her sister, their spouses, their children, and their parents – stayed put and grew prosperous. What formed the basis of this thriving village economy, in a place so out of the way? It wasn’t the location, perched on the side of a rocky mountain with the closest beach a challenging 45-minute up and down climb away. There’s no ocean view. There’s not even a post office.

On Sunday afternoon, visiting with the clan matriarch I realized: the prosperity of this village and the extended family at its heart was based on love and kindness. As a young woman, Maria had taken a series of stray young travelers, myself among them, under her wing. As a result, over the years, people had come back and come back, brought their children and friends, helped with expertise and labor, as the taverna expanded and modernized, barns were converted to cottages, a minimarket opened, then two, and a big house that sheltered Maria’s children and grandchildren was built, with a half dozen efficiency apartments on the ground floor for faithful returnees like me. Her grandson runs the taxi service. As an economic resource, nothing could beat Maria’s big heart. That’s not something, however, that is reckoned in Greece’s GDP. But maybe it should be.

As if to underscore my thoughts on this, at Heathrow, coming home, I picked up a copy of strategy+business, to find an interview with Dave McComb, author of a new book on software waste. His premise: we spend a lot of money that we don’t need to spend on software implementation projects, and a lot of it is just following others down a rabbit hole that we think is supposed to be there, because it is there. Unquestioning obedience to the norm that we must automate processes, and that such automation must be expensive, is costing organizations, according to McComb, hundreds of millions of dollars per implementation. Meanwhile, he says, “in every company I’ve ever studied, there are only a few hundred key concepts and relationships that the entire business runs on.”

To tie this back to where I was the day before I flew off into a fully functioning but low-tech world, the question is always, where to invest our time and energy, and why. I’m betting on the resilience of human systems for the long game. In PPM as in other processes, don’t be distracted by shiny new tools. Start with people and ideas. Measure what matters, not what the tool has an easy function for. That’s the heart of business.

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1 Comment on The Long View from Far Away

Debbie Bigelow Crawford says:

Good article, Jeannette.  I like getting back to the basics!!

Thanks!

Posted on October 1, 2018 at 2:12 pm

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