Project Management Pubescence

by Geof Lory

In all of my articles I make references to the many analogies that can be drawn between project management and parenthood. Usually the relationship focuses around a specific topic or situation where lessons learned or behaviors practiced in one area can be applied to the other. With so many similarities in specific situations, it is impossible not to notice the relationship between the general maturing of the parent/child relationship with that of the project management/client maturity in the IT industry. So when I read an article by Rob Thomsett on Extreme Project Management, published by the Cutter Consortium, my mind immediately gravitated to the natural parallels that can be drawn.

Thomsett's article outlines the four stages of the power relationship between the IT Experts and their Clients/Users as it has matured over time, and the associated project management behaviors indicative of each stage. I couldn't help but see the correlation in the power relationship between children and parents as it matures over time, and their associated behaviors and outcomes. The relationships he outlines would seem to have less to do with the chronological time that passes between the two entities, and more to do with the emotional maturity of each, and their subsequent ability to maintain a mutual trust-based relationship. Below are paraphrases of Thomsett's assessment and analogous parent/child scenarios.

In stage one, the Dark Age, there is a clear superiority of IT experts/parents over users/infants. This relates directly to early childhood, where general life knowledge and the ability to see beyond the here and now and what the child immediately wants are not present. In this stage, direct management or parental control is prudent to maintain order and safety. This stage is necessary when the user/child is comparatively ignorant of the world and its potential dangers. The Dark Age is a suitable relationship when the knowledge base is substantially imbalanced in favor of the IT experts/parents.

While this is a reasonable stage, too long a time in this stage grows on the parent and eventually annoys the maturing child. There is an assumption here that the parent, while definitely beyond this stage in age, should also be beyond this stage in emotional maturity, otherwise all sorts of dysfunctional behavior will result. Unfortunately, this is not always true. As a father, this was the stage where I received the t-shirt that read, "I'm the Daddy, that's why!" The operative word for this stage is dominance.

This period eventually yields to the next stage, which Thomsett calls Tokenism. Here the clients/children are considered and even given the impression they are involved in activities and decisions, but really they are given a token nod. My wife refers to this as "masked manipulation." I ask the girls what they would like for dinner after I have the meal planned, and then lead them to want what I was planning to cook. They think they got to decide what they were having, but in reality I was deciding. From an outcome perspective, little has changed from the Dark Age. In IT projects where the technology has dictated the business processes or functionality, the IT experts are in the driver's seat deciding what is feasible, and the business is patronizingly forced to accept or adjust.

In this stage, participation is nominal and is rarely worth anything substantial. With my growing daughters, I would let them participate in doing a few things around the house, but usually those were things they couldn't mess up and that I didn't want to do in the first place, like weed the garden or sweep the garage. For clients, this is usually testing and user documentation. Low risk, low impact.

The third stage he titles Payback. I like this title and the analogies here. These are the teen years in spades. Extensive time in this stage is a result of not effectively preparing for the transition to the fourth stage. Payback results when IT has looked at solutions as a grand display of their technology well beyond the point where the business understands enough of the technology to hold IT accountable for some return on their investment dollar. Stalled in this stage too long, an organization or family will start to create a "contract at arm's length" attitude, resulting ultimately in antagonism between the two groups. In parenting, this is where the child rebels against the meaningless rules of stages one and two, and turns the tables on the parents. Paybacks are hell, or maybe purgatory, since they usually don't last forever. Eventually, both the parents and the children grow up in age and maturity and come out the other side to stage four - Partnership.

I have numerous friends with kids in or just out of college, and they always remark at how their relationship with their "teenage troubled children" has changed and they are now best of friends. I usually just nod and agree as they describe how much their children have matured. I don't believe the children were the only ones who did some growing up during that time. Through the discomfort of the Payback stage, new rules that are effective and beneficial for both parties are eventually established, and a new understanding is created.

In the Partnership stage, each party sees the other for the value they bring to the table and is able to respect them and their perspective, even if it is not the same perspective as their own. This is the environment where joint contracts are based on mutual goals and professional respect. In Partnership each views the other as an equal, and the power of the relationship is in the relationship. In growing to this stage children re-learn the wisdom of their parents, and parents see their children for what they are, young adults no longer dependent on their parents. This is the stage we work toward.

Table 1. Power Relationship Features

Stage Attitude to clients/children Level of participation by clients/children Parenting approach Project Management approach
Dark Age Directive None Controlling and "do as I say" Left to computing experts
Tokenism Participative, but directive Restricted to low impact or undesirable tasks Mock involvement and patronizing Left to computing experts
Payback Antagonistic Minor but directive Rebellion and assertion of personal wants Closed and reactive - driven by clients
Partnership Open Major and supportive Mutual respect and friendship Open and negotiated with equal participation

This stage is characterized by interdisciplinary project teams that equally represent all invested constituents of a project, so the solution is business-driven and technologically superior. Thomsett contends that we are not only ready for this Partnership stage, but that it is essential for organizations that want to excel and be able to compete in the time-sensitive, quality-demanding software market of today. The challenge is to structure the relationship to meet this new paradigm.

As I work with many organizations, it is apparent that at any given time, in any department, on any project, you can see the power relationship between the IT experts and clients at one of these four stages. In the maturation of children, age is often a cure for immaturity. I find it disappointing that time is not such a guarantee for organizations and their project management maturity. While time may pass and the body matures, it is too simplistic to assume the emotional growth of the individuals, or the organization they comprise, will automatically keep pace.

It is much more enjoyable and productive to work in stage four - Partnership - whether on project teams or as a parent. The hurdle is the pain of pubescence. Sometimes the leap is so great we revert to stage one or two rather than risk the pains of growth, but ultimately this is a mistake. In today's complex project environments, stage four is worth the effort. As the father of two teenagers, there are days when that is my mantra.

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