The Responsibility for Professional Skepticism, Part 3 of 3

This three-part series highlights the rationale and need for “Professional Skepticism.” Professional Skepticism is the singular and joint responsibility of Project Leaders, Project Managers, Customers, Suppliers, Other Affected Parties, et al.

This third part discusses the need for Professional Skepticism with respect to assuring effort participant’s Degree of [Actual] Commitment. 

A quick assessment of commitment for/to an effort can be determined based on actual behavior—not reassuring statements—in three key areas:

  1. Level of Executive Engagement,
  2. Time Invested in Effort, and
  3. Resource Allocation.

Level of Executive Engagement

Years ago—while advising a group of senior executives at a technology firm—I first noticed an interesting phenomenon: each of the executives was very engaged (e.g., they participated in detailed project review meetings and the like)—and quite aware of the progress—of…only a few of the projects within their portfolio of responsibilities.

  • Surprisingly, they were also virtually unaware of the condition of the majority of the projects in their portfolios.

When asked about this, they said (in various ways), “Duh. No time. I only pay attention to the important projects.”

These responses were fascinating for two critical & related reasons:

First. Nearly all the “unimportant” projects were mired by significant problems and unresolved issues (e.g., scope creep, quality problems, delays, resource contention, and the like). Although all the organization’s projects were subjected to a similar evaluation, prioritization, approval and allocation process…for the “unimportant” projects, the level of commitment was two-fold:

  • On paper: appropriate to the effort; yet
  • In reality: negligible.

Second. The total investments (sum of incurred and projected) of the “unimportant” projects significantly exceeded the total value of the “important” efforts (by a factor of at least two).

Which leads to these important questions:

Why undertake…why invest in…why devote resources to…“unimportant” projects?

If a project isn’t important enough to merit an executive’s attention and/or support…why is it important enough to authorize?

  • (After all, when is the best time to cancel a doomed project?)

This rhetorical question acknowledges that frequently the rationale is political; as it was with respect to many of the efforts in the case, above. What do you think? Is it rational that nearly two-thirds of the organization’s project portfolio was (essentially) un-monitored? How could those investments be warranted? Why were they approved?

Which is the background to one of POP’s RED FLAGS: RF120. [Be Professionally Skeptical of…] Efforts that don’t merit the active attention & continuous engagement of a single Economic Stakeowner.

Time Invested in an Effort and Resource Allocation

The necessity for Professional Skepticism regarding time & resources is illustrated by the following reflective (and mildly exaggerated) yet very, very egregious story…especially as to what happened next.

Rain streamed down the window as the executive’s calm countenance sought to reassure the very irritated customer, “You have my absolute assurance. On Monday, {EXPERT} will be dedicated to your project.” He paused for emphasis,  “Only…to your project.”

Relieved, the customer acknowledged the executive’s assurance, then concluded the meeting with the remark, “Good. Unlike Dr. Hubbard here…I believe you’re the one to get your delivery team back on track.”

The executive smiled and said, “Good thing we met today. Now I know you’re betting your company on us to deliver…and, be assured, we will.”

  • In stunned silence, I watched the play unfold. For a ~week, I’d been arguing with my client (the executive) that the customer’s project would fail unless {EXPERT} was dedicated full-time to the effort…that the customer was betting their company on the executive’s delivery representations during the sales process…and that the customer was quite litigious and the fall-out would be horrendous.
  • For as many days, the executive deflected these pleas because {EXPERT} was fully-occupied by the firm’s  “…most significant customers.”

Rushing through drizzle across the parking lot after the meeting, I asked my client what had changed that enabled {EXPERT} to work on the customer’s project? His reply? “Nothing yet; but it will…” Then he instructed me to do whatever it took to keep the customer going through the end of the quarter, because, “We need the revenue.”

Skeptical that {EXPERT} would ever engage with the customer beyond a perfunctory “show-the-flag” meeting…the next day, I resigned from the engagement and severed my relationship with the executive and his firm.

You’ll be surprised to learn…{EXPERT} was never assigned to the customer’s project…and that the customer’s project ran ~about a year over schedule, then was cancelled.

  • Later, I heard through the grapevine, the customer’s lawyers had a field day.
    • On the order of extended summer vacations in the south of France, and the like.

Which leads to a breathtaking insight: Far more than soothing assurances to the contrary, behavior—specifically, the level of time and resources actually invested in an effort—reflects commitment…and Professional Skepticism is always warranted when judging sufficiency of commitment.

You Decide

What do you do when placating assurances to the contrary, the actual degree of invested effort and resources allocated are insufficient to the task at hand? Right from the outset, do you notice you can discern the insufficiency? What actions do you take? Acknowledge—or abandon—your skepticism?

In the Next Post

What is Your Project Strategy? All projects have a strategy intended to achieve selected objectives…some know they do.

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