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Problem Solving Requires the Right Question

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Problem Solving Requires the Right Question

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The December Harvard Business Review has an article, Is the Rookie Ready? (You have to subscribe and pay to read the whole thing.) The story is this: Kristen is the new project manager, reporting to Tim. The old PM left because Tim, who’d been her manager for 6 months didn’t know how to work with her. Tim hears from an old customer two weeks before Christmas, “Please help us and send a team down to install your software, the stuff we rejected a year ago because it was too expensive. Oh, and we need it by Jan 1.”

Tim agrees (Big Red Flag here). He asks Kristen to go install and make the standard software work (no customizations) and to take whomever she needs. Kristen doesn’t think this is a such a good idea, but Tim tells her it’s her job to make it happen. He tells her to tell the team ‘we’re going to do this.’

The question to the famous commentators is, “Is the Rookie Ready?”

Wrong question. Michael Schrage suggests hiring back the old PM. But, then he says “Kristen is in over her head.”  NO. KRISTEN IS NOT IN OVER HER HEAD. TIM IS A TERRIBLE MANAGER. We can’t tell if Kristen is in over her head.

Sorry for yelling, but I just couldn’t take it. (You should have heard me while I was reading the article :-) Anyone would be in over his or her head, because the only way to solve this problem is to have someone intimate with the product install it. Even then, this is a 6-week project. Why would Tim agree to a 2-week install? Sure, the customer wants it. Customers want all kinds of things. They can’t always get what they want, when they want, for the price they want.

Tim is a terrible manager, because he keeps taking the best programmers and making them managers (part of the story I didn’t summarize). If they want to be managers, that’s fine. But it’s not clear Kristen wants to be a manager. And, he doesn’t even push back on the customer. And, Tim has allowed a standard product without a standard install.  (Ok, it’s a big product. Maybe a standard, unattended install isn’t possible. Maybe it really does need 6 weeks to install. So, why isn’t there an install group that does this??)

Why would Tim agree to do a special install over the holidays without asking for more money? Why would Tim even think this is acceptable to do without asking the team who will do it? Because Tim isn’t the one giving up his vacation. The fact that he even thinks this is acceptable behavior just astonishes me.

It’s time to ask if this project is strategic to the company. (Where are all the other managers? Why is Tim getting this call? HBR, I can write a more realistic story than this.) Maybe this is not even a project to take on.

If they’d asked me to comment on this story, here’s what I would suggest:

  1. Decide if the project is strategic to the organization. Why has the customer changed their mind on what’s too expensive? What is an acceptable fee for doing this project in their time frame?
  2. At the same time, before committing anything to the customer, ask the team if they are willing to make this happen in the requested time frame. If not, what is an acceptable time frame? Would that time frame change if they had the experienced project manager back? What would make the time frame decrease?
  3. If the project is strategically important, and the team is ready to commit to something, negotiate that with the customer. Never assume it’s fine to commit your team to work they haven’t committed to.
  4. Organize timeboxes of work starting now and through the final deliverable, so there is transparency about the project’s progress. If the project falters, you still have the option of getting the experienced PM back and see if that makes a difference.

Tim is creating management debt by making bad decisions. He’s not managing the project portfolio–what other projects are now crises? He’s not managing the people. He’s certainly not building a trusting relationship with his people. What the heck is he doing?

I’m so worked up about this because I worked for a jerk like this once. He committed all kinds of deliverables on behalf of my project to the customer. Half the time, he didn’t even tell me. He never once thought what was good for the organization or even the customer.

Managers like Tim kill an organization. They create management debt by not managing people correctly, by not managing the project portfolio correctly, and by not managing the customer correctly.

The question is not whether the rookie is ready. As Paul Muller, one of the experts who commented said, “Every manager has a first crisis, whether it’s three days or three years after assuming the role.”

The question is not “Is the rookie ready?” The question is why is Tim employed at the organization? Why has no one seen the messes he has made?


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