by Paul Darling, PMP
Ever since Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War 2500 years ago, managers have sought lessons in strategy from military experience and metaphors inspired by battle. As a project controller with decades of military experience as both a commander and staff officer, I have observed parallels between communication challenges that can arise between leadership and support staff in both the army and the professional sphere. The military has spent centuries honing both formal and informal techniques to reduce the inherent friction between those who execute projects and those who, while not responsible for the direct accomplishment, are responsible for tracking and reporting the progress of that execution.
Project Controllers can take inspiration from military methods to ensure that the information flow to decision makers is accurate, timely, and useful.
Here are some principles to consider as we seek to expand our influence through a project team to ensure the best information flow to all stakeholders:
Invest in Relations: Make it personal.
While project controllers report all information, good and bad, it is the bad information that rightly gets the focus. If the first time a project lead (CAM/Project Manager/Program Manager) learns your name as a project controller is when you demand an explanation for a negative variance, that’s a very bad start. As soon as you are part of a project team, get to know the first line project leadership –even those outside the direct realm of project execution such as technical leads, technical managers as well as CAMs and PMs. Go out of your way and never forget that none of these entities are necessarily experts in project controls: we are. But keep in mind that although they may not have our expertise, their contributions are ultimately the key requirement for project success.
In the military, we ate together, worked out together, and often lived together. If nothing else, we had a wealth of shared experiences that allowed these personal relationships to naturally flourish which allowed our professional relationships to flourish as well. The civilian realm usually lacks these shared experiences, so it is critical that for the best professional relationships, a deliberate attempt must be made to reinforce the team aspect of everyone in the project. So, let’s get some lunch.
Get in the trenches: Know the battlefield
This can be exceedingly difficult in a complex project often spanning across the globe combined with the challenges of recent events. But never miss an opportunity to see where the rubber meets the road, where those work packages and control accounts are getting done. It’s important to gain an appreciation of the difficulties the CAMs, engineers and project teams face every day, to ask questions and learn the language from the native speakers, as it were. If nothing else, try to at least schedule a phone call or video call to give the project teams a chance to explain their situation BEFORE you start asking for an explanation to variances or why there is an issue with the schedule. It is easy to dismiss the challenges faced by the project execution teams if you have never seen them yourself.
Know the stakeholders
Project controllers are rightly focused on providing the senior PM the information required. However, it is important not to neglect those ancillary players in a project who, while not generating reports themselves, are the ones creating the facts on the ground you are analyzing. A common scenario is where a variance report is not understood by the project controller, who then demands a rewrite. To the CAM or PM, the variance makes total sense and is written in the language of project execution, not necessarily EVM best practices. A combination of both lingoes is the best means to communicate key information to decision makers. By knowing everyone involved, you can seek out information directly to revise the variance explanation, rather than simply returning the variance to the originator with a terse, “You need to re-write this.” Nobody wins in that situation.
Check your ego
Project controllers are, by definition, experts in tracking and reporting project success. This doesn’t mean we are experts in doing the work. In fact, we often aren’t. Even if we came from the project execution realm, every project (especially a highly complex one) is vastly different than the last one. Even if the scope appears identical, the simple passage of time renders previous project experiences less and less relevant. If information received is confusing or doesn’t appear to meet the project’s requirements, your first instinct should always be to ask yourself, “What am I missing?” and not “They did this the wrong way.” The more questions you ask of yourself and fellow project team members and the fewer demands you make as a project controller will make you a valued member of the team and make you high demand in the future.
Clearly define professional success: Project success is your success, too
It is critical that, as professionals, we make professional success the benchmark of our efforts. We succeed, ultimately, because our projects are completed on time, to standard, and within budget. Our work as project controllers is a critical part of that success. But we stand to undermine this objective if we focus too much on the process and not enough on the outcome. It is possible that the information you receive, while not to your personal standard, is perfectly acceptable for the purpose for which it is required. Can the leadership make a decision with the information as presented? If the answer is “yes”, then ask yourself if demanding a rewrite or resubmittal is the best use of everyone’s time? Project controls are ALWAYS an additional burden on the project execution team. GOOD project controls make that cost worth it in the end. What is necessary for the project to move forward is what is important, not necessarily the word smithing or font size. Don’t be pedantic.
Share the credit, take the blame: Smart people know the reality
No project is executed perfectly. There are always challenges and setbacks. The most important aspect of project controls is not the reporting of bad news; it is anticipating bad news before it ever happens. The ability to divine the future based upon disparate pieces of information gathered across the project is what defines a great project controller. So, when bad things happen on a project, we have all failed to a certain extent. We should always internalize when a project misses a mark and try our best to discover what we could have done better. Likewise, when a project is hitting on all cylinders and things are going well, make sure to recognize our role in simply reporting the facts. When we remove ourselves from the projects outcomes and relegate our role to mere observers, we aren’t doing all we can and hurt both ourselves and the reputation of our profession. Remember, success has a thousand fathers, but failure is always an orphan. Sometimes we need to adopt.
Pick your battles: Never forget your goals
Never let perfect get in the way of good enough. There are many versions of the 20/80 rule. But in project management 20% of effort yields 80% of results seems to dominate. The whole point of a project controls group is to give back time to the project execution leadership to allow them to make informed decisions in a timely manner. If you know the 80% answer to an issue, is that enough to move forward in a timely manner? Much like a ship, the earlier you can start moving a project in a new direction, the easier that project is to move and the less power required to move it. As we chase that final 20% and delay the decision-making process, do we act counter to our ultimate objective: the successful completion of our project? This balancing of time constraints is perhaps the most important aspect of project controls. In the infantry, a maxim of combat is, “A good plan violently executed is infinitely superior to the perfect plan executed too late.” The same holds true in project management. Good information presented in a timely manner is infinitely superior to perfect information presented too late. Gather the facts and get that information out as soon as is practical.
These principles are not without risk. You will inherently present incomplete information at times. The information may even be wrong. As a project controller, you assume immediate risk in presenting information that is less than perfect. And, indeed, in the pursuit of perfect information, we will often be in position to blame others for failing to inform the leadership team sooner. This can allow us to comfortably follow bad practices. But this short-sighted comfort is ultimately destructive to both our project and the professional reputation of project controls. Likewise, in assuming blame for the mistakes of others, we may be saddled with a poor reputation. In inexperience or unprofessionalism, others may use your humility and best practices to help themselves at your expense. I can’t tell you this will never happen. But the hallmark of professionalism is to always do the right thing. If a particular project leadership team fails to recognize best practices in project controls, rest assured that others will greatly value anyone who puts the needs of the project in front of their own benefit. We must be experts in not only project risk management but professional risk management as well.
As you gain the well-earned reputation as a professional who puts project success first, your ability to lead and influence a project well beyond the organization chart will bring not only project success, but personal success as well. The title of project controls professional is ultimately not earned by certificates and training, but by your actions; doing your job and, more importantly, how you help others in doing theirs.
Paul Darling is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Army War College. He has served as the commander of the 207th Training Regiment and the branch chief of strategy, plans and policy for the National Guard Bureau. Since retirement, he has been both a Control Account Manager and program manager. He is the author of dozens of professional papers on tactics, strategy, and leadership as well as a book, Taliban Safari; One Day in the Surkhagan Valley from the University Press of Kansas. He is currently a senior trainer for Project Controls Solutions, a subsidiary of Management Solutions, LLC
Be sure to tune in to the PCS Virtual Expo Tuesday, June 9 2022 at 6:00am EST (11am BST) to hear Paul Darling, PMP.