Chapter 4: Blind Me with Science – Catalogs, Services and Portfolios

CHAPTER 4: BLIND ME WITH SCIENCE

‘Not quite yet, if you please, Crayton. First, we need to verify the current prioritization for Rubber Boots is correct,’ said Sabrina, as she shuffled her materials. ‘At the moment it is listed as project number 25. Anyone think it is less critical than the project ‘Open Boat,’ currently at number 26’?

A muddle chorus of ‘No’ came from the attendees.

‘Is it more important than project 24’?

Heads nodded. ‘Sure, let’s move it up,’ said Sean. ‘I’d move it up over the next three projects for sure.’

‘Sorry, we can’t,’ said Sabrina, as she looked through her papers. ‘The complete set of IT resources it requires aren’t available above 23 for another three quarters. Rubber Boots will have to be at 23rd in the priority list, and remain on hold due to lack of resources for now.’

‘23’? asked Lee. ‘This is one of the top-priority field projects. It needs to be at number one.’

Sabrina smiled at Lee. ‘I know this is your first time at a prioritization meeting, Lee. Please let me explain. We use a simple consensus bubble sort to rank the projects, and then constrain them by available resources, to get their final priority. In other words, we look at the next highest project, and see if that one is more or less important. If it is, and we have the resources available, then we move it up. Otherwise, it stays where it is, unless one below it is now more important, or needs different resources which are now available. That way the most important things get done first, and we have the maximum efficiency in resource utilization.’

Sabrina sifted through her papers. ‘IT has determined that Rubber Boots is number three in terms of priority for the field. But it shares very scarce resources with projects of an overall higher priority that are ahead of it. The resources it needs are not available until later in the year, so it has to stay lower on the list until there are resources available. I am sorry, but better to hold off its start than assign some resources to it, and have them wastefully sit idle while other key resources are unavailable. Rubber Boots hasn’t been removed, just deferred to later in the year.’

Lee sat silent, glaring at Sabrina for a moment, and then said. ‘You cannot ignore the wishes of the executive leadership to prioritize field operations above everything else.’

‘We appreciate your input, Lee, there are many more factors involved here, beyond what is the most immediately important to the field. Unfortunately, IT does not have the resources available to advance every project simultaneously.’

Sabrina waited for a few seconds, and then looked around the room. ‘In respect to everyone else’s time and schedule, I’m going to move on to the next project.’

Sabrina nodded, and began writing in her notebook as Crayton displayed the status summary of the project Sunrise. It was number 20 on the priority list and had been underway for quite some time.

I’d talked with Crayton after my meeting with Lee, and although he’d admitted to having a meeting with Lee, he was not very forthcoming on the specifics. I didn’t really care. Probably it was something he was uncomfortable talking about, especially the way Lee laid it on thick. That’s when he’d given me a preview of this presentation.

I liked Crayton’s presentation. He insisted each of the project team members present to the group. Everyone gave updates on their portion of the project, as well as risks and opportunities to their deliverables. It really gave everyone a feeling of ownership. I’d have to bring my project team to the next review and do the same thing.

Lee sat back and watched it all. He never made any notes … never wrote anything down. He simply sat there; his Cheshire Cat smile replaced by a scowl, while Sabrina, on the other hand, continued to take copious notes.

‘As you can see from the chart,’ said Crayton. ‘The Sunrise project is on schedule for delivery and our earned value is on target. The entire feature profile remains green, and our projected spending should bring us in at 98% of budget. Overall, commendations to the project team for executing the plan as designed. You all make this so easy.’

Crayton fumbled through his notes for a moment, then asked, ‘Are there any questions’?

Everyone in the room sat silent. If no questions were the norm, why have these meetings? Wouldn’t everyone have been better served simply by sending out an e-mail status? And why worry about someone else’s project unless you needed it? Yours was the only one you got graded on. If someone else’s project failed, that was their problem.

The meeting was running overtime, so without waiting for a formal close to the meeting, people started packing up their papers and filling out. Crayton looked at the procession leaving the room and said, ‘Well, if that’s all, please keep me updated if any issues or questions arise.’

Lee stood up and walked to the back of the room where Sabina sat. He sat down in the chair beside her and said, ‘This was our first meeting and I’m afraid we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. So I wanted to spend a few minutes with you, so my concerns are not taken the wrong way.’

Sabrina checked the time and said, ‘Sure, but I only have a couple of minutes. I’m already due in another meeting.’

‘Of course,’ said Lee. ‘But given the actions of senior leadership, I’m sure you understand the top priority of projects like Rubber Boots. I want to make sure we treat it accordingly.’

Sabrina shuffled her papers and stuffed them into her portfolio. ‘Rubber Boots will be treated according to its priority, as determined during these project planning meetings. It is in-plan for this year, but definitely not the number one project, and for now on-hold due to lack of resources.’

‘We need to find a way to change that,’ said Lee. ‘One of the reasons the executive team brought me back from the field, was to ensure the field gets better and faster, new services. The field sales teams need this new functionality, in order to make their numbers for the balance of the year.’ Lee leaned closer to Sabrina and in a quiet voice said, ‘You can’t be telling me that you are countermanding decisions by the senior leadership. So I assume it is simply you don’t understand that from the field standpoint, your prioritization mechanism is …’ he paused, ‘… Not viewed as a successful means of apportioning IT resources. They have told me there is no priority in this company higher than the needs of the field … the revenue generators, and quite a few of them feel your system does not give the field projects sufficient weight.’

Sabrina smiled and let out a sigh. ‘Lee, you don’t understand. Adding new functionality is the lowest priority of any work we do.’

Lee’s smile dropped away. It seemed to peel away his entire slick veneer.

‘Our top priority is always user-impacting events; things that directly disrupt business operations that are currently in place,’ said Sabrina. ‘Next are the projects designed to sustain the current services we provide our users. For example, there are a series of lifecycle upgrades that must take place this year, or a huge number of existing critical systems will begin to fail by the end of year. If that happens, our ability to conduct business will grind to a halt. The people needed for that are the same people needed for the Rubber Boots project, so Rubber Boots is relatively less important. Resources are always limited, and delivering new things is just not as important as ensuring that what’s in place continues to run.’

Lee sat back in his chair and nodded. ‘Have we considered some out of the box options, such as bringing on temporary workers to complete the lifecycle upgrades, so we can focus on the important projects? Or maybe we should revisit the schedule for the lifecycle upgrades, in light of the new prioritization from the executives.’

Sabrina stood up and began slowly walking toward the door. ‘Lee, I really appreciate your fresh approach to this, but believe it or not, the PMO has been doing this for quite some time, and doing it with a great deal of success. It’s a difficult job to balance delivery with available resources in the best interests of the company as a whole. I understand that your project may seem like the most important one in the list to making your quotas. However, you must understand that everyone feels that way. That’s why the PMO, with its independent role, is responsible for managing those conflicting needs for the entire corporation.’

Lee’s tone got softer and warmer. His smile grew wider. ‘Sabrina, I hope you don’t think my comments reflect my personal opinions. I am just a messenger. I’m not suggesting the PMO is failing its charter. Everything I’ve heard from people here in IT reinforces their support for what your organization has done. I’m simply providing you with some input you may not have recently heard. Rightly or wrongly, the field is complaining consistently and loudly that IT projects are being worked, instead of critical field projects. Everything we do needs to be addressed through the triple lens of input from the field: volume of complaints, consistency of complaints and intensity of the complaints.’

‘The field has always complained,’ interrupted Crayton. ‘If we gave them every slot and every dollar, they’d still complain.’

‘That’s enough, Crayton,’ snapped Sabrina. ‘I do not want to hear that kind of attitude out of you ever again. Without the field we are out of business.’

Crayton looked at his feet while nodding sheepishly.

‘I understand Crayton’s frustration,’ said Lee. ‘Unfortunately, because the field generates the revenue for the company, the executives pay very close attention to what they say, and will go to great lengths to remove any barriers, or potential excuses, as to why quarterly numbers are not met. That’s why the executives brought me here from the field. I personally lose a lot of money by being here, but the field will accept my assessment of the real story of why their projects are not getting done as fast as they think they should. That’s what I mean when I say that I am here to ensure projects are done in the most field- sensitive way possible and then give the straight story back to the field.’

Lee sat back and smiled. ‘In other words, Crayton, the field doesn’t trust corporate any more than you trust the field. It’s like staying in a bad marriage for the sake of the children, except in this case, we’re staying together for the sake of the shareholders and the profits.’

‘That makes sense,’ said Sabrina with a giggle, her entire demeanor relaxing. Her shoulders and arms slackened, her breathing slowed back down, and a smile came back on her face. You could almost see the fight or flight energy leaving her body. It was as if she had decided Lee was not an enemy and perhaps potentially an ally.

I was stunned. Lee had shifted on a dime from the fire-snorting butt-kicker, to a team-building member of management. I wasn’t sure which of them was the real Lee, or if any of them were the real Lee.

‘Let me suggest something that might help you,’ said Sabrina.

‘That’s great,’ beamed Lee as he leaned forward towards Sabrina. With that big Cheshire Cat smile, ‘I’m all ears.’

I’d never seen him so positive and eager towards another person before. This was a side that seemed incompatible with what I knew of him.

‘How about if we assemble a team to evaluate the projects being planned, worked, and completed over the last year, as well as the ones from this year that were deferred, with some explanation of our decision process,’ said Sabina. ‘It would give you something to take back to the field that would make the process more transparent. So while reasonable people could disagree on the results, everyone would concede there was fairness in the process.’

‘Great idea,’ said Lee. ‘Who do you think should be on it? After all, I wasn’t here for the decisions and I don’t know everyone as well as you.’

‘Well, I think that Crayton should lead. It would be educational for Chris to work with him, assuming Ramesh will let Chris spend time on it. And between the two of them, they can come up with a representative list, based on the proposals we’ve considered over the last year. I’ll vet it, of course, to make sure there’s a good representation. We can review the results together to ensure you’re clear on what happened.’

After a quiet moment, Lee said, ‘Sounds great. Don’t worry about Ramesh. I’m quite confident he won’t be a problem.’

Sabrina opened the door and as she stepped out, turned to Lee, ‘And if you’d like to discuss this or anything else, I’ll be happy to help you adjust to the transition from the field to corporate. Just set up some time on my calendar.’

Lee stood up and said, ‘Thanks, I really appreciate your support,’ before following her out the door.

As I passed down the hall back towards my cube, I noticed Lee having a quiet conversation in the corridor with Helmut, the director of human resources. When they spotted me, they stepped into Helmut’s office and closed the door. I felt a cold shiver down my spine. I knew from my previous lives that nothing good ever comes out from behind closed doors when it involves your manager and the head of HR.

Tips that would have helped Chris

IT never has the resources to pursue everything, especially at the same time. All initiatives are potentially great ideas, but ways must be found to prioritize. Poor leadership will often prioritize based on the volume, or frequency, of protests or personal relationships. That weakens the company and its capabilities, and makes employees cynical and passive aggressive when they see the process exists in name only.

Leaders rarely disagree in public, especially in front of their juniors. When they do, watch out. You might as well be in a room with two fighting elephants. You can end up being what is called collateral damage. If they don’t ask you to leave, volunteer.

People are capable of using, and do use, a variety of approaches when dealing with others, in order to achieve their objectives. Never assume that people have a single style, or approach, either over time or during a particular event.