28 August 2009

Cancelling Projects

From a justice perspective, it's important for an accused person to have a good lawyer. Even if the defense attorney thinks the client is guilty, they are still supposed to provide a robust defense and make the strongest case possible.

Unfortunately, program managers often act like defense attorneys for their projects. They sometimes act as if their job is to keep the project alive, and defend it to all comers... even if the project is a dog and needs to be cancelled.

The program manager (arguably) knows the most about the health and viability of the program. If it's heading over a cliff, aiming for irrelevance or otherwise doomed, the PM is usually among the first to know, and should speak up. Sadly, this does not always happen.

PM's are not defense attorneys. Their job is not to keep the program alive and out of jail. It's to guide and shepherd the development. And if the program needs to be cancelled, the PM should lead the charge.


Phil said...

Great post, Dan. I've always made it a point to tell my user rep (customer, rqmnts owner, call them what you will) that it's not my job (as Prog Mgr) to advocate for the program, it's his. Everyone wants to have passion about what they do and there's nothing wrong with that as long as one doesn't become a defense attorney like you mention. I've found this view makes it easier to be objective. Doesn't always make the user happy or the job easier, but in the end everyone's integrity is intact.

dcwork said...

So I agree with the overall tenor of the comment. But it seems a bit unrealistic in the sense that many forces are arrayed to make this unlikely to come to pass. I think it would help to have some clarity about exactly how we're bounding/defining the PM role. Per Phil's comment, in many organization (e.g. DARPA) the PM also functions as the user rep in the organization, in that the PM is pitching the program concept to management. So the PM is hardly a disinterested party in the success of the program. I agree that PMs should so love the people they are trying to serve that they're willing to sacrifice much to do right by them, including canceling their pet programs they've fought for years to get funded. I don't think PMs are the first to know. I suspect the first to know are the project performers. Though perhaps if you had a really expert PM (which I'm guessing few are) she'd be able to spot the trouble signs way in advance, the way a sub captain can read the sonar displays much better than most everyone on the ship.

The Dan Ward said...

That's a good point, dcwork. I think that having the PM also function as the user rep is probably not the best idea. I think there's real value in having an independent representative that can represent the user's interests... since those are generally different than the PM's interests.

And it's one thing for the PM to be the project champion and advocate (which is certainly a role I've played on some very cool projects), but if the PM discovers that the project is "guilty" (i.e. needs to be cancelled), then stepping into the defense attorney's role strikes me as highly inappropriate... whether they're the first or merely "among the first" to discover the fatal flaw.

Yes, it's unlikely that a PM would advocate for his or her own project to get cancelled. Most likely, that PM would be replaced by someone who will try to keep the project alive. Yup, that's kinda the point of the whole post.