The Case Against: Professional Services

Ok, I get it.  I was a bit easy on professional services as a whole in my last piece.  Many of you who have worked in or around the industry for a while would likely tell me that I was giving way too much credit and that I completely ignored some of the horror stories.  Well, that’s why we’re here right now – to shed some of the negative light on the topic in the interest of fair and equal reporting.

Professional services firms and contractors are not always worth their weight in gold.  To briefly review some of the cons:

  •  They can be hopelessly tied to “scope” which makes it tough to make them think outside the box or be agile when course/direction/plans change
  • They have an extremely wide talent range (especially the larger “big four” firms – quality control is just extremely difficult when it’s all a numbers/margin game and you’re trying to employ/deploy several hundred thousand people)
  • They are very costly, with many typical bill rates falling in the $150/hr range for general/basic services (which, annualized at a roughly 2000 hour working year, is a whopping $300k!)
  • They typically like to push “cookie cutter” templates as a solution to any defined business problem out of ease of create/adaptation (which, most of the time, take more rework to retrofit to your needs than you would have invested simply starting from scratch)
  • They can be generally arrogant since they are (allegedly) in a position of “knowledge” or “subject matter expertise” (in other words, they think they’re smarter than you because you’d be hopelessly lost without them and are generally ignorant on whatever topic you’ve retained them for)
  • They can (and do usually) fabricate false qualifications in order to “win the work” and may often times “oversell” or “underdeliver” based on a misunderstanding in the work that is to be completed from the buyer’s, seller’s, and deliverer’s standpoint (never a good thing when those three opinions are not closely aligned!)

Some people love them, some hate them.  Either way – we all need them to get by from time to time.  So here’s to making the best of it!  Perhaps I will soon divulge some more information on “how to optimize” the work/results you get from your professional services providers.  Especially, you know, since I’ve now been on both sides of the desk and I might be in a decent position to weigh in on that?  Hmmm…

Til Next Time,


The Case Against: Comcast + TWC

I realize this is old news.  However, I was on vacation for a few days since then, and really needed some time to let the gravity of it all sink in.  I think this deal is absolutely horrible for the consumer.  I know I’m not alone in that sentiment (99.9% of consumers likely agree), so let me give some deeper perspective.

Here’s what I think will happen as a result of this joining of forces.  Papa Bear (Comcast) will:

  • Bring in Consulting Firm ABC* because they have “wealth of knowledge” of TWC infrastructure
  • Allow ABC to do 12-18 months of “current state analysis” to isolate gaps, dependencies, or similarities
  • Bite off on ABC’s recommendation to let ABC chew over the fundamental differences for another 18-24 months and conduct mass quantities of stakeholder interviews
  • Receive a proposal for how the new landscape should look and where the key integration points (people, process, technology, etc) are
  • Receive a (similar) proposal for the number of dollars it will take for ABC to “help along the way”
  • Altogether (~4 years later at this point) pay ungodly sums of money for implementation/integration of the companies to never come to fruition
  • Keep the companies operating as virtually-separate entities, with shared processes for minute activities where consolidation was a no-brainer
  • Pass on costs directly to consumers who will be handcuffed to Papa Bear’s services

In an upcoming post I plan to give a brief, humorous idea I have on how this Post-Merger-Integration could work better.  It’s 90% sarcasm, 10% truth.

Til Next Time,


*I have a feeling I know who firm ABC is too, and in my opinion: Uh Oh.

The Case Against: Traditional Project Management

In the interest of full disclosure, I do not have a PMP certification – so you may not think I’m the right guy to talk about this topic.  For that matter, I have no classical training in Project Management.  Sure, I have learned the ropes by living in a project management driven world since my beginnings back in college as a part-time custom software developer testing manager.  But I don’t have any certifications, degrees, or really any preferred methodology to tackle “project management”.

That being said, I have been around it enough to know that there is something about traditional project management that really bugs me.  Additionally, the concept that PMP certifications make someone a “better project manager” is farcical at best in my experiences.  Let me explain why.

Traditional project management, at its core, is not a bad thing.  It’s absolutely necessary, and delivering projects would be impossible without some form of ground rules or marching orders.  Effectively, the concept of project management is pretty simple and I believe very sound in its guiding principles (I’m taking some creative licensing with my concept of these principles, so don’t nail me if I’m overstating or miss a few):

  • Projects should have defined scope, schedule, and budget that the manager should monitor and report against
  • Projects should have a detailed work breakdown structure or project plan
  • Project plans should have clearly identified dependencies and the ability to discern critical path for project completion
  • Project managers should proactively and continually identify and mitigate risks according to a defined target date
  • Projects should engage all appropriate stakeholders (on internal teams as well as from boundary partners) and include them on project execution dialogue
  • Project managers should alert stakeholders of issues and organize the necessary parties to resolve any issues (i.e. risks that miss mitigation by deadlines)
  • Project reporting and communications should occur at defined intervals
  • Projects should have an executive steering committee and some form of governance to quickly and rationally work through any major decisions during the project lifecycle

And this all sounds great.  I don’t have an issue with it.  Where my proverbial beef comes in is when you dig a bit deeper into some of these principles.  The major risks (no pun intended) I see with these guidelines is that they can very easily lead to poor execution based upon the “hiccups” that happen.  For instance, just a few of the speed bumps that projects run into which are extremely difficult to navigate because traditional project management ignorantly expects only sunny day scenarios:

  • Scope, schedule, and budget are all forecasted at some point in time with only a minor portion of the information available; hence, it should be expected that these “forecasts” will prove wrong in at least one of the areas at some point in the project – and that shouldn’t be a bad thing (but too often is a major indictment to the manager or the whole team)
  • Dependencies are a beast and should never be reduced simply to a line in a project plan; as much as you plan for them – the fact is you are handcuffed to someone else, an external process, or something totally out of your control
  • Project plans, when managed diligently, leave project managers with no capacity to think about the “bigger picture”; the inability to step back and look at the plan from the outside often leads teams to continue towards “the plan” when in reality – the plan may very well need to change because of several factors (new business direction, corporate strategy differences, or updated market/financial dynamics)
  • Along the lines of scope/schedule/budget/status/project plans – people resent status monkeys; when you reduce the project manager to being a status monkey that is responsible for organizing a whole team’s worth of updates on individual project line items, you are not using that manager to their full potential (and are turning them into an administrator for electronic information aggregation – something these computers we have do quite well already without a human behind the keys)
  • Project reporting and communications get stale and people become numb to them; the real challenge is to define a cadence where everyone gets timely and pertinent information for them – the right people get the right information at the right time to act upon it
  • Most executive steering committees are not engaged in the right situations to earn their keep; executive steering is one of the most important components for any major project because at least once, you should expect to have to engage them for a very important decision (e.g. delaying a launch, limiting scope, requesting more budget)
  • Change Management is almost always afterthought for the “project team” (even in the projects where it is assumed/expected that Change Management will be executed by project personnel); the inability to proactively manage change implications and promote awareness across the whole corporation for major changes is an area where I see projects turn South far too often because the critical change functions are simply a line item in a thousand-line project plan
  • ^Speaking of, thousand-line project plans make projects too black-and-white; if everything is just a check box, how easy is it to just go off into a dark room and check the box?  (answer: way too easy, and the results usually reflect the quality you’d expect by someone doing something just to check a box)

I’ll put it a different way…  You’ve probably heard it before: everything that can go wrong will go wrong.  I’m not trying to keep this post overly pessimistic, but it amazes me when I so often see managers encounter a road block and get paralyzed by their inability to react to the situation.  It’s almost as if they didn’t see it coming.

Maybe I’m jaded.  Maybe I have been on too many projects that weren’t set up for success from the start.  There’s one thing I have observed over time though – great managers aren’t great managers because they deliver in good times.  When the going’s good, everyone’s an all star.  Rather, they’re good managers because they manage the hell out of difficult times.  And, if you don’t expect that some things can (and will) go wrong, you are less likely to be able to course correct, employ contingency plans, or dig out of the ditch.

I don’t have anything empirically against the PMP types and traditional project management.  I just feel like they are touted a bit too much as being some form of end-all be-all.  It’s about time we revisited project management excellence and realized that we should probably develop a specialized construct for each situation (given the corporate landscape, project complexity, amount of time/energy available from resources) in order to prepare for project delivery success.  I have always hated trying to put a “one size fits all” approach on to any situation*.  It’s not fair to anyone involved and is blatantly ignorant to the uniqueness and intricacies that will always be present from project to project.  We are living in a digital/social age.  People will tell you immediately what they had for lunch on Facebook.  Why can’t we turn that active engagement into something useful to help with project delivery?  Maybe it’s better collaboration tools, maybe it’s gamification of project delivery – I don’t know.  But we need to make a change.

*On that note, I promise a “Case Against” post soon for stock methodologies, generic templates, and “reusable” processes.  I’m sure you can guess my opinion.

Til Next Time,


The Case Against: Industry Best Practices

I am toying with the idea of running a new series (hopefully weekly) titled “The Case Against” and then picking a generally agreed-upon topic to pick apart to challenge conventional wisdom.  Mostly because I am pedantic by nature and like to overanalyze any situation put before me.  Also because I think it’s time for some fresh thoughts on many of the areas in business that we have long held to be a certain way “because that’s they way it’s always been”.  In my humble (and semi-professional) opinion, “because that’s the way it’s always been” is usually awful justification for just about anything in life and generally causes us to choose cop-out answers to complex problems in the interest of time or energy required to develop original thought/content.  To start this series, I have chosen to take a stab at industry best practices.

Since the beginning of time, it seems, firms have been pushing “industry best practices” as a means for companies to succeed.  And, on the surface, it makes perfect sense.  If you want to advance your team or organization, take a look at what the big names in the industry are doing.  If they’re pursuing people management or business intelligence as a means to drive productivity – you should do the same.  Right?  Well, not quite.

I have a problem with leaning on said “best practices” in the industry for a couple reasons in particular:
  • The judge of “best” is often someone who doesn’t really have a say or someone who has selfish reasons for determining “best”: the consultancy that helped company XYZ develop a particular process/technology will look to their own solution as the “best practice” so they can go implement that type of project elsewhere.
  • In other cases, the judges of “best” are merely analysts who are throwing darts at a dart board: typically, “researchers” at Gartner/Forrester are too far removed from industry to really understand why something may indeed offer massive benefit or ROI for a company.
  • Best practices have a shelf life: unfortunately, in modern day Corporate America, truly innovative and next generation solutions are yesterday’s news as soon as they are implemented.  Consider if you were an airline that was looking for a revolutionary way to offer in-flight entertainment – does it really make sense to pursue overhead TV screens when those have been deployed at competitor’s airlines for a few years?  Or would capital better be invested in determining what your users think is even better, such as TV’s in the headrests…
  • Best practices are usually only the best for a specific company in their own organizational context: if one company really needed a robust business intelligence reporting solution for their field workforce because they have such geographically diverse delivery models, would it really be smart for a small local or regional company to chase the same level of reporting if they are more standardized in their delivery model?  Of course not!
  • Most companies don’t need to be “best in class” at everything: one of the smartest operations guys I ever met said that, frankly, he didn’t know that his company needed to be the “Four Seasons”.  Perhaps they were currently operating at a “Best Western” level and just needed to get to “Holiday Inn Express”.  I thought it was a very sharp and intuitive way to look at it and firmly believe he is right.  While it sounds great to chase the leader in the clubhouse, a lot of times it’s smarter to employ investments that make the most sense for your company given your context (i.e. play your own game).

I swear I’m not just trying to be a professional services contrarian or fly in the face of conventional wisdom for publicity purposes (lord knows if I was truly anti-best practices, I’d really struggle to find a job at most major consultancies or companies in Corporate America for that matter).  I just think it’s about time we realized that a lot of these best practices are only best practices because they were better than the other options (which, in many cases, was doing nothing).  Comcast moved to 2-hour appointment windows because they had defined that as a something that would increase customer satisfaction.  And, in the absence of doing anything differently with appointment windows, the rest of the cable companies immediately looked to that as the “best practice” for scheduling/appointment windows.  Does that make it right?  You be the judge.

Til Next Time,