Armchair gorilla

– Or walk a mile in the gorilla’s shoes

This blog inspired by Tobias Meyer’s recent blog “Scrum is not Project Management”
Normally I don’t let Hogarth follow me home. There are limits and that’s just one of them. The thought of an 800 pound gorilla on my couch is a terrifying one. And then there is what he does to the refrigerator. Did I mention gorilla hair on the white carpet? But it was the Superbowl and I had a moment of weakness.
“Come on! You call that a pass? My mother can throw better than that.” I angrily waved at the TV while speaking through a mouthful of Dorritos. “Can you believe this guy, Hogarth? That play had blitz written all over it. I swear even a deaf bat could have seen it.”
Hogarth looked at the dried banana chip poised to be popped into his mouth, then looked at me, then looked back to the chip. Sighing he lowered the chip and gave me a reproachful look.
“How much football have you played?” He asked.
I looked aghast, “Me? Last time I played footbal, it was with flags and I was still too young to vote.”
Hogarth gave a sage nod. “I see. I bet you didn’t even stay in a Holiday In Express last night.”
It was my turn to sigh. “Okay, okay, I get the point. Not only am I not there, but I’m not a quarterback, have never been a quarterback and don’t have the first clue how to be a real quarterback.” I shook my head, “I’m sitting here trying to second guess the expert. Talk about stupid.”
Hogarth nodded again. And then he spoke, his words breaking the 4th wall and my own train of thought. “So why are you trying so hard to prove Tobias wrong?”
I turned to stare at Hogarth my mouth agape. No sound came forth despite the repeated opening and closing of my bass like mouth.
Why indeed?
I make my living doing a job that typically has the job title of “Project Manager” or “Program Manager.” Given that, it may be understandable to you that my emotional reaction to Tobias’ blog was to disagree.  I certainly did this initially. The first few comments I thought about leaving to his blog were much less reasoned than what I ended up posting.
And then, much like my revelation in “A Project Manager’s Poker Hand,” I came to a realization that I was trying to impose my own value on someone else. Worse yet, my value was based purely on emotional reaction, where as the opinion espoused by Tobias was based on subject matter expertise.
Yes, I have Scrum training, I’ve studied Scrum and I’ve even incorporated some Scrum concepts into product development efforts I’ve been involved in. But I am most certainly not a Scrum expert. I’ve never worked on a classic Scrum team and I can’t speak from first hand experience.
Tobias on the other hand has. He is a recognized expert on Scrum teams and Scrum development. Without my own “traditional” Scrum experiences, I have to put faith and trust on Tobias speaking from that expertise.  I don’t know enough about a straight Scrum project to know if a “traditional” project manager would bring any value. I certainly hope to learn and understand more as I delve into the Agile philosophy, but for now I have to take Tobias at his word. Just as the Product Owner must trust the teams estimates, I should trust Tobias’ expertise.
So as the saying goes, “Don’t judge another, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
All right, so Scrum is not Project Management.
What is project management then?
It was something of a wake up call to read some of the very acerbic comments posted both in Tobias’ blog and Ken Schwaber’s blog that inspired Tobias’ blog (Yes I’m a response to a response). That people think project management is an evil tool of “corporate” or an “idea whose time has passed,” was not something to cross my mind. Even Ken’s own words had me blinking in confusion.
“We have found that the role of the project manager is counterproductive in complex, creative work. The project manager’s thinking, as represented by the project plan, constrains the creativity and intelligence of everyone else on the project to that of the plan, rather than engaging everyone’s intelligence to best solve the problems.”
“Wow, that’s not the project management I know” was my initial thought. I certainly have never felt I was stifling creativity or constraining anyone’s intelligence. I was an art major in college and write science fiction as a hobby, not exactly what I would think of as an oppressive personality. Yet, the comments posted certainly had me wondering. I had to check myself in the mirror and make sure I wasn’t wearing a black mask and breathing funny. <Darth Vader voice> You underestimate the power of project management.</voice>
So before I accepted my role in the dark side of corporate america, I decided to look for other definitions.
PMI’s PMBoK defines project management as:
“Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”
And they define a project as:
“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. ”
Okay, so not the most evocative words ever written. And I can already see issues with the definition of a project and the normal evolution of software. When version 1.0 ships, the team has usually already begun on version 1.1. Is the project the software as a whole or just v1.0. What is “done”?
Wikipedia, font of all knowledge, real, imagined and inaccurate, defines project management as:
“Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives.”
And Wiki defines a project as:
“A project in business and science is a collaborative enterprise, frequently involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.”
Okay, so neither source’s definition is going to make a kid say “Daddy, I want to be a project manager when I grow up.” And honestly, neither source really describes what it is I do in my day to day job.
Certainly I spend time organizing and planning. I’ve both helped develop goals and objectives for a project and served as a gatekeeper to ask if we’d met them. Goodness knows I have built a lot of knowledge, practiced a lot of skills and developed a big old toolbox of techniques. But I don’t think that defines what I do in my job or why my boss keeps paying me to do that job.
I know some folks think of project management as the “Owner” of a project. I’ve known project managers who “owned” the project. They were the almighty power and controlled the budget, the people, the project and final deliverables. This does still happen, but at least in the high tech firms I’ve worked for, this is less and less common. The guy in charge of building a bridge is a project manager and also the head engineer, this guy is the “owner.” A guy managing a software team doing an IT integration project is not the “owner”. The team all report to functional managers and the guy managing is more like the cat herder (We won’t go into the myth today).
So what is being a PM mean to me?
Well not to sound like a broken record, but I would stat by reaching back to my “The gorilla with too many hats” and “Project Managers are SMES” blogs to start answering this question.
“If you have four engineers working on the project…, adding a fifth one is already starting to hit that wall of diminishing return. If you add a program manager, you can get more productivity from those four engineers, than you would from adding a fifth engineer and expecting one or more of those engineers to also manage the customer relationships, deadlines, certifications, interface with marketing, etc.”
“A Project Manager’s SME knowledge is in getting a project from inception to launch with in the bounds of the project’s constraints and while keeping the team from flying apart like wine glass shattering when it hits the floor.”
I’ve been doing dedicated project/program management for a decade now. In that time I’ve never had any illusions of being “in charge” of a project. Long before I heard the first utterance of “Agile” or “Scrum” I was practicing servant-leadership.
I am the broom:  Pam Stanton as well as a good friend and fellow project manager, Carl Jones have both used an example that I think speaks to what a 21st century project manager is. They compare our job to that of the game of curling. The curler and the stone are the product/project team and the product being built. The Curler’s (team’s) goal is to get the stone (product) to the center of target area (release date, objectives, value needed, etc.). The Curler is the main person. Without him you don’t have a game. But he is not alone.  The sweepers use brooms to alter the state of the ice in front of the stone.
A good project manager is like a curling sweeper. He gets in front of the product and makes sure there are no impediments (Test equipment was ordered, team has a place to work, external vendor is managed to deliver its dependencies, etc.), but also makes sure those things that have to be done (certifications, compliance, sponsor updates, etc.) get done.
Over the years I’ve developed my own personal philosophy/methodology to being what I am as a professional:
  1. People, not projects
  2. It’s all about communication
  3. Process is a tool, not a roadblock
  4. There is no one, right way
I don’t know if I’m a traditional project manager or program manager. I know I’m not a traditional scrum master and there isn’t even a standard definition of an agile project manager. But at the end of the day I don’t think any of that matters. Because what I know I am is:
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

4 thoughts on “Armchair gorilla

  1. Pingback: Does a Gorilla by any other name still smell? | The Gorilla Coach

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