Does a Gorilla by any other name still smell?

Or- What’s my title? 

I stared at the words. And all I felt was a complete and total lack of enthusiasm threatening to overwhelm my very being.

–  Project Management Professional  –

How… dead. I just didn’t have any feeling for the words. Words that described a good portion of my professional career. Words that had gotten me where I was, only to leave me feeling flat and listless. I sighed. “Oh well, it’s not like the words make the man.”

I moved my mouse over the “Ok” button and prepared to commit to another 1000 business cards. One thousand cards that described me about as well as calling the Bugatti Veyron Super “just another car.”

“Why don’t you just change the title?”

Oh, great, Hogarth… I looked up from my computer screen only to find my office completely empty. Blinking I started to wonder if I’d taken to imaging my imaginary gorilla.

“Nope,” came his rumbling voice from behind me. Turning about in my seat I watched as Hogarth squeezed his way through the window to my office. The third floor open window.

“Hogarth!” Would I ever get tired of saying that? Yes, I already had. Would I ever get to stop saying it? One remains eternally hopeful. “Why are you climbing in my window?”

Pivoting to put his feet on the floor he rolled his eyes at me. “Because I’m a gorilla, duh…” Moving past me, making a beeline for my fichus he said, “Besides the elevator is out of service and you need a badge to use the stairs.”

Sigh, I did ask. “Hands off the fichus!” Hogarth turned to give me a pained look. “Why are you here?” I asked.

“Why not?”

Sigh. I decided to ignore him and turned back to my computer. I had a 1000 business cards to order.

“You know,” Hogarth drawled. “I’ve been thinking about a career change.”

Okay, that got my attention. Maybe he’d decide to take up flying and would be so busy with flight school he wouldn’t be around to bother me. “Oh?” I said hopefully.

He nodded, turning to run a hand across the small wooden conference table beyond my desk. “Yeah, I was thinking of being a beaver.”

“You can’t be a beaver, you’re a gorilla!” I snapped. Now he was just being silly and I didn’t have time for silly.

“What? There some law that says a gorilla can’t change careers?”

“Hogarth, being a beaver isn’t a career, it’s a species. You want to be president of the US then more power to you, but no amount of wishful thinking is going to make you a beaver!”

Hogarth turned around and gave me one of those smiles. You know, the one. The one that tells me I’d just walked right into the lesson he’d been trying to teach me. “You’re right. I’ll always be a gorilla, can’t fight birth. So were you born a project manager?”

Yeah, that smile…

 

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Regular readers will recall that I’ve recently been at the SFAgile2012 conference. Something I didn’t cover in my prior blogs, on that conference, was my own loss of words to describe just what I did. When you’re surrounded by a room full of agile and lean visionaries, coaches, inspirational and thought thinkers, describing yourself as a “project manager” not only feels inadequate, it can make you feel unclean. My twitter handle didn’t help me feel any better. When I first joined twitter, I was damn proud of my PMP certification and it made perfect sense to use JBC_PMP. When in a room full of people who  think agile certifications are not worth the paper they are printed on, imagine how one feels to advertise that you have that “waterfall” certification.

In short, I find myself unsatisfied with the description and title of Project Manager (or Program Manager).  It’s the title I’ve held for the majority of my professional career and still hold in my day job. This isn’t a new dissatisfaction,  I have grappled with this before in the “Armchair Gorilla.” In the comments of that blog Tobias Mayer ‘s suggest it was time to change what I called myself and while I realized he was right, I didn’t have a good term to use it its place. Like it or hate it, it’s the title of common use and HR doesn’t argue about paying me.

Attending SFAgile 2012 made me question all this again. This was in no small part from attending Tobias’ talk on “The Why of Scrum.” In this talk he expands on his earlier blog on Scrum not being project management (see below). Again I was left me hanging by loose ends. I can’t argue with Tobias that the strict PMBoK definition of a PM doesn’t have a lot of purpose in a pure agile shop. Thing is, where does that leave me? I’m not an engineer turned PM. I’m not a Wharton MBA with business plans spewing forth from my mouth. I’m an ex-art student, customer support guy who grew into a role that most people call project management. So is there a place for me in this emerging world of radical lean agile management?

Yes, yes there is. Because I’m not my title, I’m something else. The question is what? You really need to go back to “Armchair Gorilla.”  and my “I’m R2-D2 ” blog to get my full discourse on what I see as my role. The short form is I’m the guy who helps the team be excellent. It’s not my job to be the super star, it’s my job to help the team be stars. This can take many forms, from dealing with the overhead process (past a certain size, nearly all companies have “process”) so they don’t have to, facilitate communication, battle IT to get the servers back up, or even make a double cappuccino with a twist of lemon if that’s what’s needed.

The question is: What the heck do I call this role?

Let’s take a look at the language we use, and the problems inherent to them.

Project: Even in the lean and agile space we still end up defaulting to this word most of the time. It is a catch all word that sums up “what the heck are we doing?” as well as all the overhead baggage needed to put a product out to the customer. The biggest flaw I see with this word is that to often it is equated only with the development effort. A project starts when the developer starts to build and ends when development is done. Projects are so much more. From the first idea to the first delighted customer is all part of your project.

Unfortunately the word also has a fair amount of negative baggage tied to it. The word project summons up visions of rigidity, sequential flow, punishing process and all manner of ills that can befall the creation of something that delights the customer.

And “program” has pretty much all the same baggage, so let’s just lump it all on one baggage train for now.

Manager: We only have to look to Dictionary.com to see the first glimmers of the problem.

“A person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it.”

Notice the distinct lack of the word “people?” One of the other definitions points to the word “Manages” and the 3rd definition for Manages is

“to dominate or influence (a person) by tact, flattery, or artifice.”

Ooh! I get to DOMINATE! Yeah!. My people are just assets like my computers. Can I start calling our Health Care provider “People Tech Support?”

The word manage has come to imply control over people and that’s a huge problem. Manager Tools has long maintained that “Role Power” is a flawed tool for good management. You need to have a relationship with your people if you are going to be successful. Just by their very title, we set managers up to fail from the get go.

Project Manager (Program Manager):  I know! Let’s take two words, that  already have issues, slam together and we’ll be bound to have recipe for greatness, right?

No, no you won’t.

Even if we don’t acknowledge all the bad baggage that has grown up around this title, we’d have a hard time justifying the use of the title to define this role. The title has no human factor in it. There is nothing about the title that talks to the important work that this role does. There isn’t anything in the title to indicate you are there for the team.

Project Leader: “Take me to your leader.” When the alien ask you this, I don’t think they want you to take them to an effigy of MS Project. You can’t lead a project, because a project isn’t a person. Add to this, you’ve got the hole leader issue. You see I own a horse. That old saying of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink?” It’s a load of horse poop. If a horse doesn’t want to move, you aren’t moving it, at least not in a straight line (we won’t get into horse training here, wrong blog). Instead I tend to think of this role as more the person who asks the horse “where’s the water?”

Team Lead: A title that has become synonymous with “un paid” psuedo-manager. The best coder is the team lead. Not because of any skill with the team, just because he can crank out more lines of good code in a day than anyone else. Let’s just leave that one on the cutting room floor and move on.

Project Lead: We can leave Project Lead in the same cutting room pile as Team Lead. It’s got the same issues, on top of not having any people focus.

Coach: “Put me in coach, I’m ready to go.” Coach is a good word. In the literal sense it is someone who trains, though really a coach is more of someone who helps to bring the best out of you. The problem comes when you try and modify it, in order to give it more description.

  • Project Coach: “Come on, Gantt chart, give me ten more sit ups!” You can’t coach a project, so this doesn’t work to define this role.
  • Agile Coach: “But our project is waterfall.” Very limited in its scope.
  • Lean Coach: “Let’s burn off those calories.” See Agile coach.
  • Waterfall Coach: “This is your barrel, the entrance to Niagara is over there.”

Coach might be a good word, the question is “Coach of what?”

Facilitator: Another great word. It’s issue is more in the baggage of its other uses. Facilitating a project planning session is just what this role should do. Facilitating conflict between the teams. Facilitating communication with the stakeholders. Like a good catalyst, a facilitator causes activity to happen, without itself being effected.

The worry is that the title has a well established place in the business world. It is considered a specialist and not an “always there” job role. Can it rise above these preconceived limitations?

Project Coordinator: We already have beaten the word project into glue. The word coordinator, on its surface seems like a good word. Non-threatening, more passive than active, implies working with things outside oneself. When you dig in though, there are two things you run into. The first is the baggage. In the formal project management world, a project coordinator is an low or entry level position. Project coordinators work for project managers. This kind of baggage makes it a bad term to use for this role.

Then we look at the dictionary and are forced to scratch our heads. “Coordinator” points to “coordinate,” which points to “coordination.” This in turn points to “coordinating” or “coordinated.” Which points back to “coordinate.” Circular logic and I still don’t know what your job is!

Scrum Master: Tobias Mayer (@tobiasmayer ) wrote a great blog titled “Scrum is not Project Management” to which I wrote the reply blog “Armchair Gorilla” where I  ended up agreeing with Tobias (after much gnashing of teeth). This blog is really an extension of that thread.

However the question at hand is if this title serves to describe the role. The answer is, “no, it cannot.” First off is the word scrum. Unless you are using scrum, then it isn’t an appropriate word. Second off is the word Master. Anyone who knows anything about getting a CSM certificate knows that you are a master of none. Most likely the entire title came about as a riff on “Master of Ceremonies.” Unfortunately it has lost that connection and the title of Scrum Master, even in the narrow confines of Scrum Teams, has dubious value.

Servant Leader: I’m pretty sure I’ve put down in writing that I love the essence of this title. Having started my career in customer support, I have always held onto the roots that I am serving my customers in what ever job I do. And who my customer is can be very broad. I think of my team as my customers. If I don’t help them, I have failed my customer.

I just don’t like the title itself. Servant is tied up in centuries of toil and oppression. Am I the team’s serf? Do I polish their shoes and lay out their best coat for the evening meal? And then the word Leader has its own issues.  As I touched on above, it has connotations of being “in charge” when the reality of this role not about being “in charge,” it’s about empowering.

Agent of Change (Change Agent): “Secret agent man, secret agent man…” Other than the obvious need for another gratuitous joke, this is a term we need to tackle as Change Agent has become a common term now. But what does it mean? I saw a great comic that had a person and death. The person said “Oh, no, it’s the Angel of Death.” To which Death replies “I ‘ve changed my name to Agent of Change.”

I don’t know, “change agent” just seems a bit too disruptive. It tends to  make me think of a less flattering term that I’ve been called in the past (for polite audiences we’ll call this term “Fecal Aggregator”). Change agent implies that things need to change, when sometimes you just need to tweak or adjust. To grab onto the Lean Startup parlance, change agent would seem to always imply “pivot” when sometimes you need to “persevere.”

Sweet suffering succotash! Where does that leave us? 

Yes, finding a name for what we do isn’t as easy as it looks. In fact I don’t have the answer (Put the slings and arrows away). What I do have is the next step in the exploration.

Of course if you’re reading this, you know I’ve styled myself as “The Gorilla Coach.” It works only because of the web site and the blog I’ve created over the last few years. Because of Hogarth, I have a great conversation starter when I answer people’s “what do you do” question with “I’m a Gorilla Talker.”

Thing is, I don’t think Gorilla Talker is something that will work on broad scale. For the limited nature of myself and this blog, it works. When coaching people, it works. When talking to someone in the 55,000 person company that is my day job, it kind of falls a little flat.

So…

Catalyst Agent / Catalyst Coordinator / Catalyst Coach:

The word Catalyst has some interesting definitions. Two, in particular, stands out to me.

  • “something that causes activity between two or more persons or forces without itself being affected.”
  • “a person whose talk, enthusiasm, or energy causes others to be more friendly, enthusiastic, or energetic.”

“Without itself being affected”: I like this! For one it implies I’m not using myself up. Too many projects have I poured my heart and soul into, only to be left sorely wanting in the end (or laid off in one case, despite the project being a complete success).  For a another, it means I’m not the focus. I’m helping others, not directing others.

“a person whose talk…”: I so want to be this person. That just sounds like the coolest job description in the world.

“What do you do?”

“I cause others to be friendly and enthusiastic.” It reminds me of a Manager Tools quote (which I shall now proceed to butcher) that goes something like “I’ll trade 90% expertise and 10% enthusiasm for 90% enthusiasm and 10% expertise any day.” If I can bring the best out of the team, company, project or product, then I’ve had a great day.

I just don’t know if I’m an Agent, Coordinator or a Coach. Should I be using a spy camera, holding a clip board or blowing a whistle? One thing I do know, my Twitter ID no longer fits me. So with a nod of thanks to the old, I welcome in JBC_GC as my new handle.

 

What do you think of being a Catalyst?

 

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2 thoughts on “Does a Gorilla by any other name still smell?

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