Pothole Project Management, a Gorilla PM philosophy

Or- How to solve a problem you lack the authority/resources to solve.
Ever have a day where you feel utterly powerless? Where your every act carries as much power as a waterlogged facial tissue holding back a runaway train? Okay, okay, I know, that that’s the normal state of being for a project manager. But I mean really and truly feeling like you have no more influence then a viagra spam email. Ever had one of those days?
I was.
Jake, the development manager,  had just declared his team had no plans to fix the fatal crash& corruption bug in the database load scripts. “It’s a fringe case, no one is ever going to hit it.”
Carlos was less than inclined to accept the answer. “Fringe case? A good twenty percent of our user base uses the Whippoorwill chip. What are my customer support reps supposed to say, ‘Oh sorry, sir, but that’s a fringe case. Can you please reinstall your system from a backup? You don’t have a backup, oh well.”
I sat in the middle, doing my best to stay the unbiased facilitator. Carlos could be a very reactionary customer service person and had a tendency to exaggeration, but I’d seen his data on this, and it was accurate. Over in the other corner, Jake’s team had been working for six months solid and had juggled a mountain of scope creep, introduced by the product manager. He was under a lot of pressure to deliver the product and just plain worn out by it.
So I looked to the product manager. “Bob, it’s your product, what do you want to do.”
Bob looked up from his Blackberry prayer. He glanced at the fiery tempered CS manager and then at the stoic development manager. “We’re a month late already, we can’t afford any more delays.”
Carlos nearly jumped across the table, “Delays? We wouldn’t be a month behind schedule if you hadn’t added a dozen features at the last minute and we wouldn’t have this bug if you hadn’t insisted on changing the DB schema!”
Two size-twenty, hairy feet levered themselves up onto the table next to me. Leaning back in his chair Hogarth folded his arms behind his head and turned to me. “You know this isn’t going to be any different from the last time customer support went toe to toe with the product manager?”
I glared at Hogarth, willing him to disappear in a puff of smoke. He didn’t and I was faced with the lopsided grin of my personal gorilla. I wanted to snap at him, that this would be different, but I couldn’t because I knew very well it wouldn’t be. Just like weather in LA, if yesterday was sunny, then odds were damn good tomorrow would be as well. The needs of the schedule would outweigh the needs of the product quality and customer support would be stuck supporting the bug. It would also impact our company. We were already starting to get a poor reputation for having great ideas, but horrible implementations.
Hogarth yawned, exposing a mouth full of pointed teeth, each gleaming like a reminder of things gone wrong. He said, “if you don’t do something, then it will be the same thing all over again.”
Now I was angry. It was one thing for Hogarth to state the blindingly obvious. But to imply I could change fate was quite the other. “Hogarth, I don’t have that kind of authority. My job is to move the project, not decide what it is!”
“We’re not going to have the responsibility argument again, are we?” he said. Before I could tell him this was different he waved towards the conference room’s big, picture window. “Remember that pot hole in the north parking lot, the one you used to hit every day?”
I nodded, “Yes, and I tried to get it fixed for six months. Facilities only finally got around to doing it last week. So?”
Hogarth shook his head, “Yeah facilities fixed it, but it wasn’t anything you did. The construction project on the south wing meant they had to drop a bunch of equipment at the head of the south lot, including in the CEO’s parking spot.” Flipping his feat down, Hogarth turned to point out at the north parking lot. “So they gave him a temp spot right next to the north entrance. See there’s his Mascarpone right there.”
“Maserati” I corrected.
He waved a massive paw-hand, “Whatever. The point is last Monday he drove into the north lot and took out his muffler on that pothole. Want to guess how fast it was fixed?”
I shook my head, “No, I want to know what your point is.”
“My point,” he said, “is sometimes the solution to the problem is to steer the right person into the pothole. Who do you think is really going to care is there is a crash bug on  the Whippoorwill chip?”
And the light dawned on me. “Massive Computing, probably our largest client. And Walter, their account rep is in town. I make sure Walter knows about the problem and he’ll get Bob to change Jake’s mind!”
My gorilla smiled. “You are learning, young Jedi.”
I call it “Pothole Project Management” and it’s one of the core tenants of Gorilla Project Management. It is something of the flip side to what I discussed in Blog 21, The Responsible Authority Gorilla. In Responsible I talked about how I, as the Project Manager, worked process and standardization into the team using Gorilla PM rule #1 “First thing is to get it done, then find out who should do it.” Pothole PM is the tool I bring out when my own authority (real or relationship) is insufficient to solve a problem. By steering someone with the authority into the issue, you can get the needed result.
Important point: This is not “I’m going to go tell dad!” This isn’t the school of tattle-tale project management. Relationships and subtlety are still very important. A project manager who gets a reputation for always going over people’s heads is a project manager who will soon have his team working to get rid of him.
Let’s take the example from above. I wouldn’t pick up the phone and tell Walter “Oh my god, do you know what they are doing?” My first approach would be to talk to Carlos, the Customer Service Manager. Carlos is the one who is most invested in the problem and he and Walter share a common interface point, that being the customer. Guiding Carl to go talk to Walter about “how we can ensure Massive Computer will be impacted minimally” will not only make Walter aware of the bug, but worst case will also start the risk mitigation planning if the bug does ship.
If I had to handle it directly, I’d do it in two ways, face-to-face and the power of status reports. Face-to-face is the trickiest, as it can all to easily come off as tattle-tale PM and that’s bad. You have to steer the conversation and get Walter to ask for the data. Power of the status report is the least risky, but you have to make sure people read your status reports (and that is a whole other blog, but there are tips for this). You make sure you have a history of factual reporting that includes issues and risks. If Walter is reading your reports, he’ll know about the issue gets involved that way.
Being an effective project manager is not about doing the work yourself, it is about making sure the right resource is applied to the right problem.
Joel BC
Veteran, the project management wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
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