James T. Brown Ph.D., president of SEBA® Solutions Inc., a Registered Education Provider for the Project Management Institute, has provided training and consulting services for dozens of companies nationally and internationally. He has sixteen years of NASA experience that includes “hands on” experience as a team member, project manager and serving in executive level organizational leadership roles. Learn more about Dr. James Brown’s work at http://sebasolutions.com
I know you had a fun career at NASA but how did you get started in project management?
I got started in project management in part because that’s part of my responsibilities when I was at NASA, so, it became interesting to me and I executed it and as I pursued my PhD I got involved in project scheduling. And so that made me look at project management from a different perspective. One where I analyze, not just executing but started looking at ways it could be done more effectively.
I’ve seen you do so many things. You speak, you write, consult. And with your sort of broad experience that you had, if I were to ask you what is your vision for project management today? How would you respond to that?
That would be to always strike a balance between the process, the project manager’s needs, the profit and the tools, and people dependence. In other words, I sometimes think that we can get too carried away with methodologies and processes. People believe that project management is something that is cookbook that can be done by templates. And I think that it just involves some judgment. I believe that there are certain principles that are always applicable to successful project management. But you have to take those principles, and put them in the context and use the judgment for real work situations and real work decisions.
I’m a strong believer that there is more than one right way to do it and there are multiple right ways that you can be successful and every individual, every organization has to be able to adapt to their circumstances to be successful.
Yes, that is very true. And sometimes people become so tied down in the methodology that they lose the human touch.
Right and I think that it’s not really said, it’s not talked about much. But I think there are a lot of PMO’s that have not been successful or not been as successful as they could be, because they are so busy focused on documentation to the degree that it becomes very inefficient. Or they’re so focused on making sure everybody completes this form or that form to the degree that the value that it adds either isn’t there or starts to degrade and the organization ends up abandoning it for some reason or it just exists there in terms of one way to say they have one.
Yes, that is true. I was talking to a couple of folks in Chicago and they had the same experience. You brought up PMO’s and I have a question on my list of PMO’s. I might as well ask you now. You know there’s been such a broad success factor in the PMO’s. There have been enterprise level consolidated some PMO’s are moving to the business side. What in your experience, where do you think PMO’s stand today and where do you think they should head down in future?
I guess for me that’s a complicated question because when we say PMO we all say those three letters and there’s forty-five different meanings as far as what a PMO means. So I guess I’ll frame it by saying, and I’m going to back up on the question a little bit.
I think that every organization should establish some project management methodology. Now based on my comments earlier, it does not have to be all-encompassing. You know it has to fit their environment, but every organization should establish some process methodology for project management. Okay, now, some organizations call the PMO the creator of that. Or they call the PMO the keeper of that. They’re responsible for always updating it, improving it, etc, etc. And then from there I would call that basic. From there you could then go on to actually mentoring project managers, assisting them with their projects using that methodology. And from there you can go onto actually having project managers in the PMO running projects.
Now saying all that, I believe that a PMO is good to establish a methodology. It’s good if you have people in a PMO that run projects. I have no issues with that. But I get very concerned about a PMO that is just there to manage or create a methodology forever. I think that plants a seed where people aren’t, when they don’t have to manage projects they become very hypercritical about how they should be managed. So in my opinion point of view if we have a PMO that whoever is in that PMO it should be either on a temporary assignment and they should go back to managing projects.
In other words, they have a stake in the game. They would have to live by the rules that they set out. They should have to go and suffer or benefit from the consequences of the requirements that they’re putting on everybody else. And you know, there’s a parallel there. That’s no different then what you would have what I’ve seen in organizations that roll out quality processes the same way. Sometimes quality processes can get carried away because the people creating those processes and improving them don’t have to live under them. So I think we’re always concerned when the people have to live under the rules they create. Forgive me it reminds me of an ancient African proverb that says,
“He who is being carried does not know how far the town is.”
We need to make sure that if I’m imposing rules I should really understand what it’s like to live and be successful under those rules.
Yes, that is so true. But I rarely seen PMO’s do that. Usually the PMO folks are dedicated to them and all they really do is documentation and gate reviews. And they never get their hands dirty as they say.
There’s a place for that. That needs to be done, but I just seen it so many times where they get carried away because they don’t have to live under that. And I see project managers that suffer unnecessarily because; well I’ve got to get this form into the PMO. And all those forms may not be necessary and you really need to purview of the user to have input on that. When we talk about processes and organizations I think that they should be examined periodically. And the term that I grew up with, career wise was, that they would say we’re going to have a process scrub. And a process scrub means you’re going to go and look at this process like it’s brand new, and also take the data and the feedback that you’ve got on a process and see what you can do to improve it, to streamline it. But that is something that should be regularly done.
Another key with respect with these processes is, always making sure whoever owns the process. For every process, it has an individual owner. You know not just a PMO but somebody’s named that is responsible for that process. Because if I’m having to live outside of that process, live under that process, and I don’t like it or it doesn’t work or I have a complaint, there should be somebody’s name there that I can call and have a conversation with.
Yes, in fact, I was watching one of your videos and you said, you need a bellybutton person for accountability. That was very funny.
Right, and that’s just what I want. We talk about that, the project management for tasks and activities and everybody accepts that. But I think the same thing on the process side. In other words, if an organization has a process for a project charter somebody’s name should be down there that says, this individual is responsible for this part of the process. And if I’m a user using that and I had an issue with it for whatever reason, then I know who to call. And that also builds accountability and if I know that I’m accountable for that process then I want it to be right. Where if it’s just the organization and that’s when we get tolerant of things that are not necessarily very good.
You wrote the handbook for program management. And if a PM wants to graduate into program management, what advice would you give them?
I guess for, it’s all going to tie back to PMO’s because, I think the program manager has to put project managers in a position where they can be successful. So that means a program manager is able to strike that balance between process and people. It also means that a program manager understands enough about project management that they can go up and do that. But fundamentally for me, program management and project management quite frankly is about the ability to lead and build relationships – to pave the way for your project managers. If project managers have issues, the program manager is the person out there that paves the way that allows them to be successful. So you must have the ability to make tough decisions. You have to have the ability to understand complex situations.
You have to have the ability to have the organization, let the organization and internally all stakeholders trust you to make those tough decisions. Because at the program level there are many more compromise that need to be made. Not just among projects and this is kind of where sometimes historically I may have differed with PMI a little bit, but also operationally. Program managers can also be responsible for operations activities. If I had the budget for project and operations activities and there happen to be tradeoffs, then all of those things should be strategically set. So, it’s hard to give somebody age specific bit of advice other than they have to go out — and I talk about this in my book — and establish that culture for success. And by that I mean, have I put the project managers in a position where they can be successful.
You know recently Agile has gained in popularity. This year PMI came out with their certification on Agile. What has your experience been with Agile and what are your thoughts on Agile?
Agile puts people in a position where they can be successful, that’s a fact, okay? It does work, that’s a fact. But Agile is not necessarily new other than having a name from a specific manner or structure. You may recall the first statement I made when we got kicked off here, talking about the balance between people and process, I mean methodology and, I mean process and people. The balance between using judgment and principles. People have been doing the basis of Agile since we’ve been developing software since the 1960’s. So if you really, if you analyze all those principles off of Agile, or you look at the manifesto, there’s really nothing new there.
So as far as I’m concerned, yes it works, yes it’s valid, but it’s not like it’s new. And I’m a believer that human beings have been on the planet a long time. You know, we’ve done things, we’ve done them successfully. I kind of sometimes irritate people a bit when I say that mankind’s greatest project management achievements most happened before there was a PMI or agile.
So, we know how to do project management. We know how to do it. And so there’s nothing really new in Agile. Most of it is a good structured sound management. But, guess what, now you have a certification. If you look at the entire revenue stream that Agile generated or generates, then I think you’ll see the origins of it. A company that was discussing Agile and they were talking about it and making disparaging remarks about Waterfall. And one of their leaders stood up who was well-respected in the organization, said, “I hear what you’re saying, but we’ve been doing this for years. There is really nothing new with what you’re saying here.”
And it’s so hard when the popularity is with Agile it’s so hard for sometimes people to point out what’s obvious and right. It takes courage to do that.
Right. And it is popular and it’s, at this point it’s like you can’t necessarily fight it. Like, in the stock market there’s a rule for investing. It says, never fight the tape. So never fight the momentum of the market and Agile has that momentum. It’s difficult to fight. You seem like you might be a whiner or something else. But for me it’s just not here. I have no problem with it but it’s not new now. I’m saying this about Agile. I’d say the same thing about Six Sigma and the quality process. You look at the elements of Six Sigma and all the things that they put in there. Most of that stuff has been around for fifty years before they assembled it into a supposed process where once they had it assembled, guess what? They can get people certified and that generates a huge revenue stream for training and consulting and certification.
A very good leader or a very good organization can sit back and analyze and do the right thing without an Agile, without a Six Sigma.
That is true, that is true. One other question. Because you do so much consulting and training across the companies. It’s not a project management question, but it’s a generic and larger issue I guess. About engagement from the folks who are working on projects. And that engagement level seems to be so low or very low in some sense. And it’s across the board in companies in small or big. Do you see that and if so why do you think that engagement level is so low?
Well, let me clarify your question a little bit. When you say engagement level what do you mean? Do you mean leadership engagement? What do you mean by?
No, no I’m talking about the team members. So the folks that do the work for example. Or even project managers. They are not fully engaged in their work. Their hearts are not there. They look at it as a 9 – 5 job. It’s that sort of a feeling that they have. And that’s their outlook to work so to say.
I think that’s very company specific, I mean, I just this week finished some training with a company and I’d say these people are committed beyond the average person. They average working 12 – 14 hours a day and they don’t complain about it. I mean, and I’m talking six, seven days a week. It was discussed you know on how to deal with it from a productivity point of view. But I would call them 100% engaged. And I think a lot of it has to do with the culture of the organization and the leadership. You have to find a way to make people engaged. You have to be excited enough about it to make people engaged and make the work seem like it’s important.
But, part of this is also due to, and we’re beyond the scope of project management as your question mentioned, the way organizations have treated people. And I’ll just give you a quick example of a company that the people were highly engaged, they loved the company and when the bubble happened for the dot.com, and the way the company treated the employees disengaged them. They just got rid of the ones with the highest stock options and etc. etc. etc. They didn’t value the dedicated ones that were working extremely hard and making sacrifices for the company. The company made it clear after years of “family” talk that the only thing that mattered was money.
Well that company can’t get that same level of engagement back. It’s a two-way street. The leadership has to treat them in a certain way to get that kind of engagement. And they have to be sincere. And I think part of what you see is that a lot of times organizations and companies aren’t sincere beyond this quarter’s goals. And you see that when you fly. If you fly and you fly Southwest, a Southwest employee is different then an US Air employee. I would call a Southwest employee engaged. But if you look at how Southwest treated them after the 9/11 crisis, and you look at how US Air treated its employees, then you see that some are much more engaged then others. And all of that shows up on how they work and interface and do business on a daily basis.
That is true. And talking of leadership, who are some of the people who have had a tremendous impact on you as a leader and these people you look up to? And who also are your role models?
I guess it’s hard to say, you know, a specific individual. I’d be hard pressed to name a specific individual but. I would say that I’ve seen some leaders work and things that I guess I’ve enjoyed watching some leaders I’ve tried to learn from. First integrity. Leaders that have integrity about what they do that they truly believe that the work is important. And then I would also say ability to question. The ability to ask questions. Questions that rule out issues, not questions to embarrass people. Not questions to make them seem like they’re smart. But questions that can get to the heart of issues right away.
And to me that is a skill that is not quite as common as it should be. But you see it sometimes if you have an opportunity to be in a certain meeting with a certain leader. They have a way of asking two or three questions and cutting right to the heart of a matter. And I think that is something that very good leaders can do, okay. They know how to do it. And another aspect of that is treating people right. Treating them with dignity and respect at all times. And, I think that you can lead and be successful and still treat people with dignity and respect. And there are those that lead out of fear, that I think you can be successful to a degree out of fear, but your team is not going to be as strong or last as long. But you may have short-term success.
The people who I admire, that I have admired, have all been able to lead people and develop people and treat people nice and maintain their integrity.
And you have been a leader and you have achieved success in your career to date. If you look back at your own career now, are there some things that bubble up to say that, because of those things that you did, it took you to the next level? Can you think of some of those things?
Right, well you say very successful, but success if always relative. I would like to have been more successful I guess. So it’s always relative. But for me the next level and I talk about this in leadership training that I do, you know, I’m a very strong introvert. So for me I did not do enough relationship building early in my career. And when I started doing that it took me to the next level. So I had to read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I constantly have to read those kinds of books because it’s not my natural skill set. It’s not my natural skill set to be a relationship builder, so from that point of view that’s something that I always have to work on. I always have to stress in order to make sure that I do it in the right way because I already said that’s one of the key assets for successful program management and leadership. And it’s not something that is natural for me.
And I would say this. That a lot of the classes that I teach, that part of the value that I think I bring to the table is I convince people that’s something that’s necessary. That you’ve got to learn and read and study human behavior. You have to do all those kinds of things because it’s part of the environment to be successful. And I think too many young project managers or young tech professionals always think that’s it’s about knowing the technology, getting their certification, etc, etc. When it’s really about what you can get done through other people.
That’s so true, that’s so true. You know you have a patent pending kind of scheduling algorithm and I was just curious and I don’t know how much you can talk about it, but, is that something you can give us a glimpse of? What it is?
Oh it’s not that complicated. All it is, if you look at resource leveling, which is a common problem that all project managers have to deal with, limited resources. If you look at trying to create a valid project resource level scheduling and balance act, they basically use, and when I say they. All software project scheduling programs use a rule of thumb to decide which tab for activities they will put into work. And all I did was create a new rule of thumb that sequenced the task in a better way to produce shorter duration schedules.
Just like Google has algorithms for more effective searches, just like the same kind of thing. An algorithm for a more effective schedule for the time that it was done.
And you know on your website there are a lot of book reviews too. You did a lot of books and some of the good book reviews that you posted. What are some of the books you’re reading now?
I just got done reading, and I can’t think of the title of the book, but it’s by Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. It’s a short book about success and that is a very good book. In fact I’ve sent out a lot of those books to some of my clients. That’s what I’m reading right now. I’m actually trying to finish my own second book.
Any all time favorite books of yours?
All time favorites. I’ve mentioned How to Win Friends and Influence People. I like Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. I like, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling. And those references made me also get to a point that was given to me that I’ll share. It’s, a leader gave me this advice: Always read sales books? Everything that we do involves selling and convincing others. And if you don’t know the fundamental aspects on how to do that then you’re at a disadvantage.
So a lot of the books that I read are sales books. Because it’s not enough to be right, it’s not enough to be right with facts. You have to have the ability to convince people that you’re right.
Sure, yes, that’s so true, that’s so true. I was speaking to Peter Taylor, the author of The Lazy Project Manager. And he said, project managers should also focus on marketing. You know like what you are saying for sales. You know, how to message it, how to package it well and how to sell their projects well. So, it’s very true.
Right. And we as project managers are woefully deficient in sales and relationship building. And a lot of technical people view sales like it’s somehow negative or manipulative or it’s something that is really unethical. And it’s really not any of those things. It’s about, sales is really about establishing relationships so that you can communicate something in a way that allows someone to accept it. And you must have that ability to do that.
Other than the company and the consulting and project management, what are some of the other hobbies and interests?
For me I have basically one hobby and that’s fishing. I love to surf fish or fish in salt water on the ocean. And that’s the only hobby I have time for.
Any last words as advice to project managers?
As I said, I believe in being confident, and I don’t want to use the term aggressive. I’m starting to back away from the term aggressive because it means certain things in other cultures that isn’t what I mean when I say aggressive, and so I haven’t found that word yet that I can put in print that means aggressive, but I’m someone who believes that I want to be aggressive as a project manager, I don’t want to be passive. So whatever the opposite of passive is that doesn’t mean infringing upon others, I think that’s what you need to be as a project manager. Do not sit around and wait on the circumstances to make a decision. Be out there leading those circumstances.
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