Weekend Summer Music Interlude — Laki Mera

As a youth summer for me consisted of baseball (both watching and playing), tennis, fishing, exploring the south Jersey pine woods, cookouts, and spending time at the beach with family and friends.  After the age of 15 throw in working a summer job to save for college and help my parents make ends meet.

This activity came to me with the background of the radio playing music provided courtesy of the powerhouse New York radio and television broadcasting center.  Summers consisted of anything from jazz to folk to country to rock to pop, and my favorite stations, some of which no longer exist, made the same transition as the society around it:  the now defunct WNEW-AM, WABC-AM, WMCA (with their “Good Guys” lineup), and a host of others.  It was Jack Spector on WMCA who played the first Beatles song on New York radio.

All of this is a way of saying that, while radio has evolved and struggled since those heady days, music goes on as the backdrop to our lives; informing and influencing us in subtle ways, reflecting the world around us, sometimes providing pleasure and sometimes a respite, mirroring our thoughts, our hopes, our passions, and our fears; providing a backdrop to our happiness during good times, and a sanctuary during hard times.

This weekend’s interlude is a band called Laki Mera, a trio out of Scotland that has been making music for 10 years now.  They make what has been described as electro-dream-pop.  They are often compared to the Cocteau Twins, but this seems to me to be an inexact comparison, which speaks to their unique voice and vision.  What they do, I think, is create both acoustic and electronic musical soundscapes that provide the foundation for Laura Donnelly’s beautiful voice that allow our imaginations to follow the lyrics to wherever they may take us.  They have not yet reached great economic success but their music speaks for itself.  Last year they released their third LP entitled “Turn All Memory To White Noise,” which was actually released last summer.  The only videos online include their lyrics.  “Seraphine” is one of the best–a refreshing moment of anticipation wading in a cool stream.  A welcome respite from a disastrous week for the world at large.


Go With the Flow — What is a Better Indicator: Earned Value or Cash Flow?

A lot of ink has been devoted to what constitutes “best practices” in PM but oftentimes these discussions tend to get diverted into overtly commercial activities that promote a set of products or trademarked services that in actuality are well-trod project management techniques given a fancy name or acronym.  We see this often with “road shows” and “seminars” that are blatant marketing events.  This tends to undermine the desire of PM professionals to find out what really gives us good information by both getting in the way of new synergies and by tying “best practices” to proprietary solutions.  All too often “common practice” and “proprietary limitations” pass for “best practice.”

Recently I have been involved in discussions and the formulation of guides on indicators that tell us something important regarding the condition of the project throughout its life cycle.  All too often the conversation settles on earned value with the proposition that all indicators lead back to it.  But this is an error since it is but one method for determining performance, which looks solely at one dimension of the project.

There are, after all, other obvious processes and plans that measure different dimensions of project performance.  The first such example is schedule performance.  A few years ago there was an attempt to more closely tie schedule and cost as an earned value metric, which was and is called “earned schedule.”  In particular, it had many strengths against what was posited as its alternative–schedule variance as calculated by earned value.  But both are a misnomer, even when earned schedule is offered as an alternative to earned value while at the same time adhering to its methods.  Neither measures schedule, that is, time-based performance against a plan consisting of activities.  The two artifacts can never be reconciled and reduced to one metric because they measure different things.  The statistical measure that would result would have no basis in reality, adding an unnecessary statistical layer that obfuscates instead of clarifying the underlying condition. So what do we look at you may ask?  Well–the schedule.  The schedule itself contains many opportunities to measure its dimension in order to develop useful metrics and indicators.

For example, a number of these indicators have been in place for quite some time: Baseline Execution Index (BEI), Critical Path Length Index (CPLI), early start/late start, early finish/late finish, bow-wave analysis, hit-miss indices, etc.  These all can be found in the literature, such as here and here and here.

Typically, then, the first step toward integration is tying these different metrics and indicators of the schedule and EVM dimensions at an appropriate level through the WBS or other structures.  The juxtaposition of these differing dimensions, particularly in a grid or GANTT, gives us the ability to determine if there is a correlation between the various indicators.  We can then determine–over time–the strength and consistency of the various correlations.  Further, we can take this one step further to conclude which ones lead us to causation.  Only then do we get to “best practice.”  This hard work to get to best practice is still in its infancy.

But this is only the first step toward “integrated” performance measurement.  There are other areas of integration that are needed to give us a multidimensional view of what is happening in terms of project performance.  Risk is certainly one additional area–and a commonly heard one–but I want to take this a step further.

For among my various jobs in the past included business management within a project management organization.  This usually translated into financial management, but not traditional financial management that focuses on the needs of the enterprise.  Instead, I am referring to project financial management, which is a horse of a different color, since it is focused at the micro-programmatic level on both schedule and resource management, given that planned activities and the resources assigned to them must be funded.

Thus, having the funding in place to execute the work is the antecedent and, I would argue, the overriding factor to project success.  Outside of construction project management, where the focus on cash-flow is a truism, we see this play out in publicly funded project management through the budget hearing process.  Even when we are dealing with multiyear R&D funding the project goes through this same process.  During each review, financial risk is assessed to ensure that work is being performed and budget (program) is being executed.  Earned value will determine the variance between the financial plan and the value of the execution, but the level of funding–or cash flow–will determine what gets done during any particular period of time.  The burn rate (expenditure) is the proof that things are getting done, even if the value may be less than what is actually expended.

In public funding of projects, especially in A&D, the proper “color” of money (R&D, Operations & Maintenance, etc.) available at the right time oftentimes is a better predictor of project success than the metrics and indicators which assume that the planned budget, schedule, and resources will be provided to support the baseline.  But things change, including the appropriation and release of funds.  As a result, any “best practice” that confines itself to only one or two of the dimensions of project assessment fail to meet the definition.

In the words of Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”


Let’s Work Together — The Goal of Contract Negotiations

I’ve been at this acquisition management profession for quite some time, but nothing gives me more pleasure than returning to the basic and necessary process that precedes the management part of contract and project management, which is contract negotiation.  I began as a negotiator as a young U.S. Navy Lieutenant when I was selected as one of the members of what was to be a Navy Procurement Corps.  Over the years politics–both intraservice and otherwise–undermined the Procurement Corps idea, which I still think was and is a good one, but that is the way it goes sometimes.  It has been more than thirty years since that time and the basics of negotiation have served me well over the years.

Negotiations, when they go well, are based on several factors:

a.  The understanding by the parties that each has a common interest or desired outcome that has sufficient value;

b.  Good will, respect, and trust among the parties;

c.  Effective communication;

d.  The ability of the parties to allow the facts or the data to both reveal the areas of mutual acceptability and those factors that are deal breakers;

e.  Flexibility in viewing the negotiation as a process of discovery;

f.  The parties possess the necessary authority to make the outcome of the negotiation binding;

g.  The outcome advances the interests of all parties in the negotiation.

When these factors are missing the negotiation will be difficult and often fail or fail to satisfy the needs or desires of the parties.  Aside from my own experiences, my colleagues in both government and industry often complain of failed or difficult negotiations and their experiences track my own.  The core barriers that undermine the factors listed above seem to most often fall into two main areas; cultural ones based on profession or line of business, and egocentric barriers.  Oftentimes they are one and the same.

Let’s take the cultural issue first.  The most frequent example that I run into that results in difficult or failed negotiations involves attorneys.  I counsel companies and individuals NOT to allow their attorney to drive a negotiation where a positive result is desired.  The reason for this condition lies in the nature of the legal profession as it is currently constituted in the United States (and has been since about 1960).

Attorneys are trained to deal with adversarial situations.  As such, the factors underlying the entire basis of successful negotiation are usually undermined.  I have been in negotiations with attorneys where their knee-jerk reaction in most cases is to approach negotiations as zero-sum games, or they use adversarial approaches in negotiation such as those found from game theory, such as tit-for-tat or the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Such techniques are successful in avoiding conflict in an unequal or ostensibly competitive environment where the parties’ interests would otherwise dictate cooperation, but most seasoned negotiators will identify the technique pretty quickly, which will undermine trust.  Intimidation and manipulation are surefire recipes for breaking a promising deal, or producing something that satisfies none of the parties.

The difference in perspective between a professional negotiator and an attorney was most effectively summed up by a close personal friend who also happens to be a brilliant attorney.  “The problem,” he said, “is that when you walk out of the room at the end of the negotiation you measure your success by whether all of the parties are happy.  When I walk out of the room I measure my success by all of the parties being unhappy.”

Thus, the last factor in my list is the overriding one and the difference among professions.  As a negotiator I would never recommend that a client, customer, or my management execute a deal that undermined their interests.  An attorney will view the choices as the lesser of all evils. The negotiator is focused on the best of all positives.  A negotiation that is to result in a contract stands on its own merits.  Unlike the law, constructing a contact does not rest on stare decisis.  The process of negotiation is to uncover the facts and pitfalls of the prospective end result, withholding nothing material to the process.  The process of adversarial proceedings is to withhold essential information, especially that which undermines the position of the party being represented.

The other cultural issue that undermines effective negotiations arises in industries where there is a dysfunctional market dynamic, such as monopoly or oligopoly.  Employer-employee negotiations also tend to fall into this area, especially involving a labor union, though the law covering labor relations dictates the opposite behavior.  In these cases the position of the parties is so unequal that a meeting of the minds, absent intimidation and fear, is rarely achieved in reality.  Oftentimes the product of these negotiations will undermine the enterprise or disrupt an entire industry, creating havoc in its wake.  The recent conflict between Amazon and Hachette is a case in point.

The other main barrier, which oftentimes go hand-in-hand with the industry in which one engages is the factor of ego.  It is perfectly fine to drive a good bargain from one’s suppliers, but it is foolish to do so where the deal may drive that supplier (or set of suppliers) out of business.  Of course, that can only be the case if the supplier–and its product–is valued and respected.

It is incumbent on the negotiator to avoid these types of deals, and if one is left with only these terms during the negotiation to completely outline to the client or business the ramifications of signing a bad deal.  The experience of the high bankruptcy rate in certain consumer products industries due the effect of Walmart’s aggressiveness in dictating pricing, oftentimes below the cost of manufacture, is one example.

Ego, finally, is deadly to a successful negotiation.  Scalp-hunting and counting coup may do much for one’s self-esteem but it counts for little in crafting an effective deal.  The same is true for  hurt feelings and taking insult in a transaction that requires direct communication.  Ego blinds individuals to the opportunities within the structure of the negotiation and gets in the way of honest communication, undermining all of the factors for negotiation success.  It is why I recommend that a professional negotiator (who is not an attorney) handle the direct negotiation process, preferably with a similar professional on the other side.

For example, not too long ago I had the opportunity to engage in a lively negotiation where 90% of the terms and conditions were agreed to at a very quick pace.  Two or three areas of disagreement still remained to get the deal done.  In one of those areas the other negotiating team stated their position in very strong terms.  Those terms were a deal breaker–not because the position was unreasonable but because it undermined the economic structure–and the consequent economic justification–for the deal.  I identified this defect and came back to the negotiating team, strongly stating my position that their stance threatened the deal.  I then outlined alternatives that would repair the negotiating position.  The problem is that non-professionals also were present at the negotiation and came away quite alarmed at what appeared to them to be a “hostile” tone between the negotiators.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The “dance” of negotiation is to clearly and directly state one’s position and to back it up with fact when discussions on the topic resumes.  I had a great deal of confidence and respect for my counterpart and it was apparent that he and his team had a similar amount of confidence and respect for me.  Having gotten preliminaries out of the way allowed us not to have to worry about hurt feelings or bruised egos.  We resolved the issue with some discussion of our respective positions by clearly demonstrating that each was based on a defensible rationale.  We then critiqued the rationales on the table and came up with a cohesive and defensible solution that we knew served the interests of both parties.  It came as an equal shock to the non-professional negotiators in the room that we came to agreement so quickly, with a good deal of mutual admiration expressed at the conclusion of the negotiation.

Our economic engine–in fact civil society itself–depends on honesty, good will, and ethical conduct in negotiation.  I will always remember the day that I was mocked by an attorney for making this assertion, apparently viewing me as a male incarnation of Blanche DuBois.  “How foolish you are,” he stated with absolute pride, ” to think that you can take someone at their word.”  Yes, at their word, prior to the point that the contract is signed, is how most of the world works–at least among those of us who are not thieves or sociopaths.  It is true that law and social pressure must be brought to bear sometimes to enforce this “arcane” practice.  But the alternative is lawlessness and anarchy.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Siegfried Sassoon

Does It Matter?

Does it matter? -losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? -losing you sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Saturday Music Interlude — Lana Del Rey Performing West Coast

Nom de guerre for Elizabeth Woolridge (Lizzy) Grant.  She sprang on the music scene two years ago, though her career seems to have begun about four years earlier, sporting an affectation of a chanteuse out of ’40s and ’50s film noir that was equal parts derivative and forward leaning–a strange mix that made it hard to tell if something was really there or if she was just another privileged and connected kid on a lark.  It’s hard to peg her, mostly because her previous albums have been all over the place.  Is Lana Del Rey a projection, an alter ego, a fantasy?  I’m reminded of Garth Brooks and his occasional forays into Chris Gaines territory.  Thus, perhaps she is all of these.  This makes her unique and she seems to be stretching herself in new ways.  Now if she can only stop saying stupid and petulant things in interviews so we have a chance to see her talent and vision mature before everyone tires of the act.  Along these lines, having the Black Keys’ Dan Auberbach on-board as producer seems to have kicked it up a bit; and provided much needed consistency music-wise.  He seems to have found and shares her vision on what, exactly, Lana Del Rey is.  Consequently, I can’t seem to get this song out of my head.  The video, though, is pure minor league and lazy, an immature narcissistic romp that completely ignores the mood of the lyrics.  Perhaps this is Ms. Grant’s doing, perhaps not.  Try listening to the song with your eyes closed and enjoy.

Ch-ch Changes — Software Implementations and Organizational Process Improvement

Dave Gordon at The Practicing IT Project Manager lists a number of factors that define IT project success.  Among these is “Organizational change management efforts were sufficient to meet adoption goals.”  This is an issue that I am grappling with now on many fronts.

The initial question that comes to mind is which comes first–the need for organizational improvement or the transformation that comes results as a result of the introduction of new technology?  “Why does this matter?” one may ask.  The answer is that it defines how things are perceived by those that are being affected (or victimized) by the new technology.  This will then translate into various behaviors.  (Note that I did not say that “Perception is reality.”  For the reason why please consult the Devil’s Phraseology.)

This is important because the groundwork laid (or not laid) for the change that is to come will then translate into sub-factors (accepting Dave’s taxonomy of factors for success) that will have a large impact on the project, and whether it is defined as a success.  In getting something done the most overriding priority is not just “Gettin’ ‘Er Done.”  The manner in which our projects, particularly in IT, are executed and the technology introduced and implemented will determine the success of a number of major factors that contribute to overall project success.

Much has been written lately about “disruptive” change, and that can be a useful analogy when applied to new technologies that transform a market by providing something that is cheaper, better, and faster (with more functionality) than the market norm.  I am driving that type of change in my own target markets.  But that is in a competitive environment.  Judgement–and good judgement–requires that we not inflict this cultural approach on the customer.

The key, I think, is bringing back a concept and approach that seems to have been lost in the shuffle: systems analysis and engineering that works hand-in-hand with the deployment of the technological improvement.  There was a reason for asking for the technology in the first place, whether it be improved communications, improved productivity, or qualitative factors.  Going in willy-nilly with a new technology that provides unexpected benefits–even if those benefits are both useful and will improve the work process–can often be greeted with fear, sabotage, and obstruction.

When those of us who work with digital systems encounter someone challenged by the new introduction of technology or fear that “robots are taking our jobs,” our reaction is often an eye-roll, treating these individuals as modern Luddites.  But that is a dangerous stereotype.  Our industry is rife with stories of individuals who fall into this category.  Many of them are our most experienced middle managers and specialists who predate the technology being introduced.  How long does it take to develop the expertise to fill these positions?  What is the cost to the organization if their corporate knowledge and expertise is lost?  Given that they have probably experienced multiple reorganizations and technology improvements, their skepticism is probably warranted.

I am not speaking of the exception–the individual who would be opposed to any change.  Dave gives a head nod to the CHAOS report, but we also know that we come upon these reactions often enough to be documented from a variety of sources.  So how to we handle these?

There are two approaches.  One is to rely upon the resources and management of the acquiring organization to properly prepare the organization for the change to come, and to handle the job of determining the expected end state of the processes, and the personnel implications that are anticipated.  Another is for the technology provider to offer this service.

From my own direct experience, what I see is a lack of systems analysis expertise that is designed to work hand-in-hand with the technology being introduced.  For example, systems analysis is a skill that is all but gone in government agencies and large companies, which rely more and more on outsourcing for IT support.  Oftentimes the IT services consultant has its own agenda, which oftentimes conflicts with the goals of both the manager acquiring the technology and the technology provider.  Few outsourced IT services contracts anticipate that the consultant must act as an enthusiastic–as opposed to tepid (at best) willing–partner in these efforts.  Some agencies lately have tasked the outsourced IT consultant to act as honest broker to choose the technology, mindless of the strategic partnering and informal relationships that will result in a conflict of interest.

Thus, technology providers must be mindful of their target markets and design solutions to meet the typical process improvement requirements of the industry.  In order to do this the individuals involved must have a unique set of skills that combines a knowledge of the goals of the market actors, their processes, and how the technology will improve those processes.  Given this expertise, technology providers must then prepare the organizational environment to set expectations and to advance the vision of the end state–and to ensure that the customer accepts that end state.  It is then up to the customer’s management, once the terms of expectations and end-state have been agreed, to effectively communicate them to those personnel affected, and to do so in a way to eliminate fear and to generate enthusiasm that will ensure that the change is embraced and not resisted.