The relationship and disconnect between business and projects

In an interview a few years back for a project management role, the interviewer asked me what project management was. I was taken aback a bit. First of all that’s too generic a question to ask an experienced candidate. Second, project management is such a vast area that it is not possible to explain in a minute or so what it is unless I were to record and playback what is known as industry standard definitions. So I replied that project management is the management of execution of business strategies. The interviewer looked lost for a moment and for a very good reason.

The evolution of the IT industry has created mayhem and consternation in the understanding of business and projects. The mid section of the IT industry has swelled up with managers and is bursting at it’s seams. The hierarchy and designations are complicated and ridiculous. Even more confusing are designations that are total mismatches to the roles. I have worked with the designation of Senior Consultant and the role had got absolutely nothing to do with consulting. Then there are companies with Project Manager designation but the role would be as an individual contributor. What would make sense is that a project would have a team and the manager of the project would also manage the team. The designation of Business Analyst is even more bewildering. Fundamental requirements are to have in-depth knowledge of some software applications.

In one of the case studies during my MBA program I had read about a company whose founder and CEO had approached a venture capitalist (VC) for investment. After due diligence, one of the conditions put forward by the VC was to appoint a new CEO for the company. The founder refused and walked away. Six months later, he came back to the VC and agreed. The VC had wanted him to focus on the products and services his company was offering and let someone else handle the business and financial aspects. So every company has a top management team that walks, talks and breathes only business and money.  It is here that business strategies get created with the objective of better financial outcomes.

I use a simple analogy when talking about business strategies. If I get stamped on my foot, my foot doesn’t cry. The sound comes from my mouth. Similarly if there is a problem in business the red bulb may not necessarily be flashing from the problem area. This is why understanding the business problem is so crucial. Business problem could also be a new venture for the company without proper understanding of moving ahead. Digging deeper into the business problem has direct impact on the quality of business strategy development. But having the best business strategy amounts to nothing without taking action on it and execution of business strategy is a different beast altogether.

One critical aspect of having different functions inside organizations comes into focus during execution of business strategies. The business strategy could have a strategy for the sales team which in turn could result in a strategy for the finance team and so on. Once strategies for different functions are established, then comes their execution. It could be as minimal as a small change without any consequences. But where there are financial outcomes then there would be accompanying risks as well. This is where the whole premise of project kicks in. So projects are essentially execution of business strategies with the objective to create positive financial outcomes. The execution of a business strategy can be broadly visualized as a change management program with several projects managed and executed within its boundaries.

Every project is intended to create a positive financial outcome so I visualize every project manager as having a small cloud of money over his/her head. A senior manager who manages several project managers would then be having an accumulated bigger money cloud over his/her head. Scale this up and the CEO will have the biggest money cloud over his/her head. The divide between creation and execution of business strategies has given rise to the concept of outsourcing. MNCs develop the entire premise of projects before shipping out to their factories and back offices where the projects are executed to create products and services.

Better understanding of business strategies and organizational requirements has a direct bearing on project management. But project managers usually do not get their sights that far and are not expected to stretch their understanding beyond the boundaries of their projects. This is why I believe projects either fail or project outcomes do not result in positive business outcomes. Outsourcing has only complicated and compromised the purpose of projects. A project manager in another corner of the world may not have any idea about the intended outcomes of the business strategies which has given rise to the project he/she is managing. Early in my career I had to resolve a problem with an IT application of a client and according to the SLA with the client I had 3 hours, so I worked on other more important issues. When I finally reported the resolution, the client’s staff lamented about how their work was stuck and the amount of business they lost in those 3 hours. Poor understanding of client’s business environment and requirements coupled with poorer understanding and communication were the reasons.

The relevance and importance of projects and project managers should never be undervalued. In India business degrees are not required to manage and execute projects. This in itself shows the disconnect between business strategies and projects. This is why the growth of project managers gets restricted to the project and program management levels and very few get to break into the top management. This can be observed from how companies hire for executive level positions from other companies rather than their own employees growing through the ranks into those positions.

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Nature’s insights for the millennium life

There is a very good reason why we are causing mayhem in the world. We no longer feel the need to fit into the realm of nature. Two things are happening as we continue to evolve away from nature. We are no longer understanding and learning from nature and we are losing our survival instincts. The problem with this is, we are still part of nature’s ecosystem and though we have built our own Matrix, our roots are still buried in nature. What we are not realizing is that if interpreted correctly, there are reasons and solutions in nature for everything we experience in our modern urban lives.

Consider this. Traditional martial art forms such as Kung-Fu evolved from the observation of movements of animals such as snakes, monkeys, tigers and cranes. But as our society evolved past the Renaissance we stopped observing and learning from nature. Aren’t we bored and tired of our monotonous 5 day weeks in the corporate world? Then head out to a lake or a water body where there are Cormorants, Darters or Terns and observe them fishing. 50-75% of the times they dive into the water, they come up with nothing. When they do catch a fish, half the time the fish slips out and escapes. How many times do they need to keep repeating the dives to find enough food to satiate their hunger each and every day? There are no weekends in nature. What if they thought this is boring and monotonous? What if they said we had enough and we are not doing this anymore? They would perish in hunger, as simple as that. And people complain about not getting jobs and talk about retirement. There is no complaining and retirement in nature. Just one rule exists out there: Try till you die and die when you quit.

There is something very fascinating in nature we don’t reflect upon. Why is it so difficult to spot animals in the wild? It is because of the prey-predator relationship. A successful catch of a prey depends on who sees or senses who first. What we see as beauty in nature is actually camouflage, to hide or distract, be it from the prey or the predators. Everything in nature is trying to hide itself from one another all the time. Lions are colour blind to the stripes of zebras so when zebras run together, lions do not get any visual sense of what is happening before them. But they still hunt down zebras. How? Because they have heightened levels of their other senses. What does this come down to? Nature always pushes the boundaries of every being in her ecosystem. Nothing comes easy. Every being has to be at the top of it’s game all the time to stay alive and procreate for it’s species to survive. The primordial force of nature keeps pushing the limits of everything within it and this is what propels evolution; every animal tries to evolve continuously to be a dominant species in nature.

How does all of this translate into our lives? For wildlife photographers they have to stay ahead of all these hide and seek games in nature to get great pictures. There are 3 aspects to getting great wildlife photographs: spotting the subject, anticipation and hand-eye coordination. Take this to Agile methodology, the management practice that has taken over almost all industries. Whenever I hear or think about Agile, what comes first to my mind is the image of a tiger. Agile methodology is not just about doing things faster. Why is Agile predominantly a product based methodology? Because it is essentially about spotting those little opportunities in the market, anticipating which way market conditions could swing, what customers might need and getting the products out into the market accordingly. This is exactly how tigers or any predators hunt in the wild. Be it in nature’s jungle or concrete jungle, success has the same underlying roots. The change management principle of focusing on small wins, consolidating them and targeting bigger goals is a lesson that comes right from nature.

What has changed about us is that we evolved into beings of a complex cooperative society and what has got affected the most because of this transformation is our surviving skills. A support system gets built around every individual from where we get help whenever we are in need. The size of the support system depends on our needs and what we can give to the society. Social media networks are all examples of such systems. This highly interconnected way of living reduces our need for surviving skills and this I believe has been the biggest liability of becoming intelligent beings. Our needs have grown exponentially which in turn has raised the bar of our desires. With our waning surviving skills, when life becomes difficult, we become frustrated and start feeling helpless, turn to Gods and eventually to superstition. No other being in nature believes in getting help from a higher power to succeed. Every animal believes in it’s own skills and abilities to survive. This is why in highly competitive market conditions, mere skills and abilities do not take us far; it is our contacts in the favours based society that help us to get ahead.

But there is an anomaly here. Less surviving skills should ideally make us less competitive but the reverse is happening. Urban life has become a mighty arena for wealth based competition. We are vying to buy bigger and more expensive houses, cars, gadgets and an infinite number of assortments. This is an endless pit and once we fall into it, we spend our entire lives chasing more wealth to keep buying newer and supposedly better things. Think iPhone and all it’s die hard fans who literally live in queues for days outside Apple’s stores to buy new versions. Our status quo in society built around wealth mandates that we keep chasing wealth all the time. Business is thriving with marketing strategies fine tuned to exploit this wealth based competition to the hilt. But wealth is a commodity and acquiring wealth is not a skill; it is all about exploiting the needs of our fellow beings. A great example is the real estate industry. Buy land for lower cost and sell for higher price based on demand. All business models are built around understanding and exploiting people’s needs, going to the extent of creating new needs if they do not exist, something which Apple epitomizes. Is there anything in our society that keeps egging us on to become better human beings? Nothing. This means we are not evolving and we have stagnated. Technology has only made us dependent on it and has not helped us become better beings.

Nature develops 3 critical aspects in every being for survival: Patience, Perseverance and Resilience.  Nature teaches us to keep scouting for every opportunity, keep doing the same things relentlessly till we succeed and to keep moving ahead in the face of every adversity. Nature teaches us to appreciate every moment of our lives. We take time for granted, ours as well as that of everyone else’s. In nature, a lapse in moment is what stands between life and death. Nature sharpens our skills and abilities continuously and keeps us ready to face the next challenges. We need all of these, even to live in the bubble we have created for ourselves. But we have made ourselves lethargic enough to choose the easy way out every time. No schools or universities can teach us nature’s lessons. In the extremely competitive world we live in, we need our fundamentals firmly in place. Only the eternal Mother can make us evolve into better beings.