Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Causes of project failure - lack of central control

Photo: The PC-9/A is the two-seat single-engine turboprop aircraft that is the major basic training aircraft for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The PC-9/A is best known to the public as the aircraft flown by the Air Force Roulettes in aerobatic displays at major events throughout Australia.

This post continues my short comments that began with Causes of project failures - responsibility without authority on the common reasons for project failure.

Some years ago the Australian Defence Forces began the development of a new basic trainer aircraft. The project ran over time and budget, a not unusual result with a Defence project. In this case, the over-run was so bad that an Inter-Departmental Committee was formed to review the project.

The Committee concluded that the project should be cancelled. Instead, Australia purchased the Pilatus PC-9.

A core problem with the project lay in the absence of central control. The Air Force as client kept wanting changes to the design of the plane. There was inadequate central control to resist these demands. The core design was never frozen, while costs blew out.

How often have you seen this, where the client keeps changing its mind?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Causes of project failures - responsibility without authority

Recently I had cause to look at some projects that had failed or were, at best, on the point of failure.

In my series on project management - see Project Management for Professionals - entry page - I looked at some of the steps involved in effective project management. Here I did not deal with one of the main causes of project failure, the allocation of project management responsibility without authority.

You cannot run a project properly if you do not have the authority to do so. Too many organisations allocate project management responsibility, but are not prepared to over-ride existing decision structures in the way required to make the project work.

I do not have a solution to this. It just is.

The only advice that I can give to project managers facing this problem is the need to be prepared to drive things through, to force decisions. If the organisation will not meet the requirements dictated by the project, then you really have no choice but to stand down.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Associate attrition in law firms - five bottom lines

I was rather struck by the quote from Bruce MacEwen:

The problem, in a nutshell, is attrition. Despite increased salaries and bonuses, more (professed) attention to work/life balance and associate development, more indisputable investments in stress management, concierge services, and day-care, by years three to four anywhere from 30 to 50% and more of associates are out the door.

This problem is not unique to the US, nor just to law. The reasons are complex and relate to the way many professional services firms are managed.

Bottom line one: too many firms take all the fun out of work.

They do so in all sorts of ways. Too much emphasis on narrow performance measures. Too little emphasis on recognising personal success. Limited grant of real professional autonomy. The list goes on.

Bottom line two: firms are inconsistent.

How many firms have you seen where a real gap exists between the firm rhetoric and the way that performance is actually measured? How many firms have you seen where a firm emphasises perfomance while actually accepting the opposite, especially at partnet level?

Bottom line three: give the guys a break.

Unrelenting pressure can destroy anyone. There has to be a balance. People require time to recharge, to gather their strength. This is especially true for the best performers, even if those performers themselves do not always recognise the need. So look for ways to give your best people a break.

Bottom line four: make things easy.

The single biggest impediment faced by many associates in getting their job done is their superiors. And here the biggest problem is the availability of scarce supervisory time. If you waste your associates' time, they will leave.

Bottom line five: recognise that your associates have a career outside your firm.

This one is hard. How do you invest in and support people who might leave? The answer is that you must.

We live in a cynical world. The reality in most western countries is that staff no longer have an automatic loyalty to the organisation. We - public and private institutions - have told them that they must look after themselves and they have taken us at our word!

In this world, trust must be earned and re-earned. Ignore this fact, and you will lose your people.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Project Management for Professionals - entry page

Now that I have again started to write about project management, I thought it sensible to establish an entry page that would bring together my various posts on project management. Later I will add linked themes to introduce you to related issues.

The posts are not intended for the professional project manager, already skilled at the craft. Rather, I hope that they will provide an introduction to the ordinary professional or manager in a professional services firm interested in the way that project management can help improve performance.

The Project Management Posts

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Project Management in Professional Bodies

Well, back from my break and ready to go again.

Several years ago I was involved in the introduction of project management approaches across an organisation.

The idea made a lot of apparent sense. Much of the work of the organisation, a significant professional body, was in fact project based. Application of structured project management approaches should improve efficiency at project level, while also making the organisation's work more transparent and accountable.

The move failed. There were significant short term gains, but application collapsed because the transparency and accountability created came to be seen as a threat to the authority and autonomy of the organisation's governing bodies.

Part of the problem here lay in the fact that many "decisions" were not in fact decisions at all. Some reflected political and professional interplay within the profession and were really markers of that interplay. Others fell in the "it seemed a good idea at the time" class.

The governing bodies were quite comfortable with all this because the process accommodated all the personal, political and professional differences to be found in any profession. The introduction of project management approaches failed because the transparency it created interfered with the internal political processes.