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Fytte 8: Screwpole anticipates the arrival of the Consultants...

Eventually even management notices things are going wrong

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Oh dear. The PM appears to be in deep trouble and Mugwort is like an excitable child on Haribo, unable to concentrate amidst all the fun. Screwpole is keeping his cool and realises that now is the time for his nephew to apply some of the things he has learnt in a cohesive strategy to cripple the PM…Li'l Devil in barrel.

An external review panel has been formed to ‘suggest improvements’ to the PM’s failing project strategy. The likelihood is that fundamental reforms will be imposed, and senior consultants will soon descend…

To: Mugwort
From: Uncle Screwpole
Subject: “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories
-       Michel de Montaigne.”

Darling Mugwort,

So, the ‘dreaded’ external review is approaching. I feel I should congratulate you, as this is partly a result of your malefic machinations. The review panel has undoubtedly been formed to look into the oppressive working environment, inadequate ‘Building a House’ project method, and the PM’s directive management style. These things are all the combined result of your subtle manipulations - based on, of course, my superb advice.

You happily report that you are three months into this nine-month project, and the team has submitted a laughable eight of the 10 deliverables set by the client. Even more amusingly, three of those were rejected as inadequate. These are only the deliverables for the first 3 months, there are lots more deliverables to destroy in the remaining 6 months - milestones are an excellent way to let teams know they are a collection of failures. And it gets better; your PM has got his team working heroically into the night, in the mistaken belief that a culture of overtime is beneficial to productivity (when in fact the opposite is the case).

Your PM is walking on very unstable ground. His small team of (mostly) talented individuals is working their digits to the bone, in the most horrific office conditions imaginable. To add to their misery, they haven’t even come close to succeeding in a project they’ve been working on for whole quarter of a year. Team morale is low and a cascade of departures can be expected soon…

The only things the PM is getting right are his recruitment policy [I won’t remind you how that one succeeded] and the fairly high quality of work produced by his team. But this will not be enough to stave off the vultures circling on the floors above his office.

So you must exercise patience and wait for the PM’s own masters to decide his fate. Use this time to plan and recall all I have taught you thus far. You will need all your knowledge and experience as the project will soon fundamentally change in many ways simultaneously.

It is almost impossible to predict what the external review panel will decide. Such groups tend to be a mish-mash of the deluded, rational, and indecisive and could decide on almost anything. So plan for the worst, Mugwort; assume the review panel will put forward the most sensible suggestions for the success of the project.

A perfect review panel would surely notice that staff morale is one of the keys to saving this project. If everyone weren’t feeling so dejected and unwanted, the project would likely be in a much healthier state.

Such a panel would institute daily meetings. Regular morning meetings for the whole team vastly improves communication and builds a sense of camaraderie. Outlining and reviewing tasks on a daily basis, and asking for staff input, gives individuals the concept of ownership and instils a strong feeling of self-worth. By opening and closing tasks, the team members will quickly get a sense of accomplishment as they complete small tasks.

Also, weekly meetings with the clients are a danger you should prepare for. Getting customer buy-in on the project is essential to prevent them pulling out completely. Meeting them every week lets them see the progress being made by the team, and lets the PM tie down requirements and plan for acceptance tests ahead of time.

Expect your PM to be asked to actively send his employees home at five o’clock. It is a simple way to reassure staff that their wellbeing is cared for and give a boost to productivity. But I’m sure you, like me, find enjoyment in the image of sullen faces framed by the icy glow of computer monitors late at night, so you must plan to counteract this. Perhaps you could remind your PM of deadlines and the short time he has left to save the project.

Among the concerns of the review panel will undoubtedly be the pleasing abomination that is the office environment. I must admit you did a marvellous job here, Mugwort. Tiny desks, painful wicker chairs, computers from the Dark Ages, severe shortage of meeting space, unhealthy snacks – all were a result of your careful implementation of my teachings.

The panel will see this as an area that can only be improved, and they might be right. The unhappy team will be cheered up no end by an overhaul of their oppressive paperwork dungeon, and productivity could go through the roof if the staff are given the right environment to work in. Anticipate, and counter, calls for the team to be moved to more spacious and inspiring surroundings while the project gets back on track.

Also, the reviewers may ‘suggest’ that the PM completely changes his planning model. Out will go his current ‘Building a House’ model, which assumes that the project vision is clear and the team knows exactly how to achieve their goals. In will come a ‘Writing a Newspaper’ project approach, which assumes that, although staff are experienced, the project has an unclear vision and requirements.

The PM’s whole approach to management could undergo change. An ideal review panel would ‘suggest’ the PM adopt a situational method to supervising his team, rather than the gratifying directive approach you have put in place. Individuals react far better to management that is tailored to their own personalities and capabilities.

You should assume that the review panel, in their own perceived wisdom, will send a troop of consultants armed with detailed knowledge to ‘aid’ the PM in his efforts. Ha! I sometimes find myself admiring the human capacity for skulduggery and victimisation. These consultants will not be benign advisors to your PM, but devious mouthpieces of higher management, sent to remind the PM of his inadequacy and to enforce the new regime.

In the event of a consultant invasion, it should be possible for your PM to use his superiors’ doublespeak to his own advantage. If the consultants are indeed sent to ‘aid’ him then he can justifiably make them a part of his team. He can get them to analyse the project’s problems and suggest solutions – hardly what you’re wanting.

The conflicts inherent in this could be, however, a fertile ground for you to sow distrust, animosity, and jealousy. With the pressure your PM is under, his mind must have all the stoutness of an eggshell; it should be mere child’s play to persuade him that he is being persecuted on all sides and can trust no one.

I await the outcome of the infernal, ahem, external review panel and then we can go through and completely subvert their suggestions.

To be continued…

Phil Rice is CTO of software vendor Erudine, the creator of the Erudine Behaviour Engine Phil Rice.

With acknowledgement to CS Lewis' "Screwtape Letters".

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