Why your PMP prep doesn’t feel like reality (and why it shouldn’t)

A Break in Reality

A Break in Reality by xetobyte

I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before.  Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.

True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications.  The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers.  Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about.  Just. Pass. The. Test.  The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it.  A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.

It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality.  Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.


As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog.  In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.”  Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)

I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do.  It is establishing a standard.  It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured.  In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.

Is that reality?  No.  Of course not.  If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it.  A standard is not meant to depict reality.  What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state.  How far from this standard are we?  Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)

When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options:  Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory.  Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste.  On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards.  It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.

My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently.  The tools and techniques they teach are not  a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects.  Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.


Product Innovation vs Operational Excellence (or, Magic vs. Might?)


Warrior vs Sorcerer

Warrior vs Sorcerer by Pydracor on deviantart.com

There is so much written about innovation these days, it’s mind numbing.  Most of what you read, however, is all about product innovation – and there is very, very little written about process innovation.

Product innovation is something that is discussed as almost ethereal.  It is something that comes about through a little bit of magic & wizardry.  It’s romantic, intellectual, and fun.  It is the thing that enables companies like Apple & Google to push to the forefront of their industries and become the giga-bucks companies other people write books about.  It is the Holy Grail of major corporations and startups alike – both are encouraged to go on a quest for the magical, mystical powers of innovation.

Product innovation appears to be the realm of the unexplainable – that the way to go about that business is to assume a muse, or some divine spark is, ultimately, going to descend upon the workers bees and imbue them with the powers of insight and creativity.  You have to create innovation space, and adopt managerial styles and practices, that allow creativity to flourish.

Process innovation, on the other hand, is seen as something a little more grungy and foul-smelling.  It is the world of brute force and awkwardness, no matter how elegant it tries to become.  Process innovation tends to be something that people feel can be learned.  All you need to do is study Toyota, or Southwest Airlines, or General Electric and Motorola – and you will soon understand the simplicity of process innovation and be able to apply it easily, right?


The world is littered with great product ideas that could not be produced, as well as with companies that couldn’t sustain their operations long enough to even see the next wave of competitors, much less contend with them.    It doesn’t really matter if you have a great idea, but can’t operate the company, and especially not in the long run.

Even Google, which would seem to be a company based on Magic over Might, understands the need for a strong Operational focus in order to achieve the much-sought-after essence of Innovation.  Consider this passage from their recruitment site (emphasis added by me):

How we hire

We’re looking for our next Noogler – someone who’s good for the role, good for Google and good at lots of things.

Things move quickly around here. At Internet speed. That means we have to be nimble, both in how we work and how we hire. We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. We’re looking for people who are good for Google—and not just for right now, but for the long term.

This is the core of how we hire. Our process is pretty basic; the path to getting hired usually involves a first conversation with a recruiter, a phone interview and an onsite interview at one of our offices. But there are a few things we’ve baked in along the way that make getting hired at Google a little different.

How we interview

We’re looking for smart, team-oriented people who can get things done. When you interview at Google, you’ll likely interview with four or five Googlers. They’re looking for four things:


We’ll want to know how you’ve flexed different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team. This might be by asserting a leadership role at work or with an organization, or by helping a team succeed when you weren’t officially appointed as the leader.

Role-Related Knowledge

We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. We also want to make sure that you have the experience and the background that will set you up for success in your role. For engineering candidates in particular, we’ll be looking to check out your coding skills and technical areas of expertise.

How You Think

We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think. We’re likely to ask you some role-related questions that provide insight into how you solve problems. Show us how you would tackle the problem presented–don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.


We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.

How we decide

There are also a few other things we do to make sure we’re always hiring the right candidate for the right role and for Google.

We collect feedback from multiple Googlers

At Google, you work on tons of projects with different groups of Googlers, across many teams and time zones. To give you a sense of what working here is really like, some of your interviewers could be potential teammates, but some interviewers will be with other teams. This helps us see how you might collaborate and fit in at Google overall.

Independent committees of Googlers help us ensure we’re hiring for the long term

An independent committee of Googlers review feedback from all of the interviewers. This committee is responsible for ensuring our hiring process is fair and that we’re holding true to our “good for Google” standards as we grow.

We believe that if you hire great people and involve them intensively in the hiring process, you’ll get more great people. Over the past couple of years, we’ve spent a lot of time making our hiring process as efficient as possible – reducing time-to-hire and increasing our communications to candidates. While involving Googlers in our process does take longer, we believe it’s worth it. Our early Googlers identified these principles more than ten years ago, and it’s what allows us to hold true to who we are as we grow.

These core principles are true across Google, but when it comes to specifics, there are some pieces of our process that look a little different across teams. Our recruiters can help you navigate through these as the time comes.

At Google, we don’t just accept difference – we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.


So……these wizards of innovation have a clearly operational focus – collaboration, trust, responsibility, a focus on the long-term, and all of those things emphasized right from the beginning – in the hiring process – to make sure the company is populated with people who allow the organization to sustain its operational focus.

That is the strength of the organization – not it’s magical ability to develop innovative products & solutions, but it’s powerful, day-to-day, operational focus and wherewithal to sustain it.  No matter the industry, any organization without a sense of its self and dedication to the every day operational activities of the company, will fail in its quest.  Others will out-innovate and pass you by, talent will leave the organization and, at best, you will find yourself an also-ran in the market desperately clinging to a plummeting reputation as you pursue weaker and weaker opportunities until, eventually, the light goes out.

Typical Recruiting: The first step to the last straw

Human resources

Human resources by Salon-de-Richard on deviantart.com

Obviously, there’s no secret that I am out there……I’ve got my blog, a Linked In account, a twitter handle, etc. etc.  From time to time I am contacted by recruiters, usually third-party folks who are looking to gain a commission, and once in a while I get a message from an in-house recruiter who has found my resume on monster.com or LinkedIn.  The typical introduction, whether by phone or email, tends to go something like:

Hello, I am ___________, a senior recruiter with ___________.  I have a position I think you are a perfect fit for.  Please forward me your resume and I’ll give you more details about the position.

Now, all of that sounds normal, right?  It’s just business as usual and part of the HR hiring process.  Sadly, if we’re looking at it as part of an acceptable process, we’re looking at it all wrong.

What the folks are really saying is:

I am contacting you from this big, big company that, of course you are interested in working for because you recognize our name or, if you don’t, you certainly should have and we just know that you’ll want to get your entry into our hiring sweepstakes as soon as possible, so we won’t even tell you what this job is and determine if you’d like to go further – we’re just going to assume that you want to get in the door here, because it’s awesome and, after spending literally seconds scanning the 2-page document that showed up in a keyword search, we’re going to make a few more people in the organization read that same 2-page document and, after that, we’ll call you in to talk about it with a few more people.”

And we wonder why we’re all in trouble.

Seriously, though, I get it – HR pros are tagged with filling open reqs.  Find the skills that match, present candidates with those skills to the hiring manager, and off you go to the next recruitment.  Unfortunately, this reduces the candidates to little more than tools.  We should buy hammers, cars, spools of wire or microscopes  because they meet specs.  Shouldn’t the decision to work with a person to produce a good or service, valued by other human beings, and to spend more waking hours with that person than we do with our own families be taken with a very heavy emphasis on the people involved, and not just on the skills that person has obtained?

Of course it should.  To do so, however, requires a completely different mindset about what a job is, why it is and, consequently, the type of people who should be doing it.  Fact of the matter is, there are more than just different intelligences – there are different wants & needs, and sometimes it is difficult to see what a person’s wants & needs are.  To understand that, we need to invoke a greater understanding of people into the workplace, and move away from the dehumanizing practices we have come to expect.

So, please, dear recruiters of the world – consider that it may be time to take a different approach.  Let’s focus on more than just filling reqs – how about developing an understanding of the person before developing an assessment of skills?  And hiring managers – shame on you.  Shame on you for delegating the function that decides who you will spend the majority of your precious, non-renewable time with, to a group of people who don’t know nearly enough about your business and are utilizing keyword searches based on technical descriptions to identify “suitable” candidates.

We need to get beyond the basics of minimum skills required to perform a job.  Those can be acquired through any method of training and experience.  We all know, however, that a person working on something they feel passionate about produces more and better results.  So why do we not focus on those passions?  Skills can be taught.  Passions, however, are inherent, unique, natural traits.  Identifying, aligning and enabling those leads to better outcomes for both the person, and the company.

Understanding that Results are an absolute

Different Slave, Same Outcome

Different Slave, Same Outcome by Seniorgodlenspark on deviantart.com

As I continue to contemplate the machinations of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are trying to understand how ROWE works.  While I am far fom an expert, I have come up with a few things in order to share my understanding.

Typically, there are a few concerns, if not outright objections – and I believe all of them are easily answered, because all of them are really just reflections of a symptom and, therefore, are ignoring the underlying causes.  It’s easy to treat symptoms.  It’s much harder to push through the denial and get the patient to admint they are suffering from a horrible disease – especially if it’s the patient who is responsible for the spread of the disease.

Here are some of the things I’ve encountered recently, and my thoughts on each:


There are, inevitably, times when you need to be able to reach out and get a hold of people right now.  This necessitates that people are in the office where they can be pulled together to get things done.

For one, if you are always “firefighting” that’s an indicator of disorganization and a lack of preparedness.  If, however, you have optimized everything and the nature of the beast is simply one of quick response – then people who enjoy that type of work will still be responsible for the results.  If, however, you find that people just don’t seem to perform in that environment – keep in mind that people don’t like unnecessary emergencies and will quickly lose interest if that’s the case.  Plus, let’s face it, technology has developed to the point that a cell phone and a laptop have made just about anyone accessible from anywhere.  Also, if you believe people are responsible for things they care about, they’ll return to work if that’s where they need to be.


What about underperformers who just aren’t self-motivating?  If you leave them to their own devices, you’ll never get anything out of them.

So, you have some slackers who don’t produce results?  If they are not performing up to snuff it’s either because they are simply a bad person who is indifferent to the impacts they make on others, or there is something ridiculous in the environment that they can sense, even if they can’t articulate it and, consequently, they won’t support what they perceive as having no value.  If that’s the case, it’s worth examining whether or not what’s being asked of them is really necessary, or only a result of “this is the way we’ve always done it” thinking based on someone pulling rank without concentrating on just what adds value and what does not.  If, however, no amount of intervention can produce good results – then it’s time to part ways.


Certain work can’t be accomplished independent of time and place.  If people don’t show up when required, we can’t service customers well and we will always be chasing after problems.

First off, don’t kid yourself – you’re already always chasing problems.  Secondly, ROWE is really about Responsibility.  People are responsible for getting the required work done.  If that means they need to be in a certain place at a certain time, they are responsible for being there and doing what is needed.  If they can’t be there, or won’t, then the desired results aren’t being produced, and it’s time to take a closer look at the person, the environment, the processes, or all of the above.


It’s not just results we need to focus on, since good, consistent, high quality results are the outcomes of good, consistent, high quality processes.

A more mature organization will understand that a good process generates a good result.  Process discipline isn’t lost in a ROWE – it’s amplified.  If deviating from the standard process yields a poor result, then there’s clearly something wrong with the process.  A focus on the process is really just focusing on the result – processes are done to yield good outcomes, not bad ones.  No one would want to sustain a great process that yields a lousy product.


The Results ONLY concept is an absolute – you are either getting the results you expect or you are not.  Why you aren’t getting the results you want is a subject for a future post….

Scholtes: The workplace visionary no one’s heard of

As you can see from recent posts, I’ve got some issues on my mind concerning the nature of the workplace and how we can change it.  It’s no secret that work is broken – it’s demeaning, controlling and the normal mode of doing things seems increasingly out of touch with the development of technology, societal trends, and – at worst – basic human nature.

In recent years, we’ve seen some thought leaders offer up best selling books, visionary programs and torrents of articles and other works describing what is wrong, how to fix it, and attempting to explain the science behind their approaches.  In particular, Dan Pink gave us Drive, Best Buy gave us the ROWE experiment, and Lean thinkers continue to encourage us to think of front-line emplyees first, as in Jim Womack’s Gemba Walk.

What I find interesting is that all of these approaches to improving the workplace, at least in part, have some basis in Peter Scholtes 1998 Book, The Leader’s Handbook.  In the book, Scholtes pulls together theories on motivation and change management, describes new leadership styles that will be required in the 21st century, and discusses the need for managers to understand and facilitate work, rather than control and direct it.

 Scholtes even quotes social scientist Mikhail Czikszentmihalyi directly, discussing the need for flow in the workplace and describing the conditions affecting it.  Czikszentmihalyi’s work is central to the discussion of intrinsic motivation in Drive, and here it is in Scholtes’ book – more than a decade before Drive’s publication.  Scholtes also dedicates a chapter to “Meaning, Purpose, Direction, and Focus” – which is similar to Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

There are many parts of Scholtes’ book that discuss workplace culture, and many of these discussions remind me of the changes that the ROWE movement is attempting to create.  Scholtes describes aspects of culture from the employees’ point of view, particularly the interaction of social needs and the sense of accomplishment (or, as I like to call it, work/life synthesis):

  • I can like my coworkers and the company but dislike my job
  • I can like my job and coworkers but dislike the company
  • I can like my job and the company but dislike my coworkers
  • When I like all three, I am more likely to be energetic, committed, and motivated to do good work

These four points, in my mind, are pivotal to ROWE.  People may like the work, and their coworkers, but not the environment – or any combination thereof – and by allowing people to determine for themselves the nature of those interactions, everyone moves from some combination of the first three bullets to an outcome that looks more like the fourth.

Last year, I sent an email to Dan Pink, asking if his own book was the next step from Scholtes’ work.  I received a response, presumably from Mr. Pink himself, who declared he was not familiar with Scholtes.  When I discussed ROWE with Jody Thompson, she was also unfamilar with Scholtes.  I believe both authors are genuine, and rather than discount my admiration for what they have accomplished, it only enhances my appreciation for Scholtes’ vision of the 21st century workplace.  It seems that, at long last, we are starting to realize what he determined we would need to do in order to move forward.  It has been a long time coming and these movements are still in their early stages, however, I think the trend is clear.

Scholtes also discusses the Gemba and the need for managers to be more present in it – and goes into a discussion of why it is important.  Clearly, there is a need to reconcile all of these varying approaches to improving what we know is a broken mindset regarding the nature of work and how people perform it best.  It seems plausible, however, that the foundation for that reconciliation was laid quite some time ago. 

Scholtes passed away in 2009.  Hopefully, he was aware of the work being done that moved us closer to his vision, even if the movers were unaware of him.