Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Projects Manager as a Shepherd

It is now eight years and counting that I've been involved in managing Software & Systems Projects as Projects / Programme / Portfolio Manager, enough time I suppose, to have built up at least some experiences that might count as pearls of wisdom, that I could impart on fellow young Project Manager newbies entering the role; or to young engineers doubting the usefulness & effectiveness of the various Projects Manager roles.
I started off as an EIT (Engineer-in-Training), following the usual technical ladder reaching the point of Senior/Principal Engineer. I could have stayed on the technical path (I enjoyed writing code, wrote some really good code too [it's a great feeling when a consultant comes to you after your code has been in circulation for three years saying "your code is one of the most beautiful pieces of code I had to extend, it was really well written, a pleasure to maintain"]) but I always intended to learn everything about the Software business and so couldn't see myself inclined to writing code, debugging, doing maintenance, support or integration forever. I also did not want to become a traditional Line Manager that gets to look after lots of people (although I could) doing appraisals, managing performance and dealing with Administration & HR issues, not to mention Office Politicking. So I delved into Technical Project Management, just around the time that Agile/XP practices were gaining strength and coming of age.

I felt that Project Management touched on a variety of aspects of the business of Software, Management, Business, Execution & Delivery - so I wanted to experience it. The role includes managing stakeholders up and down the business, engaging with engineers directly, doing demos and exhibitions, dealing with customers and third parties, setting up contracts, commercials and strategic planning, interacting with sales/marketing and also contained (to my pleasant surprise) a lot of coaching, mentoring and up-skilling project team members -- so pretty much touching on all areas of the business, a little more exciting than being just a Software Development Manager IMHO...

Quite recently, a young graduate newbie once called me a Pseudo-Technical Manager, inferring to someone who has dabbled in Technical/Engineering and just wasn't cut-out for the Techie nitty-gritty stuff. A young Project Manager would have been outraged at this insult of this arrogant young-fool, child of the Y generation - challenging the new PM in the first week of the job! Alas, I just smiled at him for his passion in being an engineer and for his naivete in not understanding the bigger picture. I could have pointed this graduate software engineer to all the code I've written and products delivered that was light years ahead of the current company's portfolio - but instead I let it lay (He will grow in time, and besides, PMs have a thick skin - we don't get offended or take things personally)...

Projects Managers, whether they come from a Technical (Software Background) or not (Construction, Mining, Psychology, Finance), regardless of the new buzzwords that come and go, are here to stay because the role offers value. Plain-and-simple. Scrum Master, Product Owner, Product Manager or not, there is still a need for a role to provide the Map, a Path to get to the Destination, clearing the Path, removing Obstacles and ultimately Executing & Delivering the Project through its People. Although, having said that, I have been biased, perhaps a little prejudiced against Project Managers assigned to a Software/Systems Project that have really never experienced the art of Software/Systems Engineering before, first hand, in the trenches. That is, I used to say "If you ain't written code before and delivered real software products, then you're ain't managing my project". In the same vein, I was also not convinced that you can be a CTO or CEO of a Technical Organisation, having never been technical yourself (a post for another day...). But through my own personal growth I have come to work and appreciate a Projects Managers from variety of backgrounds, even those of whom have never written a line of code, deserving of my appreciation...

Coming back to point, a Projects Manager is a much needed (but sometimes undervalued) role in an organisation. One of my first PM mentors stressed upon me that a PM is really a Service Provider: PMs provide a service to the project team/engineers. That concept did indeed take some time to warm up with me, as will most PM newbies experience. The first inclination of a young PM is to be misled or disillusioned with power, that "with great power comes great responsibility", "I am Project Manager now, I call the shots, I drive the plan, crack the whip!", "I set my meetings around my calendar, people must just commit because I commit", etc, etc. On the other hand, another early mentor gave me this advice "If you ain't pissing people off, you're not doing your job as a PM. A PM asks difficult questions, follows-through, pisses people off. I measure your progress by the number of complaints coming back from people - you're being a hard-ass PM!"

Young Project Managers must start off slowly, beware of jumping into the role with the wrong attitude as if you're in charge, as a PM, you have to earn your stripes, work with and through people to gain respect, build relationships and ultimately become influential and a driver, through action and taking the lead. A PM must build up a level of Emotional Intelligence (something which I at first was wary of), understand the nuances of Cultural Dynamics and Neuroscience, working with and through people...Building relationships and effective communication skills are probably the two most important soft skills you will need as a PM...

So this Project-Manager-as-a-Service spiel stuck with me for a long time, and continues to do so today. Recently, I was playing with this metaphor that a Project Manager is really a Shepherd, as in a shepherd of a herd of livestock/cattle. I googled for a bit for similar metaphors but couldn't find anything that related to the message I had in my head. So I decided to write about it here as a first attempt, hopefully it will grow and mature over time depending on public feedback.
The Project Manager as a Shepherd
For this metaphor to work really well, think about the hazardous conditions that people of the ancient times in the Middle East had to deal with in taking care of their livestock: mountainous terrains, dry, arid & windy conditions, etc.

Shepherd in Hebrew means "One who tends".  A shepherd tends to his flock (sheep or goats, or any other livestock), leading them to pastures for grazing, along difficult paths and tracks, often through mountainous terrain and sometimes adverse weather conditions, sometimes leading from the front, or driving from behind, but most of the time walking side-by-side his flock, keeping their best interests at heart - ensuring his flock follows his map, to get to there ultimate destination. Pasture-upon-pasture, the
Shepherd takes his flock to graze, over a period of time, to reach the point of shearing, where the fruits of his efforts can be seen as ultimate success.

Sometimes assisted by sheep dogs, who also aid in guiding and controlling the movement of the livestock, and depending on the size of flock or herd, the Shepherd also enlists the help of other helpers, but there is almost always only one Shepherd leading the journey, the pastoral plan, with his helpers following in suit.

The Shepherd always maintains the best interest of the herd, protects his flock from wild animals and other predators as well as dangerous conditions...Note though, the Shepherd does not direct his flock how to eat, how to walk or how to choose what food they eat. Sheep would usually tend to short lush blades of grass, whilst goats would seek out leaves from trees.

The Shepherd also doesn't show his flock how to drink water either, or control where they relieve themselves, etc. What the Shepherd does do however, is maintain a keen eye on all members of the flock, such that they don't go astray, go off-course, heading in wrong direction or heading towards dangerous areas...Hardly does the Shepherd use a whip or other instrument of pain to control the flock...Though appearing as if he has all the time in the world for idleness, the Shepherd is always reflecting and thinking ahead, preparing for the next set of activities or visualizing the journey that lies ahead.

In the same way as a Shepherd tends to his flock, the Projects Manager (PM) tends to his project team. Working mostly from the side, but also leading from the front and sometimes driving from behind, the PM manages his team to reach their pastures (milestones or final project delivery) safely, and in tact. Controlling and creating value through his project team, managing risk and clearing obstacles, the PM tactfully delivers on the project's objectives. Working with people, sometimes walking along them to share the experiences on the ground, the PM develops relationships and a sense of trust, just as a Shepherd does with his flock so much so, that when a Shepherd leads the herd through flowing water or a river, the ones that trust the Shepherd will blindly follow, whilst there are others that remain nervous and distrusting, waiting for the Shepherd to lead them by hand through the dangerous waters. In pretty much the same way, a project team will either trust and follow the PM as he leads them through some difficult aspects of the project, whilst others in the team remain suspect or nervous of the intentions of the PM...

When the flock or herd becomes too large to be managed by a single Shepherd, he resorts to enlisting help from helpers, whilst still maintaining the lead on the overall herding strategy. Sheep dogs are also used to guide and monitor triggers for the herd going astray or not keeping on the path.  In pretty much
the same way, for large projects spanning multiple work streams, the Programme Manager enlists the help of fellow Projects Managers and Administrators to help work together to deliver the overall strategy. Programme Managers are most of the time, several levels abstracted away from the detail, often trusting & empowering the sub-projects managers to be effective in dealing with the risks and delivery objectives of their individual work streams. Sometimes however, the Programme Manager, depending on skills level and experience does get involved in the detail, all in the interest of holding the project team together to guarantee the successful outcome of the overall Programme.

With regards to Software/Systems Projects, the sheep in this analogy are the Engineers: Software Engineers, Programmers/Coders (note the distinction Software Engineer is not just a Coder - post for another day), Architects, Test Engineers, Business Analysts & Documentation experts) - they know their individual duties really well, just as sheep know how to chew on grass really well, they also know how to create teams that work, just as you'd find little pockets of sheep cuddled together as if in a the PM leaves them alone, they got their head buried in the detail, whilst the PM is looking ahead, directing and carving the path for them to follow...

Detailed Analogy (Work-in-Progress)
In my research I came across an exhaustive list of duties and behaviours of a Shepherd, that draw striking similarities with Projects Management. I came across quite an exhaustive list of tasks a shepherd performs from this site, I've picked a few that I think resonate well with the duties of a PM:

  • Caring for Sick and Wounded Sheep - Care of sick or wounded sheep. The shepherd is always on the lookout for members of his flock that need personal attention. Sometimes a lamb suffers from the rays of the sun, or its body may have been badly scratched by some thorn bush.
  • Crossing Streams & Caring for the sheep in special times of need. The love of the shepherd for his sheep is best seen when times of special need call forth unusual acts of care for members of the flock. Crossing a stream of water. The shepherd leads the way into the water and across the stream. Those favored sheep who always keep hard by the shepherd, plunge boldly into the water, and are soon across. Others of the flock enter the stream with hesitation and alarm. Not being close to their guide, they may miss the fording place and be carried down the river a distance, but will probably be able to clamber ashore. The little lambs may be driven into the water by the dogs, and they are heard to bleat pitifully as they leap and plunge. Some manage to get across, but if one is swept away, then the shepherd leaps quickly into the stream and rescues it. 
  • Finding Stray Sheep, Straying sheep restored. It is very important that sheep should not be allowed to stray away from the flock, because when by themselves they are utterly helpless. In such a condition, they become bewildered, for they have no sense at all of locality. And if they do stray away, they must be brought back.
  • Food for the Flock. Food planned for the flock. One of the principal duties at all seasons of the year is for the shepherd to plan food for his flock. 
  • Gathering Scattered Sheep. The shepherd knows how to gather sheep that have been scattered. Especially is this necessary when the sheep must be led back to the fold, or when they are to be guided to another pasture. 
  • Goats and Sheep - How goats differ from sheep. Most of the Palestinian and Syrian sheep are white, whereas most of the goats are black. The goats like the slopes of the rocky mountains, whereas the sheep prefer the plains or mountain valleys. The goats are especially fond of young leaves of trees, but the sheep would rather have grass. Goats will feed during all the day without the heat of summer affecting them; but when the sunshine is hot, the sheep will lie down under a tree, or in the shade of a rock, or in a shelter prepared by the shepherd for that purpose.
  • Hirelings. The difference between the shepherd and the hireling. When the flock is small, the shepherd handles his sheep without any help, but if the flock becomes too large, then it becomes necessary for him to hire someone to help him with the sheep. One man can usually handle from fifty to one hundred sheep, but when he has more than one hundred, he usually seeks a helper. 
  • Knowing Each Sheep. The shepherd is deeply interested in every single one of his flock. Some of them may be given pet names because of incidents connected with them. He is able to feel the absence of anyone of his sheep. With one sheep gone, something is felt to be missing from the appearance of the entire flock
  • Lambs Special care of baby lambs, and sheep with young ones. When lambing time comes, the shepherd must take great care of his flock. The task is made more difficult because it so often becomes necessary to move to a new location to find pasturage. The sheep that are soon to become mothers, as well as those with their young ones, must be kept close to the shepherd while in transit. Little helpless lambs that cannot keep up with the rest of the flock, are carried in the bosom of his undergarment, the girdle turning it into a pocket.
  • Leading Sheep, Guiding the sheep. The Eastern shepherd never drives his sheep as does the Western shepherd. He always leads them, often going before them. This does not mean that the shepherd is always in front of his sheep. Although he may be usually in that position when traveling, he often walks by their side, and sometimes follows behind, especially if the flock is headed for the fold in the evening. From the rear he can gather any stragglers, and protect such from a sly attack from a wild animal. If the flock is a large one, the shepherd will be in front, and a heifer will follow behind. The skill of the shepherd, and personal relationship to them is clearly seen when he guides his sheep along narrow paths. 
  • Lost Sheep Seeking and finding lost sheep. Being responsible for anything that happens to one of his flock, the shepherd will spend hours if necessary in traversing the wilderness or mountain side, in search of a sheep that has strayed away and is lost. After weary hours of hunting for it, it will usually be found in some waterless hollow in the wilderness, or in some desolate mountain ravine. 
  • Mixing Flocks. Several flocks sometimes allowed to mix. More than one flock may be kept in the same fold, and often flocks are mixed while being watered at a well.
  • Naming Sheep Giving names to the sheep. Shepherd delights to give names to certain of his sheep, and if his flock is not too large, all of his sheep may be given names. He knows them by means of certain individual characteristics.
  • Playing with Sheep Playing with the sheep. The shepherd is so constantly with his sheep that sometimes his life with them becomes monotonous. 
  • Protection of sheep from robbers and wild animals. The sheep need to be guarded against robbers not only when they are in the open country, but also when they are in the fold. 
  • Separating Sheep. When it becomes necessary to separate several flocks of sheep, one shepherd after another will stand up and call out: "Tahhoo! Tahhoo!" or a similar call of his own choosing. The sheep lift up their heads, and after a general scramble, begin following each one his own shepherd
  • Separating Sheep and Goats Separating goats from sheep. At certain times it becomes necessary to separate the goats from the sheep, although they may be cared for by the same shepherd that cares for the sheep. They do not graze well together, and so it frequently becomes necessary to keep them apart from the sheep while they are grazing.
  • Sheep Dogs The use of dogs. Some shepherds make use of dogs. When traveling, the shepherd usually walks ahead, and the dogs are allowed to bring up the rear. They bark furiously at any intruder among them, and therefore warn of possible danger to the flock. When the sheep are in the fold, then the dogs become the guardians against any possible attack by an enemy. 
  • Shepherd's Flute The shepherd's flute. A dual-piped flute of reed is generally carried by the Arab shepherd. It is true that minor strains of music come from this flute, but the heart of the shepherd is stirred, and the sheep of the flock are refreshed by the invigorating music that comes from this simple instrument.
  • Shepherd's Rod/Crook The shepherd's rod It is like a policeman's club. It is often made of oak wood and has a knob on the end of it. Into this knob nails are sometimes driven so as to make a better weapon. It is very useful for protection, and no shepherd would be without it.
  • Shepherds Hunting Predators Hunting to protect the sheep.
  • Water for the Flock Water provided for the flock. In selecting pasturage for the flock, it is an absolute necessity that water be provided, and that it be easy of access. 
Books that have helped me in my own PM Journey
I firmly believe that owning Project Management Certifications like PMP, PRINCE2, Certified Scrum Master, etc - i.e. any type of Management certification, is not what makes you a good or close-to-decent Projects Manager. Agree that certifications provides the grounding, and even some certifications promote a Code of Ethics and Values as most professions do - but jumping into managing projects with just certifications alone, and re-using the frameworks blindly, is probably not the best approach.

Young PMs run the risk of being labelled "Status-Monkeys", driving and following a project plan on paper, that went out-of-date the moment the plan went to press. You have to start somewhere, all PMs have - status drivers, checking in everyday, day-in-day-out on the status "Have you started yet, Did you finish, What's blocking you" - this must be done as part of the grounding work. Eventually the PM learns, reflects and adapts his/her style of approach - focusing more on the softer sides to management - this is inevitable.

Hardline Project Managers, whilst getting their projects delivered and probably on time, usually leave a trail of emotional destruction behind them, so much so, that when the next project comes along, you won't get flocks of people knocking at the door to be included...

Here is a list of reading material (either expand your knowledge through reading, or learn from the wisdom of experience & grand masters) that has helped me and continues to inspire me through my journey as a leader first, programme & projects manager second. I will add some brief descriptions to this reading list in my next post:
  • Management 3.0
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • The Change Function
  • Software in 30 days
  • Dealing with Difficult People
  • The Personal Efficiency Program
  • Tales from the Project Trade
  • The Mythical Man-month
  • The Dip
  • Warfighting
  • The One Page Project manager
  • The One Page Project manager for IT projects
  • Peopleware
  • The Deadline
  • Slack
  • Managing Projects Large & Small
  • Brilliant Project Management
  • Waltzing with Bears
  • Agile Project Management with Scrum
  • Software Survival Guide
  • Steve Jobs
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Managing your Boss
  • The No Asshole Rule
  • The World is Flat
  • Good Boss, Bad Boss
  • Tribes
  • Dreaming in Code
  • What I Wish I Knew when I was 20
  • Outliers
  • Who Says Elephants can't Dance?
  • What would Google Do?
  • The Google Way
  • The Cathedral & the Bazaar
  • Agile Coaching
  • Agile Retrospectives
  • The Depth Facilitator's Handbook
  • Your Brain at Work
  • Beneath
  • Snoop
  • Lateral Thinking
  • The Cultural Orientation Index

1 comment:

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