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Chapter 57 of Gower Handbook of People in Project Management (978-1-4094-3785-7) by Dennis Lock and Lindsay Scott

The Hero Project Managers

Andy Jordan

We’ve all come across them in our careers. You see them walking down the corridor and whisper to your colleague about them in hushed tones. You expect them to disappear into the broom cupboard and emerge seconds later wearing a cape and a one-piece Lycra suit. These are the hero project managers (PMs), that small and elite group which is parachuted into troubled projects to rescue things and deliver a seemingly lost project on time, on scope, on budget and on quality. Clearly the world is a better place because of these exceptionally gifted men and women.

But wait a minute: let’s roll back to that bit where these hero PMs are parachuted in to the project to leap tall obstacles in a single bound. Why do we need these people in the first place? If we are doing a good job of managing our projects, then surely things should never get to the point where we need hero PMs? We should have processes and tools in place to provide early warnings when things begin to go wrong. Then surely we could take corrective action to avoid the melodrama of having to ‘call in the doctor’ to save the lives of our projects? This chapter investigates how projects can deteriorate to the point of needing a ‘hero’, what makes a good hero PM and what organisations can do to render them unnecessary.

Introducing the Hero PMs

Hero PMs are especially gifted and experienced people who are asked to rescue projects from apparently irrecoverable situations. They may be saving their own projects, but more usually they are asked to step in as replacement PMs when things are looking lost. The interim manager described in Case Four in Chapter 48 was a good example of a hero PM. Hero PMs are typically seen as the last hope to deliver ailing projects on time, scope, budget and quality (or at least as close to those objectives as possible).

Every hero PM has to ‘hit the ground running’ and will be expected to add value on day one, and thenceforth constantly deliver improvements to get the project back on track. Hero PMs need to build relationships rapidly with the project team, understand what needs to be done and motivate their resources to achieve it. They may need to spend some time understanding exactly where the project currently stands if the status reporting and project schedule are not providing a clear or accurate picture (or if the reality is very different from what has been reported to stakeholders to this point). They will have to compromise in the way that the project is executed in order to try and deliver results – effectively cutting corners and assuming additional risk to try and accelerate real progress.

Hero PMs are usually experienced PMs who know which risks can be taken and which need to be avoided. They understand the implications of their shortcuts and aggressively manage the project to deal with problems immediately and decisively. They have to be fearless, being ruthlessly decisive and never second-guessing themselves. They must be able to command the respect of their team so that they can turn a group of demoralised individuals into a team of overachievers who can not only rescue the project but also redeem their own reputations and self-confidence.

On the face of it all this seems incredible. Here is a group of ‘super PMs’ who step in to deal with the ‘problem projects’ that an organisation always seems to be dealing with. Who would not want to be able to call on one or two of these people when things get tough? It’s an executive’s dream to be able to light up the sky with a special sign and have a larger-than-life PM standing in their doorway.

But is this really an acceptable situation? What’s really happening here is a failure of in-house project execution – clearly something has gone badly wrong with any project that requires outside resources to step in and try to save the situation.

Factors Leading to the Need for a Hero PM

How can a project can deteriorate to the point of needing a hero PM? Here is an indication that the project plan and the project reality have become seriously misaligned. That, in turn, implies that one or more of the following situations has occurred:

  1. Bad planning – inaccurate effort estimates, inappropriate resource allocation, missed work items and so on;

  2. Bad project management – failure to recognise problems that were occurring, failure to take timely corrective action, failure to identify slippages, lack of change management, masking of the true situation and so on;

  3. Bad stakeholder/sponsor leadership – failure to approve recommended corrective actions, failure to deliver on approved actions, unrealistic constraints and so on.

 

All of these are serious issues, but they are not going to result in the need for a hero PM immediately, there has to be another factor as well, which is time. Even the most serious problem is unlikely to result in complete catastrophe immediately – it’s the failure to take the appropriate corrective actions in time that will seal the project’s fate.

Consider one of the examples above. Suppose that a project is suffering from bad planning estimates and that these bad estimates occur throughout the entire plan. A PM should be able to identify this problem as soon as he or she sees that the actual figures are at a considerable variance from the plan. They conduct the analysis, establish that the estimates are flawed and then look at all of the other estimates to see whether the problem exists elsewhere.

Once they have established that the problem is widespread they can advise stakeholders, re-estimate the work and establish a more realistic project schedule. There may still be some difficult discussions with stakeholders about the project constraints, but there is as yet no apparent need for a hero PM to be dropped into the project.

However, what often happens is an attempt to ‘cover up’ the problem. The PM (or sponsor) will try to implement their own plan to recover the situation, whilst still reporting the project as ‘on track’ so that they are not seen as having made a mistake. They work with their team leaders to arrange for overtime, look for ways to move people around to preserve the schedule, identify tasks that can be skipped or cut short, and so on, in the hope that the situation can be resolved within the team.

Of course things rarely work out that way; it’s far more common for things to get worse. That provides even more incentive for PMs to try and recover things themselves – otherwise not only will they have to admit to the original problem, but also to their failure to deal with it. Within a very short time the project moves seriously off track, to the point where it is too late to recover using conventional approaches – cue the hero PM. We’ve all seen these projects. They are the ones that suddenly go from ‘on target’ to three months late in the status summary. Typically cost performance against budget will track the same pattern.

A More Detailed Description of a Typical Hero PM and the job Requirements

I touched on the characteristics of a hero PM earlier. Now it’s time to examine the special talents of hero PMs in a little more detail.

First, consider the situation in which these heroic people find themselves. They are stepping in to a project part way through, knowing full well that the project is headed for impending doom. They are either replacing the unsuccessful PM or they are being asked to work alongside the original PM – someone who has been at least partly responsible for the current situation, and is very likely to be both demoralised and potentially resentful of the hero PM coming in to take over.

In addition the project team will probably have extremely low morale. No one wants to be associated with failure, and team members will be concerned that the project’s problems reflect on themselves. They may well be ‘burned out’ from trying to recover the project from its difficulties, and resent the fact that they are now being asked to accept more changes and try again to deliver an ‘impossible’ project.

Clearly this is not the ideal situation for anyone to step into, let alone an individual who is expected to provide salvation. It’s easy to understand why these men and women are considered to be heroes. To be successful they obviously need to be skilled PMs, but more importantly, they also need to be skilled people leaders. Let’s look at their skill sets in more detail.

Analysing and Understanding

The first thing that the hero PM needs to do is understand exactly what the situation is that they are stepping in to. This means undertaking an analysis of the project to establish:

  • current status (which is not necessarily the same as what is indicated by the status reports);

  • the issues that the project is facing together with the root causes of those issues;

  • the actions that have been taken to try and recover from the situation and the outcome of those efforts;

  • the variances between the current state and the project goals (cost and schedule);

  • what can be achieved within the current confines of budget, scope, schedule and quality;

  • the additional budget and/or schedule required to deliver the full scope and quality or the reduction in scope and/or quality required to stay within current budget and schedule-time analysis.

 

The last item in the above list in particular is likely to involve a number of reiterative analyses and discussions with stakeholders about different scenarios in order to develop the most acceptable (or the least unacceptable) outcome.

The hero PM also needs to understand how the recognition that the project needs rescuing will impact upon stakeholders, and in particular the PM’s management of those stakeholders. The stakeholders will have expectations around the project, either consciously set by the original PM or through a lack of management of expectations on their part. All of those expectations must now be reviewed, and either revalidated or changed.

This might all be a fairly straightforward process. If some of the major stakeholders were responsible for calling in the hero PM, then there will already be a recognition that things needed to change. However, that might also result in those stakeholders thinking that they can control the project because the new PM is ‘theirs’. On the other hand, the stakeholders may be taken by surprise by the sudden change of PM and the circumstances that led to it. That could be as a result of one or more of the following:

  • a lack of information (leading to incorrect assumptions);

  • a lack of understanding of how bad things were;

  • over-optimistic or actually misleading status reports from the original PM.

 

The hero PM must analyse all of these stakeholder positions, expectations and agendas and ensure that their incorrect assumptions are rapidly corrected. As they move through the following steps they need to consider the stakeholders constantly, ensure that realistic expectations are set and that the stakeholders themselves are actively managed. Even hero PMs cannot remove individual stakeholder bias or personal agendas, but they can ensure that they understand them and manage accordingly.

Of course, this analysis cannot happen in isolation. The project is in serious trouble and actions need to be taken immediately to try and recover it. As a result the analysis must be conducted in parallel with the actions described below, with adjustments to those steps being made based on the outcome of the analysis. From this it will become apparent that we need to add expert multitasking to the hero PM’s skill set!

Building Productive Relationships

No matter how good the hero PM is, they are not going to be able to turn the project around on their own. They need to work through the project team, and that can pose a significant challenge. Whenever there is a change within a team it takes time for that team to find a new ‘normal’ working relationship. The team has to adjust to its new member so that it can accept them into the team and so on. When the change is the PM, that is likely to be even more dramatic and disruptive. Indeed it can result in a tendency for team performance to drop as everyone becomes more focused on establishing their own position in the changed team.

The hero PM needs to focus quickly on each team member (both as individuals and as a group) as well as on the tasks that need to be completed. Team members must understand that the best way to demonstrate their value is to concentrate on the work and start delivering on the tasks that will ultimately result in project success. This can be much harder than it sounds – especially since the team is the same group of people who were responsible for the project when all of the past problems occurred.

The hero PM must focus also on creating a positive environment where the team (individually and as a group) feel comfortable. They cannot be allowed to feel as though the causes of the project’s problems are still being held over them. They have to be convinced that the ‘hero’ is bringing a fresh start where everyone has a new chance to demonstrate their abilities. The hero PM cannot ignore any people-related problems that have occurred to this point, but he or she needs to ensure that those issues are managed within a new positive and forward-looking environment.

For example, if a team member is not pulling their weight and their deliverables are slipping, then the hero PM needs to manage them aggressively to meet deadlines on the tasks to which they are now assigned with, as far as possible, no reference to what has happened in the past and how that may have impacted upon the project. The new process is simply about getting each assigned task completed by the deadline date.

Another point of focus for the hero PM is the collective morale of the team and of each individual within it. We can all think back to projects where things have not been going well, and that is never a pleasant experience. The team will most likely have been working long hours (especially in attempting to catch up on the schedule). Its members will be feeling down because of the unresolved problems, and frustrated that things are not improving. There might be individuals who are starting to ‘point fingers’ or remove themselves from any responsibility and there will certainly be a sense of ‘what’s the point?’ for the future of the project.

Whilst the hero PM will bring a fresh approach to the project there is no getting away from the fact that the team will have to continue to work hard, and that means they need to place all their trust and loyalty in the new PM. Here the analogy of a military leader is a good one. If the leader stands at the back and instructs the team where to go, then the individuals will be unlikely to give their all. On the other hand, if the leader stands at the head of the team with an attitude of ‘come on, follow me, let’s get this done’ (that is, leading from the front) then the team will be fired up with courage and enthusiasm, and will thus be far more inclined to follow the leader.

Clearly all this means that the team believes in its new PM, and that in turn means open and frequent communication, engaging the team in determining the actions to be taken (covered in more detail below) and frequent positive reinforcement.

The project solution might involve bringing additional resources into the project, but this is not automatically a good thing. Not only will new people cause additional disruption to the team dynamics, they can cause separate cliques of ‘old’ team and ‘new’ team, and working ‘flat out’ may not help – not every problem can be solved by ‘throwing people at it’.

Editorial Comment (DL)

Additional resources might be considered undesirable or unauthorised because of budget constraints but very often the additional cost will be offset by the cost advantages of recovering the original schedule. Always remember that time is money.

Being Decisive

Hero PMs do not enjoy the luxury of being able to take time to consider all options before taking action. When the project is in trouble it is not going to get better by doing nothing. That said, it obviously can get worse if one does the wrong things.

One of the first tasks that the hero PM needs to do is ensure that the team is making progress on tasks that are going to add value to the project. This action might be limited at this point because the PM has had no chance to conduct the analysis recommended above in the ‘Analysing and Understanding’ section but there will still be some items that can move forward. The hero PM will focus on work that is critical to the project’s outcome – items that cannot be modified or removed if the project is ultimately to be considered a success.

Ideally the problem project will have been accurately defined from the start, possibly by a project charter, and certainly by a scope statement, requirements documents and other notes to specify all the project deliverables. If not, that will be a failure of the project management system and the hero PM will have to work with the sponsor, customer and other key stakeholders to establish those ‘must haves’.

As the analysis proceeds, so more courses of action will become clear and the hero PM will need to move resources around to ensure that the focus is always on the critical tasks (the tasks that are going to contribute most to achieving the end goals). This requires decisiveness, even if there is a general lack of confidence in the course of action being pursued. That does not mean work for the sake of work – it means approving the work that will add the best value based on the information currently available. As the hero PM learns more about the project’s situation, or as stakeholders make decisions around mutually acceptable compromises, then those decisions need to be revisited and adjusted if necessary.

It should be apparent from all this why the strong relationships described above are important. Resources are going to be moved between different tasks more frequently as the effort is diverted to where it is most needed. The people involved need to be able to trust their new PM to be making the right decisions.

The situation described here is by no means as chaotic as it might sound. The hero PM should always be focused on developing a clear and complete picture as soon as possible, but also needs to make progress from the beginning, in parallel with the process of analysis and understanding.

As soon as the PM has gained a clear picture of the current project state, and the stakeholders have agreed on the areas (if any) where compromises can be made (cost versus quality versus delivery date versus scope) they need to work with key team members to develop a realistic plan to achieve a successful project. Team members might be reluctant to commit themselves to change because of their earlier experiences, especially if incorrect estimates were part of the problem. So the hero PM needs to lead this process (and here again good relationships are vital). However, it is also important that the team members have ‘bought into’ the plan – the hero PM cannot force it upon them.

Accepting and Managing Risk

No matter how engaged the team is, or how accommodating stakeholders have been in freeing up the budget, reducing scope or pushing out deadlines, execution of the revised plan is going to be difficult. The project had already reached an unacceptable point when the hero PM was brought in and for things to improve rapid progress is now necessary.

As a result the organisation is usually going to have to accept that the project will incur more risk than was previously considered acceptable. One of the major skills that sets hero PMs apart is their ability to handle risk. Hero PMs must:

  • be comfortable when managing initiatives where risks are higher than normal;

  • be able to remain calm and objective when significant risks become realities;

  • accept that in these less-than-ideal circumstances risk management plans may be less thorough than usual, resulting in a greater degree of residual risk;

  • be prepared to introduce controlled risk to the project in order to save time and/or money.

 

In a ‘normal’ project, all risks are reviewed in advance and, for the significant risks, appropriate actions are taken to manage the likelihood and impact of those risks as part of a wider and ongoing risk management strategy. At its most simple level this is an investment of time, effort and (potentially) money in order to minimise the possible negative impact (or maximise the potential positive impact) in the future.

Hero PMs will not have as many resources to invest in this preventative approach, so more risks will have to be accepted as they stand. Thus only the most significant risks will get active management. However, that does not mean that all these risks are ignored. Unmanaged risks require more attention, not less. The hero PM needs to ensure that these risks are being monitored for warning signs that they are becoming real so that swift and decisive actions can be taken to try and eliminate any negative project impact.

Of course, with less active management of risks then more of them will actually materialise, so contingencies are an important consideration for the hero PM. Here too, the options are limited and compromises will be necessary. The PM will need to work closely with the project stakeholders to determine what the response strategies will be if risks do become reality. In some cases the realisation of key risks may result in the project simply being unable to meet its goals and objectives. Stakeholders will have to accept that risk related costs will increase – it’s unavoidable, and cannot be eliminated just by a refusal to set aside a budget for it! Additionally, whilst some trade-offs between cost and budget are possible, the risk costs should anticipate both financial and schedule impacts.

Perhaps the hardest part of risk management for hero PMs is the recognition that their own activities and decisions will tend to introduce risk into the project – effectively trading accelerated progress towards project goals for increased risk.

For example, an organisation’s project processes, tools, templates and so on are all designed to provide a standardised approach to project management that is well proven and maximises the chances for success. However, these processes all take time and effort to execute and the hero PM may not have that time and effort available. They need to be prepared to trade the ‘best’ or the ‘right’ way of doing things for the ‘only remaining’ way that will give them any chance of delivering against the objectives.

This can be a tough step for PMs to take – processes are the cornerstone of project management and it feels wrong to abandon them. Additionally, failure to follow process may well be the reason why the project got into trouble in the first place, so continuing along that path seems like a recipe for disaster.

This is why hero PMs must be experienced PMs. They need the experience to determine where corners can be cut and where the processes have to be followed ‘to the letter’.

Even where processes are not followed precisely, they are not entirely abandoned. For example, the project might not provide formal weekly status reporting, but the PM may well chair daily ‘scrums’ with key team members to ensure that no tasks are being held up, all resources are working on assigned tasks, no adverse issues are arising and so on.

Eliminating Hero PMs

By definition a hero is someone who goes to extraordinary lengths to achieve a goal. Heroes go far beyond what anyone has any right to expect, indeed far beyond anything that can be sustained for any length of time. This is why so many heroes have unfortunately to be recognised posthumously (hopefully not literally in the case of project management). Although their lives might not be at risk, hero PMs can easily become burned out and demoralised, and may well look for other opportunities in organisations where they can have a more ‘normal’ project management career.

In organisations with hero PMs there can also be a tendency to set unreasonable goals. Sponsors demand unrealistic delivery dates, budgets and scopes because they know that a particular PM with an appropriate reputation can most likely deliver when faced with these challenges.

Whilst hero PMs can be the salvation of an individual initiative, the focus of an organisation has to be on eliminating the need for the role in the first place – to improve the way in which projects are executed to ensure that no project ever reaches the point of needing its hero. Heroic project management is effectively a trade-off, sacrificing the long-term health of the project resource pool for the sake of progress on a specific initiative. If this becomes normal behaviour then the organisation will see a significant drop in its project execution capability over the longer term.

All this requires a very honest analysis of failed projects – and a project that requires a hero PM is a failed one even if the goals and objectives are ultimately achieved by the hero PM’s efforts. There needs to be an understanding of the root causes of the adverse issues – not just the visible symptoms but also of the underlying problems that must be dealt with in order to prevent recurrence. These may be process-related or people-related (or some combination of both) but it is important to understand and deal with these issues as soon as possible to prevent them from recurring.

This careful consideration will depend on who is doing the problem analysis. There can be an assumption that the original PM acted perfectly but was dragged down by inappropriate, outdated, incomplete and/or ineffective processes. Alternatively there might be an assumption that the processes are perfect and all of the problems lay with the original PM’s inability to follow the specified processes or a lack of project management skills. In truth, it is unlikely that either of these situations will be true. Processes need to evolve continuously to remain as effective as possible in supporting the changing needs of the organisation’s project portfolio. Over time major overhauls will be necessary to respond to evolving project management approaches, changing technology, changes in working arrangements and so on.

Not all PMs are created equal. There may well be situations where additional training is required, formal performance management needs to be implemented or the type of project assigned to the individual PM needs to be reconsidered.

Consideration must also be given to ensure that there is not an overreaction. Sometimes projects just go wrong through no fault of the processes or the PM. Bad things happen to good projects!

Ultimately the organisation needs to ensure that its project execution approach is built to maximise the likelihood of success, as follows:

  • effective processes consistently applied with checkpoints and gateways at key points;

  • consistent compliance with process and tool requirements;

  • an environment of trust and openness where PMs can accurately report project status without fear of reprisals;

  • recognition by stakeholders that projects require budgets (financial and schedule) for risk management and contingency;

  • understanding that demanding a project be completed by a certain date, for a certain budget, with a specified scope and quality level does not in itself make it possible – these triple constraints are not optional.

 

Conclusion

Hero PMs might be the worst thing that has ever happened to project management! These PMs, with their almost superhuman abilities to rescue success from the jaws of complete disaster, allow organisations to think that it’s all right to allow projects to ‘go off the rails’. Hero PMs become an almost normal part of the way that projects are managed, and that is an extremely risky attitude that will ultimately fail when the last PM hero quits and goes to a competitor who has an effective project execution approach that eliminates the need for heroes in the first place.

Hero PMs are bad for projects in general – they send a message that it’s not serious to have a project that has completely lost its way because someone can always be called in to come along and rescue it.

Hero PMs are bad for PMs – because they can remove the pressure to perform well. If generally tolerated, they allow substandard performance to become the norm because someone else can always come along to clear up the mess.

Hero PMs are bad for organisations – because they can mask inherent problems in the way that projects are executed by the organisation.

Hero PMs are bad for the hero PMs themselves – they demand excessive amounts of effort in extremely stressful situations and cannot be maintained for extended periods of time.

If an organisation is faced with a situation where it is relying on a hero PM, then it should be grateful that he or she is available, and then do everything possible to ensure that they are never needed again.

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