Management

The American View: The Blair Witch Project Manager

The rumors aren’t entirely true: Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger doesn’t hate ALL project manager. Just the awful ones. You should too.

I’ve been accused of despising project managers, and that’s not an entirely inaccurate statement. In fairness, it’s incomplete. I do despise some project managers … the awful ones. In fact, I strongly recommend that everyone else despise awful project managers every bit as much as I do. Bad project managers are an exhausting drain on workers’ and clients’ time, resources, and sanity. Better to go without than to have a bad one.

As an example: I was working a systems integration job for a large logistics company some years ago. Our mission was to customize an all-new maintenance management solution to replace the client’s ancient, out-of-support, computerised system. We knew what equipment the client needed to manage, knew their business processes, and understood their desired end-state. All we needed was working software and enough time to hand-jam in all of the setup information. There really wasn’t much of a ‘project’ to manage … our plan was to complete step A, then step B, then testing and acceptance.

We had a ‘project manager’ anyway because someone higher up the corporate ladder had insisted that one was necessary.  This lady – whom we’ll call ‘Bob’ – also served as the integration team’s part-time manager. After the project kick-off, we only saw Bob for an hour at a time, two or three times each week (less if we were lucky). [1]

Bob was supposedly a fully-qualified Project Manager, having graduated from our company’s in-house PM academy. I had also graduated from the academy but I was only considered a lower-case-P project manager since I didn’t hold manager-level rank. Bob did, so she got the capitalised title (along with the larger pay packet and permission to come and go as she pleased). Good for her.

Bob regularly reminded everyone that she was our superior in every possible sense. Imposter Syndrome? Or just a jerk? The jury’s still out. 

I got to watch Bob in action a one afternoon when our unsatisfied client demanded status updates on several unresolved points of contention. The bespoke software wasn’t finished and we were all behind schedule. There was literally nothing that we could do since we were entirely at the mercy of the publisher. I pointed out that if the devs didn’t hit their publication targets, we were all screwed. Bob angrily told me to ‘zip it.’ I did.

Since I had nothing better to do, I watched Bob’s laptop to see if I could learn anything about how she ‘managed’ us. I remembered from the PM school that our company had a ton of custom forms, checklists, and other printed PM tools. All of our ‘trained’ PMs were strongly encouraged to use the standard work products ‘in the field.’ Bob, I realized, wasn’t using any of them. Her entire approach to ‘project management’ was to enter notes into a three-column Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, with no regard to priority, impact, timing, or any other useful criteria. She didn’t even check off or cross out completed tasks; she typed abbreviated notes at the end of each row without regard to how that information might get used later. I was horrified … although not particularly surprised.

After the meeting broke up, I asked Bob about a complaint that the client had raised. Bob had made a passing comment that the complaint ‘would be noted’ in something called the ‘complaint tracker’ and resolved in due time. I said that I’d never heard of a ‘complaint tracker,’ let alone seen it. Bob snarled at me and said that I wasn’t allowed to see the client’s complaints since I might then try to interact with upset client. She claimed (nonsensically) that us line consultants were forbidden to interact directly with the client; all communication between worker and client had to go through Bob. [2]

No wonder the project was a disaster. We were following a schedule that we couldn’t control. We were responsible for ‘fixing’ issues that we weren’t told about. We were forbidden to interact directly with the customers that we were purportedly there to serve. All because this was how our big-P ‘Project Manager’ had unilaterally (and in contravention of firm protocols) decided to manage our team. The project was doomed from the outset. Even if the software had been delivered on time (it wasn’t) and worked as-advertised (it didn’t), we couldn’t possibly have succeeded given the arbitrary and counter-productive restrictions placed upon us.

Calling the project ’Sisyphean’ gives it more dignity than it deserved.  

The nine months that I spent on that project reminded me of an awful horror movie that had come out the year before. From our team’s perspective, every workday was a miserable and pointless slog to quitting time on Friday. We knew early on that we’d never reach any sort of satisfying conclusion. We were just marking time, billing hours, and waiting for the client to get fed up with us. We couldn’t tell what was really happening at any given moment, and we wanted the whole mess to be over. If you guessed that the film I was referring to was 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, well-spotted.

If you’re not familiar with it, back in 1998 a couple of writer-directors came up with a ‘found footage’ mystery-horror story and shot the whole project in a week with three unknown actors who largely improvised their lines. The fake documentary ostensible tells a story about student filmmakers who venture into spooky woods to look for the titular witch. It’s a really simple premise, and the film deserves some honest respect: the production company grossed nearly $250M off of a $60k budget, and helped kick-started the ‘found footage’ horror genre. So … well done. [3]

The movie was (and still is) popular with critics. It currently holds an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It only has a 56% audience score, though, and even that strikes me as exaggerated because many viewers were seriously turned off by the film. I agree with most of the audience reviews that the film’s concept was interesting, but its execution was exhausting. The plot was wafer-thin, there was little characterization, the dialog was painfully whingy, the found-footage shooting technique became tiresome quickly, and the movie ended without any sort of payoff. Spoiler: there are no witches in the story. The actors pretend to be increasingly scared, the camera shakes a lot and the film ends.

To me, that sounds pretty much spot-on for how our experience working under big-P ‘Project Manager’ Bob went. Our project plan was useless, there was no professional development to be found in the experience, our team’s internal communications were hopelessly strained, Bob’s management technique was actively counterproductive, and the project ended without us delivering anything close to a working solution. The entire project turned out to be a waste of everybody’s time and money, thanks partially to the abysmally poor selection of software, but thanks mostly to upper management’s decision to put an utterly awful project manager in charge of the endeavour.

In business as in war, more battles are lost due to poor leadership than are ever lost due to a lack of skill, resources, or commitment.

I said at the start of this column that I don’t hate all project managers. I meant that. I’ve worked with a bunch of really good ones over the years. I believe strongly that a well-trained and conscientious PM can make a decisive, positive difference on a consulting job. A daft one, on the other hand, mucks everything up and deserves to be despised.

I get, though, why awful PMs enthral senior leaders. The PM ‘Body of Knowledge’ features lots of complex tools and techniques that make ‘planning’ seem like rocket science. There are equations for calculating work and projecting trends that look absolutely stunning on a dazzling ‘status tracking dashboard.’ Clever PMs give their bosses the illusion of being totally in control. They’re strut about like business auteurs, so scientifically and artistically advanced that mortals can’t appreciate their genius.

In reality, I can put a couple of Eagle Scouts or infantry sergeants into a PM role and almost always get a much better product. Real PM is just careful planning, clear communication, and some advanced what-if preparedness. It’s supposed to be operational oversight that supports the delivery of work. It’s not what the Bobs of the business world would have you believe; an indulgent exercise in self-promoting cleverness that diverts effort away from real work for entertainment’s sake.


[1] If this Bob sounds familiar, it’s because she was the villain of my 1st February 2013 The Other Thing, which was republished on page 125 of my book In Bob We Trust: Lessons Learned from Terrible Bosses. IBWT is now available in audiobook format on both Audible and Amazon starting this week.

[2] I told the rest of the team about that admonition and we all had a good laugh. Then we ignored it for the rest of the project.

[3] They also made ‘shaky-cam’ cinematography popular, which I find insufferable.

Title Allusions: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project (1999 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featured

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

Shares