Project management and the no-trust mess

by | Dec 12, 2019 | Manifesto for Action | 0 comments

In my last post, I described the inability of project management to deal with the “quick fix” syndrome, whether or not it’s valid for any project.

In this post, I’ll examine the lack of trust in organisations and how none of the tools or processes in project management addresses this problem.

An endemic two-way lack of trust

One of the biggest problems project managers have to tackle is the endemic lack of trust that extends up and down most organisations.

Do you agree that this lack of trust is a problem in your organisation(s)? Why do you think this is so?

There are many reasons, but let’s look at four:

  1. Loss of confidence in institutions globally
  2. Outdated management models
  3. The dissonance between an organisation’s stated values and perceived behaviour
  4. Poor relationships between supervisory personnel and individual contributors

The probability is high that a project manager and/or the project team will experience bad trust relationships and their toxic influence.

But project management will not fix that for you. In fact, projects are more likely to experience this lack of trust than other areas of the company. Projects operate under more extreme constraints than other types of work in an organisation. Projects need motivation, risk acceptance and creativity. These are the very attributes that are most undermined by bad trust.

Drivers of low trust

Let’s look at these areas in a little more detail.

Loss of confidence in institutions globally

You only have to look at the paper on any day to see the global pervasion of bad faith in the institutional fabric of societies. Articles expose worldwide religious organisations not only for appalling crimes but also for the systematic cover-up. A whole swathe of countries electing leaders who habitually lie and transgress moral and legal norms. How else do ordinary constituents respond?

Outdated management models

Defacto management practice in western countries relies on outdated 19th and 20th century concepts. Henri Fayol and Taylor loom large in day to day working life. These principles hold that workers need tight control. Anti-union measures precede increases in enterprise crime, such as wage theft and underpayments. The rise of the gig economy both triggered by and enabling, a trend towards less secure and oppressive working conditions.

The dissonance between an organisation’s stated values and perceived behaviour

Globally organisations pay more lip-service to their corporate values which leads to a low level of trust. The board and executive leadership drive cost-cutting and wage limiting initiatives. At the same time, they expect larger pay packets and benefits.

I once heard a colleague get bawled out by a senior manager for having called them about a backlog of incomplete approvals in their inbox. I could hear the indignant yelling from the phone: “how dare you call me. Don’t you know who I am”. My colleague was sitting right underneath a large sign that listed the company’s values, including respect, family etc.

Poor relationships between supervisory personnel and individual contributors

That phone call could easily have fit in this section as well. Bob Sutton wrote the “No Asshole Rule” over 11 years ago when such behaviour as he described (bullying, threats, sarcasm) was rife. It’s amazing that such behaviour can still exist, but it does. This even though there has been much communication, education and litigation around these types of issues. If there’s anything that can destroy trust between a person and their managers, it is that kind of behaviour.

How is this relevant to Project Management?

Tom DeMarco wrote a book about the impact and importance of people in software development projects.

“[a manager’s] entire view of the subject [of management is captured] with this statement: “Management is kicking ass.” This equates to the view that managers provide all the thinking and the people underneath them just carry out their bidding. … You may be able to kick people to make them active, but not to make them creative, inventive, and thoughtful.“

Tom DeMarco in ‘Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams’

Traditional project management practise is exploited by low-trust environments to “kick ass” in a less objectionable way (on the surface). But this often puts the project manager in the role of using a process to hold people accountable in ways that their managers cannot. We get forced into low-level management nit-picking (actions, issues, decisions, risks, meeting minutes) as a means to drive project outcomes.

Manager stakeholders in projects often see these artifacts as evidence of project managers “kicking ass”. These are the common project management tools to evidence control. But these tools both reinforce the lack of trust and are not very effective. That’s all that traditional project management curriculum teaches us. There is no process described in the PMBOK for how you motivate people and have them take ownership of their deliverables. There’s no “trust management” process in the PMBOK.

Agile has a different effect on both the project manager and the participants. True agile is heavily depending on a high-agency environment. And high-agency comes with trust. Agile can mask the core problem by eliminating the control tools of traditional project management and presenting a more humanistic face. But the ceremonies and practices of agile, which all require high levels of engagement to work effectively, can become dispiriting rote exercises.

What can we do?

It’s very hard to overcome an endemic lack of trust in an organisation from within the context of a project. Standard toolsets don’t help you, either agile or traditional.

But as Project Manager, you have to at least attempt to do what you can, and ultimately this is a leadership function. This is probably the most fundamental problem you have to solve to deliver your project. Depending on how severe the problem is this might occupy the vast bulk of your time.

I’ll be writing more about these topics in more detail in future posts.

Stay tuned.

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Each week Adam writes about interesting and varied topics for Project Managers everywhere and curates useful articles, books and papers from other sources.