Uncovering the mysteries of project management

Consultant Loren Hicks sees himself as a risk-taker who thrives on uncertainty. And he’s had several careers to prove it.

Currently the director general of covert operations at Toronto-based consulting firm Visioneering Partners Inc., Hicks has held such multifarious titles as gunsmith, social worker, forklift driver and university lecturer. His “accidental and opportunistic” foray into IT began in the ’70s when he graduated with a business degree from Montreal’s McGill University MIS program.

“I fell in love with computers somewhere in there,” he remembers. “And then I did my requisite piece of time in a huge organization writing programs of no importance for systems that were meaningless. But I didn’t do that for very long.”

Hicks has spent the past two decades dividing his time between consulting and management, and said the “covert operations” in his title stems from the nature of consulting and project management. Both, he says, are often very tough sells that are largely misunderstood in the industry.

“Companies will pay to have something fixed, but they won’t pay to have it done properly in the first place – and it’s way more expensive to pay to have it fixed,” he said. “When I was a manager, I didn’t use consultants very much. And I regret that. It was the ego thing. But when I look back on it, I could have done a lot more if I had.”

finance on the web

At Visioneering, Hicks deals primarily with securities firms, a trade he said is going through many changes thanks to the Web.

“The securities industry is so relationship-intensive. The Internet is certainly going to change that,” he said. Right now, nobody knows what the result will look like, but everyone wants to be there at the end of the race, he said.

“It’s not like changing horses midstream, it’s like getting out of the car and getting onto a boat, and all of a sudden it’s a football game and you have to get to the goal post. That’s what e-commerce projects are like.”

If companies are at the bleeding edge, they can get hurt very badly. But if they aren’t, they risk getting all of their customers stolen. The most conservative financial players – insurance companies – are now in competition for the same wealth management space as the risk-taking securities industry. But they won’t all get there, he said – which makes for very interesting times.

“They are all trying to go to the same place. People are going to spend a lot of money between now and then, until that happens. There will be lots and lots of high-risk messy projects going on, so I’m happy,” he laughed, “because I deliver those things.”

E-comm is a new game

What makes a project messy is often the degree of uncertainty involved, or the number of players. Hicks recalled a recent implementation in which he acted as project manager. Although highly successful, he said it was one of the most difficult undertakings of his career.

“E-commerce, by it’s nature, when you get into it you don’t know where you are going to end up. It’s a new game. What happens when you take your clients, that are used to being on the phone, and you put them on the ‘net? Your whole interface changes, and the whole way they think about you, and the whole way they interact with you,” he said.

“And all of a sudden, someone who used to be a foreign exchange trader is now seen in the eyes of a client as an Internet expert.”

Contrary to what many believe, project management isn’t rocket science, Hicks said. “You just take a piece of paper, you write down everything that needs to get done, and you just make sure that no one does anything else.”

However, it’s rare to find companies that understand the importance of a dedicated project manager at the outset, and this is where most organizations may ultimately fail, he said. “You have to have project managers whose (sole) job is to deliver the project. That’s their job, and it’s their only job. It’s not their job to do HR and the care and feeding of the people on their team, it’s not their job to administer and deal with accounting and their budgeting.”

The project manager is always accountable for the success of the project, no matter what, Hicks said. “If lighting strikes and blows up the computer centre, it’s the project manager’s fault. If the project manager goes to Tahiti for six months and the project happens to deliver itself in spite of him, then it is still his victory.”

Success isn’t everything

Having said that, Hicks admitted that failure is often part of the overall learning experience. “I will not hire project managers who haven’t blown one. Because, if they haven’t blown one, they are eventually going to. Or they are hiding something.”

He recalled his own worst experience, “truly the project from hell,” where a client was implementing a new communications infrastructure, and he was the project manager as well as the one in charge of the systems development group.

“That was a bad idea … the worst year of my life,” he said. “A year and a half after that, they still didn’t even have specs, but meanwhile you can imagine how many target dates we had missed. I had no control, I had no political ability to lobby, I had no support from anybody. There’s no way I could have ever been successful in that.”

The whole project was doomed from the start, he said, because what the business people wanted was impossible. “So what we were trying to do from the beginning was to shake their heads to do something else. And their heads never got there. Oh, it was awful,” he shuddered.

“I was the project manager for the first six months, and I own that failure for those six months. I don’t own the following years of failure that came for everybody after me. But I learned more from that project than any other. I learned more about aberrant human behaviour and the depths to which people will sink.”

Perhaps, he know believes, the most important thing he learned is that sometimes the only thing you can do is walk away.

“It’s a philosophical thing; there are a large number of people in the world who don’t want to be successful …somebody who has a bad idea, and is hell bent and determined to chase that dream. Well, tell you what, I’m not going with you.”

He spoke of another former client who was supposed to be managing a project but had no sense of politics or interpersonal relationships.

“I would spend an hour before every meeting coaching him on what to say, and what not to say. But he blew every meeting…he would piss off the people that he needed cooperation from. And I quit, I walked away – this thing was going down the tubes, and I wasn’t going with it. And {technically) it was actually an easy project.”

Even so, there’s no one magic formula for good project management -persistence is a must, but being nice is not always necessary, or even advisable, he said.

“When you start a project, there’s all this optimism, and everyone’s all excited about the benefits that will happen at the end. For somebody to show up and say ‘Do you have any idea how difficult it will be to get there?’ – nobody wants to listen to that. You’re that bastard that put a pin in their balloon. But that’s human nature.”