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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Role Mergers: Is middle management – product, account, program, and project - learning from failure?

Based on the interactions I have had with attending various webinars, seminars, networking events, and conferences and bringing them to practical work, I always ponder over a question. Is middle management – product, account, program, and project - learning from failure? I share my view points on the role mergers and how many are not raising up to the requirements leading to inefficiency. 

Traditional project management roles defined frequent lessons learned or post-mortem sessions and agile development practices recommended a retrospective after iterations so that inefficiencies can be addressed. With so many different types of projects, multi-project program initiatives, products developed, and accounts managed across multiple industries, have we incorporated the lessons from our failures and most importantly other people’s experiences of failures!

My definition of failure is that if we have not learned from our failure and success, then, we have a failure. If we have learned from our failure to adjust our processes to avoid repeating the same mistake, then, we have turned failure inside out. By that definition, we can’t definitely agree that we have benefitted from the rich experiences of failure and success entirely.

In one of the Account Management seminars that I recently attended, I heard that one of the fundamental reasons for account management failure is the lack of understanding about the products and services to provide strategic direction towards solving the customer problems. Digging deeper, Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston in their book on Enhancing executive edge relate the account management operating from a quarter-to-quarter or similar frequency on their accounts (called opportunistic) will only derail even the best project management to fail unless the account management becomes relationship based and customer focused.
But, is relationship only with the client? If we say customer focused, are we not treating employees and internal teams as customers? Think about it! Relationships with internal teams are equally important as they are the ones that deliver!  Our clients watch for these things too because if you fall for everything and yield to everything the client asks then you stand for nothing losing credibility with the client and the team.

Interestingly, Mike Schultz and John Doerr from RAIN group called out in their strategic management failure white paper that the strategic account management roles will be coming with the backgrounds of relationship lead, entrepreneur, innovator, collaborator, consultant, researcher, project manager, and skeptic. This was an interesting finding because it brought the characteristics of a product manager or product owner of how they collaborated with the client and team grooming the backlog but also playing the devil’s advocate from both the client and the value for performing organization. It also integrated how the account manager roles need to understand the foundational project management thinking that also looks for risks, schedule, scope, cost, quality, integration, and stakeholders. Even agile teams are introducing the acceptance and behavior driven testing where additional test cycles will be added to ensure that the business team performs the acceptance testing before products and projects are released to customers.

Woven deeply in these observations is the skill/task alignment required! Technology is so pervasive today but how much technical understanding are today’s middle management exposed to! Like the saying goes in the Die Hard movie, “you are the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time!” businesses allow many reasons to continue having unskilled or untrained resources and expect a miracle instantly! Mike Schultz and John Doerr further relate to this in “Wrong People, Wrong Roles” in mandating a minimum of three skills – leading relationships, finding innovative ways to create value, and driving your (performing) organization and (client) team to get things done. As you can see these mean that no longer are the businesses requiring skilled personnel in one area but multiple skills in other areas.

These findings resonate in Agile’s fundamental principle of self-organized team! If the team depends on others to initiate, route, and manage the tasks, then agile in such cases will fail! This is also the reason why Scrum didn’t even have a “Project Manager” role in their roles merging this role with either one of the three roles depending upon the multitude of skills in the project manager – account and product management knowledge.

Keane, a consulting organization in their “Productivity Management” book recommended that productivity comes when business teams, customers, and developers are all brought into one training event to hear various sides of the productivity spoilers and address them through processes. Once these processes are addressed, the onus shits to the people! Projects predominantly fail because of people and not because of processes!

Even educational institutions are not an exception and recognizing this need. In one of my recent exchanges with a University in their Visual Arts and Animation curriculum review and design, the school professors were reiterating how the expansion of cultural diversity requires learner's understanding of the target markets and industry expectations of multitude of diverse skills in the graduating learners as part of the experiential learning approach. An example is having the narrators be able to write scripts, graphic artist to know and introduce animation, public relations communication member to modify the approach impromptu when the target market for the same product has changed.

So, there is a revolution happening! Customer service is no longer one department and it sits with every person in every department. Roles are merging in the middle management because businesses are flattening the layers and going lean in their model. So, the middle management need to wake up and smell the completion and brush up on their knowledge to be multi-faceted ready to wear many hats. If not, failures are designed to repeat!


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