Resilience Engineering #27: Organizational Fatigue – Task Duration – Managing Up

by Gary Monti on December 28, 2011

The previous blog covered how to get durations from subject matter experts (SMEs). In working towards getting that information there was a column, PM’s actions, which I failed to define. I ask your indulgence in allowing me to explain its importance in this blog. In addition to rounding out the technique when working with SMEs duration is also pivotal for working with stakeholders who affect the SMEs’ work. Let’s look at working with senior managers first and then come back to the SMEs.

Push Towards Goals

The entire reason for a project is goal achievement. Typically, commitments are made based on estimates before the project is fleshed out in detail. This means there is a level of uncertainty present, which requires assumptions in order to close the deal. Similar to working with SMEs, a simple approach is used in working with senior managers as shown below:



Assumptions Stakeholders Priority PM’s actions


You will notice similarities with how SMEs are approached:


Task Name Assumptions Stakeholders PM’s actions Duration


The meanings of the terms for the senior managers are as follows:

  • Goal. This encompasses the strategic goals of the project, both external (customer-facing) and internal (project-facing) as well as the specific deliverables.
  • Assumptions. As with all complex projects, assumptions are critical in that they need to be realistic especially if the context is always shifting. The assumption conversation is quite similar to that with the SMEs. Knowing what the assumptions are and having them up on the table where they are understood by all and openly discussed will help dampen the politics and keep the project stable.
    This part of the conversation is critical. It actually is about risk management. “Assumption analysis” seems to be easier for people to swallow than “risk analysis.” The challenge is senior managers usually have a different world-view than the SMEs and the PM has to find common ground between the two groups.
  • Stakeholders. The PM’s work ramps up with this part of the project. Senior managers are asked, “Who impacts your work and how?” Listening to who helps or hurts the senior manager’s ability to succeed starts the process of the PM putting together a political playbook as to how the PM needs to navigate the politics of the situation so the SME can stay on task.
    All of the above works best as an open conversation. It is about building trust. A key ingredient is the manager being open about what is tugging on him.
  • Priorities. Here is where the work gets challenging. Usually the sponsor and other senior managers want everything to be #1. In complex situations, though, that is never the case. If they are going to keep their balance within their stakeholder population then there has to be some give-and-take regarding project priorities and how work gets accomplished. For example, this could include phasing deliverables, which initially were to be delivered all at once.
  • PM’s action. By now you have figured out what the PM’s job is – pushing on the manager to dive into the complexity and start negotiating with their stakeholder population to generate that give-and-take conversation



Assumptions Stakeholders Priority PM’s actions



Task Name Assumptions Stakeholders PM’s actions Duration


At this point the PM starts feeling like the Secretary General of the UN. A compromise has to be found between the senior managers and SMEs. This compromise is characterized by allowing both groups to feel they are maintaining a realistic, sustainable balance point with regards to their part of the project. Here is a formula that works:

  • Goals. Start with re-iteration of senior managers’ goals.
  • Stakeholders-Senior Managers. Have senior managers map out, discreetly, their stakeholder population and how they relate to them. (This is a potential “falling off point” because some managers do not want to share the political realities of their position.)
  • Assumption-Senior Managers. Here the senior managers show their map of the threats and opportunities present from their perspective.
  • Tasks. The SMEs take over the presentation and show what they feel needs to be accomplished to meet the goals.
  • Stakeholder-SMEs. Similar to the senior managers the SMEs map their stakeholder population and the forces at play within.
  • Durations. Simply put, the team creates a schedule
  • PM’s action.  And now the fun begins! Within the initial commitments there usually is too much on everyone’s platter. Some horse-trading is needed if a sustainable balance point is to be reached. Establishing and nurturing the negotiation process is the PM’s main function.
  • Priorities-Tasks-Durations. Creating a balance among these three components is the Holy Grail the team needs to achieve.
    The big challenge is everyone absorbing some piece of the unfairness of life. SMEs need to understand that serving the customer is the source of their paycheck. Thus, they need to do what it takes to keep the customer happy.
    Senior managers need to realize that the SMEs are the people who keep them in business. The project succeeds on the SMEs’ back. A shield must be created to protect the team so they can perform.

As a consultant, this last point is where the “hate” part of “love-hate” in client relationships can surface. Having built trust with both groups, client employees might assume that I will “tell the other person” how they have to straighten up and fly right. The fact is, telling everyone simultaneously the give-and-take is needed is now the PM’s #1 job. I’ve learned to fasten my seat belt at this point.

This is best done simultaneously both in the trenches and at a strategic level. The senior managers need to apprise the team of any strategic changes that could affect work and work to keep those changes to a minimum and within the limits of the team structure. The team needs to communicate what they feel the ripple effect could be up the food chain for any changes they experience at the detailed level and avoid being prima donnas focused only on their part to the exclusion of those around them.

You’ll know success is going to occur when you stumble into a conversation hearing the two different levels speaking in reasonable terms about each other. When this sets in you can start thinking about the celebration.

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