Control – the Illusion

puppet1Do you know a control-freak?

How about a entire organization being a control-freak?

I was working with a company that had had some projects go “totally out of control.”  By that they meant that they had exceeded costs by over 20%, missed “deadlines” by over 20%, and were not close to delivering with no visibility on when it might be done.

It was clear to the managers that they needed more controls.  “We need stricter controls to keep us on track.  What kind of reports do we need to make people more accountable?”  Well, as much as I could make a few bucks improving their control reports, I had a few doubts about how much improvement they would gain.

Poking around a bit on one of the projects, a few items popped up.

  • Significant milestones were missed in the first 2 weeks of the project – these were not reflected in the official progress reports;
  • More people were added to the project in the first 6 weeks;
  • Some members were asked not to report hours;
  • Customer requested more detailed status reports several times in the first 3 months;
  • After one prototype demonstration, the customer made some requests that resulted in a significant disagreement regarding the contract.

Some things sound familiar?

Poking a bit more:

  • The people building the deliverables were not allowed any direct contact with the customer because “this would be distracting them from their jobs;”
  • There was a version of an Earned Value system in place — some managers spent more than 4 hours a week “tweaking” the inputs;
  • “95% compliance” was the standard for performing to plan — individuals that did not attain this were not eligible for bonuses;

More control reports were not going to help much.  Now, I’m a big fan of tracking, but that is only part of the control system.  In a way, it’s the rear view mirror picture — how did we do in the past.  In this company, that rear view was the focus.  Also, there was the idea that punishing someone for “missing” the target was a major component of control — that’s what accountability is, right?

For these managers, control was an illusion, a myth.  For them, more control meant keeping track of more things, keeping a tighter reign, imposing more restrictions on judgment and replacing them with rules.

I’m going to suggest that control is a system where we monitor execution, compare performance to a baseline, assess root cause of significant deviations, and adjust in order to increase the probability of achieving project objectives.

In this company, it turned out that the baseline was flawed from the beginning, the system drove people to hide deviations as long as possible, and blame was the game.

Installing their Earned Value procedures, in the name of greater control, actually resulted in less control.  By focusing on the blaming side of accountability, it was in the best interest of project people to use the intricacies of the system to hide problems, not reveal them.

To be sure, there were lots of problems besides the control system — less than stellar client management, wishful thinking as policy, and rule-based command hierarchy among them.  But, since things had gotten so bad, we did get to make a few changes in the control process as a starting point for wider changes.

First, we temporarily disengaged the Earned Value process and used a simpler milestone and cost tracking method.  Second, we instituted Deviation Meetings — no blaming (that took some time to fully realize), and root cause techniques were learned and used.  We did not win all the battles and there was more than a bit of backsliding.  But we did win a few and fixed some things before they became big crises.  Then, we found and fixed more things.  Then, we were able to decrease our deviation tolerances and found more problems earlier, and more people were encouraged to bring up issues, and… then it got to be fun.

We had improved performance not with more rear-view controls, but by focusing on using the data in formulating go-forward strategies.

I like good controls that result in good performance.  Am I crazy, or are many companies suffering from too much “control?”

Alan Tsuda


3 thoughts on “Control – the Illusion”

  1. User Avatar

    I love this topic. Thank you, Alan, for such a well-written and thought-provoking article. You hit so many chords for me that I found myself humming along.

    I have worked for many micro-managers over the years and I have never gotten used to the style. I just can’t figure out why so many don’t understand that the more they try to control every aspect of a project, the less control they have. As they assume more of the decision-making, they take it away from their subordinates, thus losing the benefits of delegation. In addition, by focusing on the trees, they invariably lose site of the forest–letting the really big issues get out of control. PMs need to keep their eyes on the big picture, continuously checking the estimated time to reach the major milestones, and leave the details on the thousands of small achievements to their team.

    Again, excellent topic.

  2. You are right on Alan. One point you mentioned about more detailed reporting….sometimes in the attempt to gain more control, people can waste a lot of time.

    For instance, scrutinizing a small allocation in the plan, or digging down deep into variance reporting for tiny variances. I have seen too many organizations spend thousands of dollars in hours trying to justify a few hundred dollar variance. Then people spend more time in the future trying to cover up anything that might throw a red flag for a specific stakeholder, instead of worrying about what’s best for the project overall.

    Josh Nankivel

  3. User Avatar

    Control. Hmmm. Good topic since I’m a control freak. First, let me say that anyone who works WITH me works FOR me. OK, glad we got that out of the way. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to give people the ILLUSION that they have some kind of control, just so I’m really in charge. I hope that clears up any misunderstandings any of my past, present or future colleagues might have.

    Remember, I’m In Charge, – Alexander Haig

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