Managing Big Horrible Technology Programs – And Succeeding - Part 1 - Critical PM Skills

For the last 33 years, I have been managing big horrible technology programs. I started very early, at the ripe old age of 22, when I was handed (by happenstance, not planning) a critical situation for the Ministry of Defence in the UK. With lots of luck and a huge amount of work, I survived, built a team from the ground up, and stabilized a complex system and its infrastructure.

I know this is an unusually young age to be given a $5m technology project, but my journey from there does mean I have seen a lot. I have been lucky enough to have managed teams and programs in the UK, USA, France, Finland, Sweden, Spain, India, Australia and a host of other countries and cultures.

At one point I got involved with the BBC to produce an Educational program about Project Management, and with the Open University in the UK co-writing a Post Grad course on the subject.

To properly define “big” and “horrible” one could use these criterion:

  1. Budgets of over $5m, up to $50m (I have been involved programs of up to $650m).
  2. Business Critical, the operation does not survive without the system, and is threatened by the existing environment, often something big is already broken, and you are in charge of the replacement.
  3. Politically complex, with multiple complex businesses, vendors, organizations, institutions, government departments and or elected bodies.
  4. Interesting “characters”, ranging from demonic and checked out executives, technical gurus, and idiosyncratic creative geniuses.
  5. A set of time / cost / quality constraints that make grown men and women cry, with maybe a government regulator thrown in.
  6. The initiative has already failed, often multiple times, and this time it can’t fail
  7. And lastly….It’s on the brink of failure when you arrive.

The question is: what skills do you need to manage a “Big Horrible Technology Program” that has some or all of these characteristics, and if you have one of these programs, what should you be looking for in the person who is going to run it for you? 

I would say the top critical skills are:

  1. An ability to pick, empower, trust, and lead a group of smart people (in my experience most people go to work and want to be successful, all they need is freedom and a little direction)
  2. An ability to develop and communicate a clear vision for a project (we are going to climb that mountain over there!)
  3. Understanding and being able to manipulate the flow and tempo of a project, (in my experience you can gently push a tempo, but not force it).
  4. Natural counter cyclical responses (when the team is very stressed, the PM is calm, when the team is calm, the PM is stressed (usually looking for the next threat)) 
  5. Creativity, an ability to solve any problem by getting the team to think differently (if we can’t do that, what can we do, how do we get to a valid response to any problem)
  6. An ability to communicate with everybody, and not be afraid of giving and receiving tough messages 
  7. An ability and willingness to be a toilet plunger, (it’s your job to get “stuff” out of the way, so everybody else can focus on forward motion)
  8. A streak of stubbornness that, by force of will alone, will not allow failure, (there is always a way)
  9. I suppose you need to be able to draw a quick project plan as well!

Thoughts?