Kirk or Picard as Project Manager?
With Star Trek: Discovery’s television debut rapidly approaching, I can’t help but reflect on the many valuable lessons on project management I took away from the original series, Star Trek, and its successor, Star Trek: the Next Generation. Those two TV series counted on the strengths of their ships’ captains, James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, respectively, not only to help entertain viewers, but to provide fascinating insights into the characteristics of leadership. In so doing, the shows created timeless archetypes of starkly contrasting project management styles.
Kirk and Picard both had the title “Captain,” yet could not have been more different. In project terms, both series featured a Starship Captain operating as Project Manager, Project Sponsor and Project Governance all rolled into one. Yet despite common responsibilities, they were very different in how they carried them out, each with different strengths and weaknesses; one would often succeed in roles where the other would fail, and vice versa. Each episode was like a project, but on the show, thanks to their writers, each ship’s captain seemed to always get a “project” that they were well-suited for. But that only happens in real life if someone makes it happen, and most real-life projects don’t have writers working on the scripts.
Kirk and Picard were polar opposites in management style in many ways, and most people involved with project execution have common traits with each. Suppose you are like one of them – are you a Kirk or a Picard? – what should you do to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses? Suppose one is on your project – how do you ensure they are put to their best use? How should you be using them and what role should they play? What would they be good at and not so good at?
To get down to basics, the biggest difference between the two is Kirk is “hands on” versus Picard is “hands off.”
Kirk is clever and energetic. Because he is “hands on,” he is always part of the “away team” – the group of people who “beam down” to the whatever this week’s show is. The senior management here is typically the project team. When additional work was found, he did it himself, or with the existing team.
Picard is visionary and a delegator. He is more of a leader than a manager. He set objectives, made decisions and, obviously “hands off,” told Number One to “make it so.” Number One led the project team; Picard rarely went himself.
The best use of a Kirk is as a project manager with delegated authority on a short-term project with a fixed deadline, like a due diligence effort requiring the current situation to be assessed and a longer-term plan of action defined to address deficiencies. Kirk’s style and authority allows the team to move quickly; if additional tasks appear, Kirk will summon enough energy to get himself and the team through it. When decisions need to be made, he makes them. He will shine. But on a long-term project, if there is additional scope discovered (and there always is), Kirk will become a martyr, skipping vacations and asking his team to do the same. He will fail at some of his primary tasks – staffing the project properly, as example – and will inadvertently overestimate the current state of the project to his stakeholders, and underestimate the risks. Here again, it only works on TV.
The best use of Picard is as a project sponsor – he has the vision and needs you to implement it. The trick will be keeping him involved. On a short-term project he wouldn’t be your first choice for a PM – unless it was a subject that he cared deeply about – because he might delegate without being very involved.
If Number One got into trouble, but didn’t know it (e.g., the boiling frog parable: as the water heats up, the frog never notices until it is too late), Picard wouldn’t be providing enough oversight to know it either. Or, if his insight was needed, then there might be a delay while waiting for him to decide. On a long-term project, the project will need strong oversight to monitor progress and ensure engagement. That way Picard can keep the team focused on the right things. Picard could also be a PM on a long-term project like a process transformation. If there was a new requirement, it would never occur to him to try and do it himself – he would go to the sponsor to explain the tradeoffs of doing or skipping the new requirement, and get the right additional staff to do it. His management style is great for delegation and building a team, as well as developing the people on that team.
I know that both Kirk and Picard have their fans, and their project management skills both work on TV and in movies – but because there they always the type of project to work on that suits them, as the writer made it be so. In real life you need to be more flexible in how you use them, and apply the right one, or at least the right traits, to meet your business objective. Understanding this, and acting accordingly, may be as close to having a script writer for our projects as most of us will ever get.
A startling statistic that often gets overlooked is that 70% of projects world-wide fail. Each year, more than one trillion dollars are lost to failed projects. Most importantly, statistics show that these failures are frequently not the result of a lack of technical, hardware or software capabilities. Instead, these failures are typically due to a lack of adequate attention being paid to program management.
After seventeen years working in program management―implementing enterprise business strategies and technology solutions―I continue to be surprised by business leaders who misunderstand the differences between project management and program management, or simply think them to be two terms that refer to the same thing. Fact is, program management and project management are distinct but complementary disciplines, each equally important to ensuring the success of any large-scale initiative.
Let’s take just a minute to level-set the roles of both. Project management is responsible for managing the delivery of a ‘singular’ project, one that has defined start and end dates and is accompanied by a schedule with a pre-defined set of tasks that must be completed to ensure successful delivery. Project management is focused on ‘output’. Program management, on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach to leading and coordinating a ‘group’ of related projects to ensure successful business alignment and organizational end-to-end execution. A program doesn’t always have start and end dates, a pre-defined schedule or tasks to define delivery. Program management is primarily responsible for driving specific ‘outcomes’, such as ensuring the targeted ROI of an initiative is achieved. Put another way, program management is basically the ‘insurance policy’ of a project, the discipline needed to make sure all the right things are done to ensure the likelihood of success.
One analogy I often use to help differentiate the roles of a program manager and project manager is that of a restaurant. The executive chef (project manager) works within a defined budget, makes certain the kitchen is adequality staffed and creates the menu. The executive chef will provide defined tasks, processes, tools and strategies that ensure efficient and consistent delivery of meals. The meals are a tangible delivery (output). Overseeing the chef, the restaurant owner (program manager) will provide the executive chef with a budget to work from and will closely monitor the output of the kitchen. The owner will make sure each delivery and support role is adequately staffed, trained and paid (e.g., wait staff, hostess desk, dishwasher, bussers and bartender). The owner will also make certain all the details like music and lighting are in place and establish an appropriate ambiance. The owner will make sure the right tools are in place for flawless execution (such as utensils, glasses, napkins, water pitchers, pens and computers), while making sure expected standards and key performance indicators are being met to achieve overall profitability targets and a great end-to-end customer experience (outcomes). The restaurant owner’s primary responsibility is to focus on merging the tangibles with the intangibles to support successful business strategy execution.
When it comes to mortgage banking, an industry that’s known more than its fair share of failed implementations, it is critical that we start giving program management a greater priority, and ensuring that those commissioned to perform the role are equipped with the requisite skills and tools. Whether it’s adding a new imaging platform, bolting on new CRM or POS technology, or something as expansive as replacing an LOS, every enterprise initiative requires a project manager to be leading the implementation effort and a program manager focused on change management and roll-out. Consider the addition of an end-to-end imaging system. A program manager’s tool box should include strategies and frameworks to effectively manage the roadmap for each critical impact point. This would include things like training, updating policies and procedures, executing an internal change management strategy, synchronizing marketing communications, and updating key performance indicators. In some instances, the project may require staff analysis, skills assessments, compensation analysis and adjustments, or even right-sizing of the organization. All of these are key components of the program manager’s toolbox, and not generally covered within the role of a project manager.
Bringing this dialog back full-circle, program management helps reduce project failure rates by maintaining a holistic approach to guiding an organization’s successful adoption of the impending change, leaving the nuts and bolts of build-out in the hands of project management. By addressing the myriad of intangibles required to orchestrate successful adoption and acceptance of change by an organization’s personnel, program management also helps ensure that business strategies and projects remain in full alignment and ROI objectives are achievable. Preparing management and staff for the impending changes defuses fears that can send adoption off the rails and eases the transitions and realignment of resources and roles that often accompany larger initiatives.
In closing, it’s not surprising to find the lines between project and program management will easily get blurred. Our experience is that it is often difficult to identify a really good project manager that is proven capable of undertaking a large-scale effort, but even more so to find someone truly adept at managing all the moving parts of the program. This difficulty is even more apparent in organizations where undertaking significant projects is a relatively rare occurrence and these skills are simply not found among existing staff. While it may seem adequate to budget for a singular project manager and hope that the program elements will be attended, managed and executed, unfortunately, “hope” is not a viable strategy when it comes to business-critical initiatives. The assignment of a skilled program manager, whether sourced internally or externally, will ultimately prove to serve as an effective insurance policy to your project investment. In an industry where failure cannot be afforded, it’s time to stop gambling on project execution and begin implementing program management