Putting High Touch on High Tech

Speed, cost or quality. Choose two. It’s the work.

time-lapse photography

I recently found myself in a colleague’s office standing at the white board (standard equipment these days for project managers) scribbling away with makeshift S-curves and discussions of revenue balancing and staffing changes.  After a few minutes of fielding questions on how to get it all done I turned to her and said “pick 2 out of 3.”  She looked at me quizzically and I continued, “Speed, cost or quality.  You can only have 2.”  While in the world of Project Management this triangle of competing interests is a widely accepted concept, PMs often neglect the other triangle of People, Process and Technology.  The key difference between the two triangles is that a PM can satisfy all of the People, Process and Technology needs without neglecting any one of the individual sides.

Coming from an engineering discipline, most of my colleagues like to focus on the latter two since they tend to be more easily managed and less reliant on direct human interaction.  For me, I have always considered the first side of the triangle – people – to be the base on which everything rests.  After all, technology advances and processes change by design or circumstance.  When I began working as a traffic engineer in the early 1990’s, we did not have a PC on every desk with which to do all our calculations not did we have PowerPoint or Excel to display our results.  Were we better engineers for having to do the work manually?  Probably not, but we had a whole lot less time for other tasks.  However, we were forced to understand the concepts – it created teaching moments for senior staff to explain and guide and mentor.  When I worked for the gas company implementing a new Resource Management approach the goal was to change the process intentionally to gain greater efficiency.  The easy part was figuring out what the new process needed to accomplish and what tools would be needed to monitor and evaluate the data.  The toughest part was convincing the engineers and PMs to do things differently.

So what is the common theme? People.  Even in highly regimented, scientific, engineering environments (not necessarily the bastions of personality and good people skills) people are still the engines that drive the projects through to completion.  Newer and more powerful computers?  That’s in the budget.  New 4D scheduling that incorporates design drawings, cost and time?  We can implement that.  Professional development?  Well, that might have to wait until the next quarter’s financials come out.  Any of this sound familiar?  It does to me, I have lived it for the last 20 years.

Why is it that the human element is often the one ignored?  

In full disclosure, I’m a technical Project Manager who decided that business school was the route I wanted to follow instead of a more traditional engineering career trajectory.  And for me, the most interesting course was in Organizational Behavior.  I found it fascinating to match the theories of human behavior to what I was living and breathing every day at work.  So what did I learn?  We are all motivated by different things, but certain concepts are almost universally true. We want some measure of input and control over the work that we do.  We want to be appreciated for a job well done.  We want to be recognized. We want to feel challenged. We want to have an impact. 

Now, if you have read this far and recognize this in yourself, think about your organization.  How do you measure up with your staff?  Does your supervisor satisfy these basics?  It is important to see that money is not really the thing that motivates an employee to get up every day and go to work, to work long hours, or go above-and-beyond their job description.  What else did I learn?  I liked dealing with people.  Don’t misunderstand, I don’t ignore the process and technology but came to realize that smart, motivated, qualified people can overcome shortfalls in the other two areas.

So, standing at that white board with a marker in one hand and my morning cup of coffee in the other I came to recognize something in myself.  It was fun to get out from behind my desk.  It was a relief to be free of conference calls and email for a few minutes.  I was doing what had been done for me 20 years ago.  I was teaching and mentoring and guiding.  Was this the most productive use of my time?  Not if you measured it from the narrow perspective of today’s tasks but enormously valuable from the perspective of molding a career, connecting with an employee, helping to create good work habits.  I was focusing on the “people” side of the people, process and technology triangle.  So the next time you have a staff person who does a good job, thank them (do it in public if possible).  When the next project is in the planning stages, bring in a junior staff person to hear the discussion and provide his or her perspective (didn’t we all wish we know what was going on behind closed doors when we were first starting out).

Don’t lose sight of the most basic business concept – it is much more difficult to recruit, attract, hire, and connect with a new employee than it is to care for the high-performer sitting in the cubicle across from you just as it is easier to keep an existing client happy than it is to acquire a new client.  It probably won’t take much more than some well-timed words, time away from your desk, and maybe the occasional cup of coffee from the local Starbucks.

Don’t think of it as taking a break from your real work. This is your real work.