Project management tools are largely bullshit, honestly

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One of the things that annoys me about work to no end is when people try to solve a people issue (i.e. “employee engagement”) with technology, i.e. some software program. A big recent example is the project management dashboard. There are millions of these things, probably. They all promise various different things, whistles, bells, trinkets, value-adds, et al. There might be “nesting.” “Oh God, in-comment replies!” Security features! A project management dashboard shall save us all!

No. That is incorrect.

Think about some like-minded concepts, i.e. “collaboration tools.” It’s all well and good to get the tool (i.e. purchase it) and it’s all well and good to use the tool. But there’s a lot of nuance here. For example:

  • Understanding how people like to work
  • Empathy for how they worked before
  • Determining how quickly they can understand a new technology
  • The role of process in all this

Same with project management tools. These things only work if they’re communicated well, if they’re not presented in a vacuum, etc, etc. Every single place I’ve worked has tried to “square peg, round hole” a technology at us in the time I’ve been there. Usually what happens is the roll-out bombs — adoption of technology is never ideal — and then it only “gets to scale” because some executives scream about how people aren’t using it enough. I feel like there’s a better way to approach all this.

In fact, there is!

A new way of thinking of the project management dashboard

Check this out, from UVA’s Darden School:

After years of teaching “tools” to all levels of practicing and aspiring leaders, I realized something was fundamentally missing. More and more, it was clear to me that people can accumulate lots of sophisticated tools (all those fancy frameworks, formulas, findings and fact patterns) in an expensive, impressive-looking toolkit, and even know which tools are useful for addressing which kinds of managerial problems, but ultimately this won’t be worth much if they don’t have the courage to use those tools when the time arises. I started sharing this perspective with hundreds of MBA, Executive MBA and Executive Education audiences and was surprised by how strongly, and consistently, people agreed. “I need to learn to be more courageous” or “I need to help my team [or my organization] be more courageous,” they said, along with, “Why don’t we learn more about this?”

This is an important point.

What is a “tool,” really?

It’s a thing you use towards an end. Essentially, it’s part of the process. The humans involved in creating the tools still matter (i.e. customer support) and the humans who need to use the tools still matter (i.e. your team). What we often do is elevate the tool above everything else — “Tech shall save us!” — and that entirely misses the boat. You could have the most souped-up project management dashboard of all-time, but let’s say one of these scenarios arises:

So the project management dashboard is perfect. But everything else is a wreck. You think that team will achieve project management goals? I’m going to go ahead and guess “no.” The tool is a part of the deal. It can’t be elevated above the whole deal.

Why do we think of tech in this way?

That’s an eternal question. If I had to list a couple of reasons, I’d say:

  • People become rich quickly off tech, and we like/respond to that (and hope it will happen for us)
  • Most “thought leadership” or business journalism talks about tech as the most effective way to scale
  • A lot of us are lazy, and tech is an easy way to hide from real responsibilities
  • We assume tech can make our “busy busy busy” world more manageable
  • A lot of business is about copying what others seem to be doing, so maybe we’re in a giant circle of people adopting tech

Look at that third bullet point

If we’re being really honest here, most of technology is just a way for people to hide. For example: email. Another example: “employee evaluation portals.” Still a third: the project management dashboard.

Let me explain to you how many managers approach a project management dashboard. First, they barely understand their priorities as is. But someone up the chain is screeching at them a lot, so they contextualize everything as “an urgent project” down the chain. They dump a lot of assets and calendars into the project management dashboard, oftentimes with no background or context. (“Fred needs these deliverables by 1/19!”) If a deliverable isn’t met, someone ends up under a train. If that employee tries to explain the lack of context or background, hierarchy rules the day and they’re likely placed on a PIP.

The convo almost looks like this:

Manager: “All the tools were in the project management dashboard!”

Employee: “But there was no background, or context, or order of priority…”

Manager: “But we have a project management dashboard! We spent money on this technology! It is there! It must be used!”

Employee: “But, but …”

Manager: “Can’t talk, Q2 revenue plays stand-up in 15!”

This is why work burns people out

You can’t run in circles for essentially the same salary for a decade, especially if there’s never any context beyond “get it done now!” And yet, in the age of these supposed world-saving digital platforms, this whole ecosystem has become harder for a lot of people to manage. Now there’s a million things to check and update, everyone believes XYZ Widget Project Management Dashboard is going to drive revenue skyward, and the rank-and-file employees just want to crawl back into bed. See where this becomes an issue?

What else might you add on “The Project Management Dashboard Culture” and adoption of tech?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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