Doug Decarlo

Doug DeCarlo

As principal of The Doug DeCarlo Group, Doug DeCarlo devotes his expertise to project management organizations, project teams, and project managers who undertake projects in very demanding environments: those settings that are characterized by high speed, high change, and high uncertainty, where the rules of traditional project management no longer apply. Mr. DeCarlo combines proven practices in team leadership, plain-English project management, self-mastery, and grass-roots organizational change to produce immediate and repeatable results. His work has earned him international recognition as a consultant, keynote speaker, trainer, facilitator and columnist. For the past eight years -- from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, to Beijing, China -- he has lived in the trenches with more than 150 project teams with budgets ranging from US $25,000 to more than $25 million.

During his 22 years in publishing in the information technology and computer networking industries, Mr. DeCarlo held management positions at Dun & Bradstreet, Capital Cities, IDG, and International Thomson where he launched and managed projects that resulted in significant new revenue streams, ground-breaking new publications and information services. He is the founding publisher of Network World, the nation's leading publication for managers of information networks.

Mr. DeCarlo is an advisory board member for ProjectWorld, an advisory board member and columnist for, serves on the Project Management Committee of the Drug Information Association, and served as member of the Project Management Advisory Group of George Washington University.

Leading Extreme Projects An interview with Doug DeCarlo, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

In this month's Executive Report in Cutter's Agile Software Development and Project Management service, Doug DeCarlo writes about extreme projects, a new breed of project characterized by high speed, high rates of change, high complexity, and high stress. Here, he addresses the role of extreme project managers.

Q: What differentiates the extreme project manager from other project managers?

A: First, let me address what they have in common. And here I'm referring to succeeding on today's new-breed projects: those that feature high speed, high change, high uncertainty and high stress. Whether the project manager is extreme or traditional, in either case, both are attempting to solve the same problem; namely, how do I keep this project in control and deliver value in the face of volatility?

The first point of differentiation is that each will approach this question from a different belief system. The traditional project manager will adopt the deterministic Newtonian mindset, one that is based on the premise that the world is linear and predictable and that we can know enough in advance to produce a plan that is correct. Based on that belief, the traditional project manager will focus on applying the mechanics of project management: a set of prescribed policies, rules, tools and templates to minimize change and to try to keep the project in conformance with the plan. He views his job as delivering the planned result and his war cry is one of efficiency, namely, bring it in on time, on scope and on budget. Deviation from the plan is thought of as bad and is believed to reflect poorly on his competence. As a result, the traditional project manager tends to be a taskmaster, a no- or low-win situation since project team members rarely report to him in the first place.

If I had to sum it up in a word, the traditional project manager strives to get reality to conform to the plan.

The extreme project manager is the mirror opposite. She adopts what I call a change-tolerant or quantum mindset and management style, one that recognizes that the world is not predictable. That change is the norm. Her motto is "reality rules." That is, the plan is not correct. And the goal of the project is to deliver the project's intended business value. So, rather than on conformance to plan, the extreme project manager and the business sponsor focus on conformance to business benefits. She and the business sponsor realize that the project is all for naught if it is brought in on time, scope and budget but fails to meet the intended payoff. With this mindset, the extreme manager is concerned with effectiveness rather than efficiency. And in order to succeed under volatile circumstances with little direct authority over people, she puts the emphasis managing the project's dynamics; that is, on unleashing motivation and innovation and on establishing the trust and confidence to succeed. This means that rather than being a taskmaster, she is first and foremost a relationship manager. And extreme project management provides the principles, set of values and tools to do this.

Also, projects rarely fail for lack of technical know-how. Rather, they are defeated because conflicting interests among stakeholders go unresolved. Here, another very important distinction is that the traditional project manager tends to focus his efforts on building the project deliverable (the project's content) rather than on managing the project's context, meaning the people and politics surrounding the venture.

Q: In a world in which it's always a challenge for IT to fully understand and implement a project sponsor's or end users' requirements, how can the extreme project manager have a better chance of success here where others don't fare as well?

A: It starts with a recognition that, for projects with a high uncertainty profile, you can never get the requirements and the plan right. There is no such thing as "the" plan. Only planning. So, recognize that the project is a discovery process, not only of what is wanted, but what it will cost and how long it will take. And then, very importantly, apply a project management process that is compatible with uncertainty and at the same time, protects the project from going off the deep end from a financial, schedule and quality perspective.

Extreme project management provides the infrastructure and the tools for doing this. For instance, the Project Uncertainty Profile is a tool that enables the project manager and business partners to identify, right up front, the likely causes of variation and volatility so that their causes, where possible, can be mitigated. Since extreme project management views a project as first and foremost a business venture (rather than a software or technical venture), the extreme project manager and the project sponsor relentlessly focus on the ever-changing answers to the four business questions of extreme project management: 1) Who needs what and why? 2) What will it take to do it? 3) Can we get what it takes? 4) Is it worth it? Timeboxing is another important tool that keeps the project in control. By establishing frequent evaluation points (every two to six weeks) and recalibrating the expected business payoff and completion date, the business sponsor and project manager are able to minimize risk and surprises. Planning and executing the project in small chunks helps to enable rampant change and predictability to co-exist. As such, timeboxing with its frequent evaluation points keeps the business sponsor in the driver's seat.

Q: At the conclusion of a project, what would spell success for the extreme project manager?

A: What is the conclusion? Traditional project management turns the lights out once the project is delivered to the customer and everything works. But what about harvesting the intended business benefits? Extreme project management keeps the lights on until the benefits realization process is in place. For the extreme project manager, success means that the project is on target to deliver the expected business benefit, the benefits realization process is firmly in the hands of the project sponsor, and the team had a satisfactory experience.

Q: What can senior management do to facilitate the practices of an extreme project management environment?

A: The first thing they can do is to change their mind about project management, to realize that you don't manage the unknown the same way that you manage the known. So, rather than continue to search for the one panacea or mega methodology, management needs to insist on a range of project management approaches that can be applied to different projects across the spectrum from those that have low uncertainty profiles through today's new-breed projects with high uncertainty profiles.

Other actions include aligning project management with the dynamics of the project customer set. Another is to ask the right questions. Rather than merely ask: "Is the project on time, on scope and on budget?" ask "Is the project on target to realize the intended business benefit?"

Manage the project portfolio as you would manage any other investment portfolio.

Hire project managers who, are first and foremost, proven process leaders able to unite disparate individuals towards a common goal. Recognize that classroom training in project management does little to produce on-the-job skills. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on classroom training, close the knowing-doing gap by investing the majority of your traditional training budget in training project managers in real time while working on live projects.

Create project management envy. Do this through a grassroots effort that creates success one project at a time. Avoid wide-scale organizational change programs. Nowadays, these die of their own weight.

Appoint project sponsors who have both organizational (i.e. political) clout as well as financial clout and who will be held accountable for benefits realization.

(Note: Doug DeCarlo's new book, eXtreme Project Management: Using Leadership, Principles & Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility, is scheduled to be published by Jossey-Bass in October.)

Project Management -- From Newtonian Neurosis to Linear Lunacy An Interview with Doug DeCarlo, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Q: What project management trends are you seeing as you work with clients?

At the organizational level, I see a trend toward what I call Newtonian neurosis -- an affliction born out of the mindset that projects should be stable and predictable. If they are not, those with Newtonian neurosis feel they have to put in a lot of controls to bring things back to where they should be. This mindset is a real killer in organizations that are undergoing a lot of change and need to keep fluid. In working with extreme projects, it comes down to an attempt to "bludgeon" a project into submission by putting a straightjacket on people -- that is, subjecting them to excessive compliance to policies, rules, tools, and reporting procedures that are associated with traditional brick and mortar projects. Of course, this has the opposite effect of what's intended.

Q: Is there a cure for Newtonian neurosis?

You can't cure it by lecturing someone on why they have adopted the wrong mindset. They need to go through an awakening process in which they discover for themselves that there are different ways of looking at the world, that there are pros and cons involved in each, and that for extreme projects, a different worldview and implementation model is needed for success.

Furthermore, even after the "light bulb" goes on and someone says "Oh, this makes sense," it's a mistake to try to get the entire organization to shift. Even taking a certain class of projects (such as those that fall into the extreme category) and applying a new mindset and implementation model is a big leap because it involves organizational change. The only way I have seen this work is to create success one project at a time. You work with the managers who want to put in heavier methodologies (or no methodology), and get them involved from the outset as a sponsor on a project that is near and dear to them. They need to understand what it means to be a sponsor. The team works out how it's going to get the project done and does quite a bit of interactive work with the sponsor before the project kickoff.

Q: Do some sponsors resent the time they have to put into this?

If you've followed the right process, they won't resent the time. In fact, they will most often become proponents of extreme project management. That's because extreme projects are built around very short cycles and timeboxes. Timeboxes are decision points that enable management and the team to decide what to do next. It amounts to placing a set of brackets around chaos, and this allows for control -- which is what everybody wants in the first place. People often have the mistaken notion that the difference between traditional and extreme project management is an argument of control vs. no control. Control is the goal in both cases. The discussion really needs to center around which approach will give you the most control given the nature of the beast to want to tame.

Q: What other trends are you seeing?

The other pattern I see is an extension of Newtonian neurosis that I call linear lunacy --the belief that if we get enough people doing what doesn't work, it will finally work. For example, a few people go to project management training courses to try to improve their skills and come back to the organization and apply what they've learned. But most of it is traditional management, so when they try to fit these methods into an extreme environment, there's an immediate problem. The people who were trained then mistakenly say that the reason it's not working is because not everyone has had the training.

Linear lunacy is taking what's not working on a small level and institutionalizing it on a large level, often through the institution of the project office. Some people don't use that term anymore -- it sounds too officer-like and controlling, so they use the term project support group. But that's just a euphemism for the same thing: we're going to put standard methodologies in place for you to use. What happens is that disfunctionalities like Newtonian Neurosis become institutionalized, and more people go out and get certified in project management, but it still doesn't work.

Another outgrowth of Newtonian neurosis is "totoolatarianism," in which people believe they can now get a handle on things by bringing in sophisticated software tools (most of which have been developed with the Newtonian mindset). I worked with a well-known dot-com where the developers were a happy group of people until the company went public. Once that happened, the whole tone of the company changed, and it was a depressing place to go to. The developers had to keep track of all the time they spent on a task. Management did not understand that a task list is not something you manage by, it's simply a way of estimating. They were holding them accountable for things that were not measurable. This misapplication of project management tools is a classic case of totoolatarianism.

Another problem I see is undisciplined portfolio management. It's vital to take a disciplined approach to prioritizing; if priorities shift, you need to take some things off the table because your resources can't constantly increase to meet the demand. Undisciplined portfolio management causes chaos, with people spread over multiple projects. Extreme projects require a stable team to work on them, and it's rare to find people who can successfully work on more than two projects at a time.

The fact is, there are not enough dedicated teams for the projects that really require them. As a result, there's a lot of ad-hoc project management going on. People are running around like crazy, and they don't have time to meet and go through the necessary processes and cycle of reviews. From my informal surveys (at speaking engagements), I estimate that 75% to 80% of the projects are being run like this. This ad-hoc project management at the team level is due, among other things, to non-dedicated teams -- people are spread too thin.

Q: Is there any good news?

On the bright side, there is a growing awareness at the senior management level that certain projects need to be treated differently. Management is starting to listen to enlightened project support groups, at least in the organizations I'm working with, which include several financial institutions involved with multiple e-business projects. Many of these project support groups were put in place to enforce the rules, but some have developed into organizations that have management's ear and can successfully address the special needs of extreme projects.

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