eXtreme Project Management. Both Brilliant and Dangerous.

So, I’m grouchy today. Since I’ve been out on my own I’ve made a real effort to learn more about my profession. Working for big companies is isolating…you lose touch with your industry because you’re spending so much time focusing on your day-to-day work. Out on my own I have more time to read and study and learn.

And while all this self-learning is proving to be a great thing, I’m discovering things that aren’t so great. One point in particular that’s really eating at me at the moment is, we seem to be living in an age where we define ourselves by our excuses. And I think we’re deliberately arming ourselves to make that easier.

That sounds so harsh when I say that. Perhaps it is harsh. I’m supposed to be the “touchy-feely-emotional-intelligence” guy. But more and more I see this phenomenon. Even when I worked full time I saw some pretty appalling behaviour, generally driven by either greed or self-preservation. The justifications that accompanied such behaviour were some fabulous colours of smoke, let me tell you. But I’m starting to think, as we produce more and more literature and analyze our behaviour, that we’re creating an underground arsenal of weapons to perpetuate bad behaviour, rather than diminish it.


I recently came across a book called eXtreme Project Management by Doug DeCarlo. At its core, it’s quite a brilliant read. It suggests reality and theory are two entirely different things, and that the shock of discovery can create some very unwelcome project behaviour. I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes, the best laid plans get derailed, and it’s a serious challenge to keep things moving. Doug’s book addresses stress, guilt, burnout, and a host of other very real things that happen to people on projects. And it’s all true! But because it’s tagged with the “xPM” label, now it’s a “method” that can be followed or not, at the project manager’s discretion.

“Oh I guess I should’ve gone with ‘xPM’…my bad”

I don’t believe the author intended this. But I am starting to see xPM as an acronym in job postings, on required skill sets, and in literature. The notion of xPM as something special or optional is gaining traction. The second a project manager “chooses” to use xPM, they are suggesting that other approaches that don’t acknowledge that reality breeds chaos, are valid. It suggests:

  • leadership through adversity is only required under exceptionally tough conditions.
  • there could be valid conditions where it’s okay to solution before fully understanding the problem.
  • some project managers don’t need to be flexible, or prepared to throw out a process if it’s not working.
  • project managers don’t always need to consider setting a realistic pace for their people.

Project Plans Don't Reflect RealityNews Flash: Reality. Is. Not. Theory. Any project manager who claims his project plan from day one didn’t change a lick by the last day of the project either had such a tiny project to manage, or is delusional. There is no valid project management approach that should be blind to the vagaries of reality! And reality sucks! Things break, and fail; people bruise and get upset; contingency plans are only as good as their content; and these are things a project manager has to deal with every day. Not under certain special conditions, but all the time!

Here’s the thing. I fully agree with pretty much everything in DeCarlo’s book. I think it’s brilliantly written, and is one of the first books I’ve seen to explicitly call out some serious, common and fundamental problems with project environments. He’s got some great ideas, and I would even recommend it as an excellent read. Where I have a really big problem is that the book is filled with “eXtreme Project Management (xPM)” as if it’s something that should be different or unusual. By making it something special, Doug (I’m sure inadvertently) sends the message there are cases where it’s okay to abandon those principles for something less “eXtreme”.

And let me tell you, we don’t need any more of that kind of thinking. I have watched vendors and project teams hide behind their processes as if they were shields, and seen more cases of irrelevant blame be flung across boardroom tables as if they were monkey poo. I have heard every excuse in the book why a project could not be delivered and have watched stakeholders actually accept it as they cut another cheque!

Please, do me a favour. Expunge the notion of “xPM” from collective consciousness as if it were never coined. Do buy and read Doug’s book. Do believe his principles, and apply them. But don’t…please don’t…give people another three-letter acronym (TLA) they can hold up to justify why they can’t get work done.

“xPM”? I think it should just be “PM”. But maybe that’s just my own personal pipe dream.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • derekhuether

    Geoff, when it comes to branding PMs, there is always going to be a title du jour. Perhaps xPM was coined to sell a few books? I see project management as one of those skills that builds with time. I don't believe You can just read about a process and then suddenly be an expert. Perhaps that is the difference between an intelligent PM and a wise PM. The intelligent PM reads about a project management process and it become holy doctrine. They will hide behind a process blindly and operate their projects on mere faith. The wise PM reads and learns, interacts and learns, screws up and learns. They base their decisions on unpredictable human interaction and past experiences. It's not perfect or predictable, but neither is life. I used to believe if a dynamic enough process algorithm was created, you could manage any project. I just don't believe that anymore. Inject passion, commitment, and skill into your project. Be an agnostic PM. It's probably your best chance for success. But don't forget that it's still just a chance. Did I stay on topic or did I go on a pseudo religion-pm tangent? Give me a soapbox and I'll start to preach.

  • ninabraschler

    Thanks for this excellent post. I fully agree, especially with your claim that we define ourselves by our excuses. But the question is how we finally find a way that finding excuses didn't happen anymore, that we diminish this bad behaviour. First we have to work on ourselves, yes, thats our task. But then you need to work with your project team and your clients on this. You need to give your team all things they need so that they aren't able to find en excuse if a task is not done. Sounds simple, but is quite difficult work actually. At least clients always find a way to excuse themselves and as a person providing a service you need to believe this. So I hope I will be able to manage this one day…

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  • Nope, dude, you're bang on track. 🙂 Where I get afraid is, I've started to see xPM as a TLA appearing in the mainstream. People are asking for it as a skill by name. So it's become something more than just an acronym to sell a few books. We see this. Every time an author releases a new name for something, when it catches on, it does so beyond just the initial intent.

    Ultimately, you're right. It's up to the wisdom of the PM for sound execution, but when a hiring manager doesn't hire the PM because of the absence of the latest TLA, wisdom becomes secondary.

    Where I'd prefer to see hiring managers look is not at a buzzword they can stick on a job posting because (in my opinion) they're lazy, but specifically require candidates to demonstrate their wisdom through better questioning and intelligence.

    The thing is, I like Doug's book. I think his values and principles are worthy of discussion. I just don't want to see them watered down because of the presentation.

  • Heya Nina thanks so much for the comment! 🙂 And you're right, it is hard.

    I had the pleasure of working with a very tough lady a few years back on an unbelievably tough project. People were squawking about the process and how it wasn't right, and didn't work, and her response was, “I'm tired of hearing about this…just get it done. In fact, of all the people I've worked for over my career, it's the ones who said, “I don't care how you do it…just do it” that I had the best relationships with.

    Ultimately that's the important thing, isn't it? Getting the work done. All of these processes we have for managing stuff, they're useful, and they have their place, but they are not delivery in and of themselves. Often, because there's so much emphasis on this process or that process these days, I find we lose sight of that. The process is the means to an end…but not the end itself.

  • derekhuether

    Two points and I'll try to let this go. [1] I can accept someone wanting to hire a Linchpin, as described by Seth Godin in his book Linchpin. Perhaps I would even want to hire someone with “xPM” attributes. But, I want to see those characteristics written out. Don't say you're looking to hire a Linchpin or xPM. That really is lazy. [2] The scenario and question I've asked when interviewing a PM is “I'm a project sponsor. I would like you to deliver a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. How would you do that?” If you want to know what a PM is made of, ask them that question.

  • HAHA preaching to the choir, my friend. “Must be familiar with xPM” and “need a flexible, people-oriented PM who really knows how to roll with the punches and bring us in to the station” are two very different ways of asking for the same thing. On one hand, the hiring manager is going to get someone who read Doug's book; on the other, they're more likely to get someone they really want.

    When I look at this issue, I'm certainly looking at it from the perspective of a capable PM, but the capable PM doesn't get an opportunity to shine when people seize buzzwords and acronyms and cling to them like the last piece of flotsam from the Titanic (cue, “share some of the damn board, Rose”).

    As for your PB&J example, I think that's a great one! 🙂

  • ninabraschler

    I fully agree with your point, that it's all about getting your work done. And it is exiting to read about your experience. And probably the “I don't care how you do your work, just do it” – Approach works somehow. But be careful with this. If someone really needs some help and you just say “do your work, I don't care about your needs” then this isn't really helpful. Ok, People are then forced to find a solution by themselves, but a (project)team is still a team and that means also to help each other. So (project)managers need to consider this point. From the managers point of view it is sometimes easier to say “do your work” than to help to find a solution. And this shouldn't happen.

  • Very good points, Nina. In my previous comment I'm really referring to specific gripes over methods and processes. One of the problems of being a project manager is you're caught between hard-nosed stakeholders who don't care a lick about your problems, and a project team of people whose problems could threaten your project at any time. It's a constant line the project manager has to walk: being understanding and compassionate to help staff get work done, while also being demanding with high standards to placate their stakeholders.

  • Hi Geoff, your news flash above reminds me of the saying that in theory theory and practice are the same but in practice they are not.

    Cheers, Shim.

  • Hehe that's the truth, my friend! 🙂

  • Wow! Looks like you got out of bed the wrong side! I tend to agree with you the the xpm (sorry!) is a bit annoying, but don't really see the harm in it. Sounds to me like its done what he or the publisher – started to appear in ads and will thus see more copies!

  • HAHA thanks for the comment! 🙂 I often get up on the wrong side which is why you'll find lots of articles tagged “rant” on this site. hehe

    I'm very sure the author and publisher are benefiting from additional sales due to their “hey what's this” acronym, and I don't begrudge them. The problem for me comes after, when people pick it up and start turning it into a requirement. Then hiring managers start making decisions based on the buzzword du jour, look for quick fixes with a TLA on a resume, and stop asking sound, reasoned questions that get them the skills they really need. We see it all the time, and the cycle's probably never going to stop. There's always a new TLA. They just make me grouchy. 🙂

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