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I pay no attention to certifications and ratings. I have been through it too many times when an all-decorated purple belt of something turns out to be a major disappointment. In associates, I look for intelligence, curiosity, drive, and passion. It never interests me how long the person has been in this industry, nor how many of those feel-good certificates he or she collected.

As a result, unlike the organizations that talk about hiring talent and fail at it, I am able to hire the real deal, not “team players” (they are typically not), seat warmers or other species of the ubiquitos office plankton. It is not that difficult when you are capable of making the right decision.

But here is another example: my wife and I went out with friends on Saturday. The restaurant we chose has a bunch of awards.

Awards don’t matter, though, if the artichoke dip has no artichoke in it and is inedible due to copious amounts of undercooked garlic (and I love garlic, mind you), if frites are limp and soggy and the greens are not green at all.

Why are we obcessed with certifications and rankings when we are the best judge of the quality?

The state of the business environment today can be a source of severe cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, many a large and famous company find themselves reduced to rubble, struggling to survive, ostensibly cutting all but unavoidable expenses, laying off scores of people, radically changing their operations or pleading for financial help.

On the other hand, I get anecdotal evidence on a daily basis that if you were to look closer at the very same organizations, you would see money and time wasted everywhere in inordinate amounts. I am convinced today that the major source of this waste is middle management.

A Saturday evening outing with friends yielded several examples of such waste:

  • IT department of one of the major Canadian banks (we only have a handful of them). A manager keeping contractors on staff for months without anything for them to do. Managers and directors not communicating with their staff  at all and having no idea what their reports are working on.
  • Another large financial organization. Nepotism. People without the requisite skills hired as a courtesy to other managers for no apparent need, at the expense of shareholders.
  • One of the largest municipalities in Canada – middle management engaged in turf wars, projects in a stalemate as a result. Contractors kept on a payroll in the meantime. Millions are wasted.

When a C-level executive makes a serious mistake or commits malfeasance, or when a major project blows up, the public learns about it, laments over the waste and demands punishment. However, middle management is a much bigger crowd and while the magnitude of any given misdeed is not as large, the much greater number of occurrences creates an avalanche of waste.

If you are a senior manager, you simply must be aware of how your subordinates manage their departments and teams. This is not micromanaging or meddling, this is your direct responsibility. Are you too far removed ? Fix it today.

I wrote this article for ProjectTimes and it was published today.

1. It is best not to share the project plan with the project team as it leads to unnecessary and usually incredibly stupid questions.

2. Mandate that team members submit task duration estimates as precisely as possible: two decimal digits (e.g. 17.36 days) are usually sufficient but some projects may require three digits.

3. Strive to disperse project team over multiple locations: it greatly reduces the time people waste mindlessly chattering with each other.

4. In this economy, everyone ought to be able to work harder. Schedule tasks based on 10-hour days.

5. Involve the Steering Committee in day-to-day running of the project. They will tell you how much they like it.

6. When briefing the Steering Committee, it’s a good idea to declare all nearly completed tasks as completed. Ninety per cent is awfully close to 100 per cent and the Committee Members will feel encouraged.

7. Try to surprise your Project Sponsor every now and then. Rescheduling the implementation date, firing half of the team or changing the vendor half-way through should all be considered.

8. Status updates clutter mailboxes, so avoid them.

9. Get rid of those team members who disagree with you. You are in charge of a critical project and the last thing you want around is some worm questioning your decisions.

10. Don’t waste any time trying to understand the business domain. It is unimportant and is not your job.

11. A list of typical project risks can be easily obtained on the Internet. Don’t waste precious time developing it; this is merely a formality.

12. Act professionally: don’t engage in unrelated conversations with your staff and certainly avoid socializing with them. It is important to maintain a distance.

13. Information Technology is an exact, predictable field. If your programmers cannot write code without any defects, replace them.

14. To speed up negotiations with vendors, just sign their canned contracts.

15. Details are unimportant; the job of the project manager is the overall supervision.

16. Once the scope of the project is determined, ensure that it is impossible to change it.

17. A lot of people may claim to be project stakeholders. Feel free to ignore those you don’t like.

18. Encourage team members to decide for themselves what their tasks should be.

19. The best way to gauge the skill of a fellow project manager is to ask them about the largest project budget they’ve ever been responsible for.

20. Plan to release the project team on the day of implementation, to save money.

21. (Bonus) Forget that it’s April Fools’ Day and start typing an angry letter to the Editor. Remember that it’s April Fools’ Day when you’re on the third page of it!

I like panel discussions because they are usually more dynamic than individual performances and allow for informal interaction with the audience, potentially a highly relevant, engaging and enriching experience.

Earlier today, I attended a conference that featured a panel discussion which turned out to be a complete fiasco, boring and uninformative.  It really did not have to be this way, and on my way home, I  decided to put together a few points on creating and running a great panel discussion.

So, here we go…

If you are the organizer/ moderator

  • Invite panelists who understand the subject and can carry on an intelligent conversation
  • It is best to have a panel with diverse opinions because it makes the conversation so much more interesting
  • Have a topic.
  • Don’t make it any shorter than 30 minutes
  • Very briefly introduce the participants at the beginning. Don’t read their bios, just a couple of sentences will do. 
  • Pose the first question
  • Do not take sides, offer your opinion or go into lengthy monologues.  You are not on the panel
  • Prior to the event, advise the panel participants on the rules (see below), the topic (obviously) and the schedule
  • People in the audience often offer opinions, which is perfectly ok. However,  lengthy monologues should be cut short with an invitation ask the question. Don’t be shy
  • Ditto for panelists – if they go on, tell them to get to the point
  • Watch the time and finish as scheduled.

If you are a panelist

  • Give pithy, memorable responses to questions. Do not get into monologues, this is not the point of it
  • This is about the audience, not you. Do not brag or sell – it stinks
  • Avoid sounding smug
  • Don’t feel constrained to answer every question posed to the panel
  • Don’t repeat what has already been said by other panelists. If you cannot add a fresh perspective, pass
  • Speak the language appropriate for the audience
  • It is ok to disagree with other panelists
  • Engage the audience into a dialogue
  • Be genuinely interested.

Business Intellegence (BI) systems have become a feature de riguer for organizations of all sizes. A BI implementation (whatever it may entail) is never a trivial investment and is prone to failures as any other complex project involving people and technology.

If you were to sit a few people who have been through a BI implementation at the table and ask them about the critical success factor, you would likely fill a few pages in your notepad, but let me share with you just three points that I consider most critical of all.

1. BI can offer excellent ROI but only if there are people within the business who have knowledge, curiosity and willingness necessary to understand the presented information, make inferences and initiate tangible actions. Finding such people in your organization is not at all a slam dunk. If you cannot identify them, don’t bother with BI.

2. There must always be a business sponsor (champion) and the higher this person sits on the corporate ladder, the better. In the absence of sponsor, adoption will meet resistance, the project may easily end up on a low priority list, and before you know it, the precious momentum will be lost. Don’t spend a sou before you identify the champion.

3.  As your business changes, so will the data. BI data is notorious for getting polluted very quickly in the absence of ongoing support. Once it happens, it can no longer be relied on for decision making, rendering the system unusable. You have to subscribe to the notion that an ongoing development effort will always be required. If you are not prepared to assume its cost, do not implement BI.

In my consulting work, I have met scores of IT leaders whose beliefs kept their departments from flourishing and becoming truly valuable to their organizations. Instead, they exhibited passable performance, produced little innovation and were viewed by the business as a painful but unfortunately necessary expense.

I wrote an article on a small assortment of such limiting beliefs for The article can be viewed here.  Have you observed them in your organization ?

The idea of “going on your own” is attractive to many for the obvious reasons of independence and control over one’s destiny. As businesses shed people today like larch needles after the first frost, many turn to considering consulting seriously.

I went on my own after a successful career of 15 years in corporate IT in 3 countries and walking the classic career path from operator and programmer to executive. For a long time before making the leap, I yearned for the times when I would be running my own business, being my own boss. It finally happened 3 years ago and I’ve never looked back.

Being an independent consultant offers unsurpassed learning opportunities and a variety of assignments (if you can sell your services, that is). While travel is almost always a given, today’s technology has reduced it greatly as collaboration tools and communications become more and more powerful and efficient. Improving the client’s condition is venerable, satisfying and, frankly, well compensated.

Can you make it as an independent consultant?

A few traits are requisite, such as the ability to communicate effectively, the presence and, obviously, the knowledge of the subject matter. Pick up “Getting started in consulting” by Dr Alan Weiss if you are pondering this career path for a great discussion on this and other topics. In this article, I want to point out three important considerations that I believe to be critical; yet they are subtle enough to escape most people’s decision making process.

For the purpose of this discussion, I distinguish between consulting and contracting, the latter being a temporary placement with a client for the duration of a project or a set term. Here, I am talking of the former.

Structure, commitments and priorities

If you are a part of organization, you show up at work in the morning knowing what you are going to do. You have meetings lined up, voicemail light flashing, people popping their heads in your office. Your boss gives you assignments, you, in turn, task your reports. There is a structure created by schedule, commitments and priorities, which tell you how to use your time. This structure “happens” and is far from being of your own doing.

Running your own business means that unless you are besieged with client calls from the onset (a nice problem to have!), you will have time on your hands and no one but you will have to decide how to use it with the best return possible.  There will be no structure to speak of, nothing that resembles the one I described above.

It’s a big deal. More than once people told me they wouldn’t be able to succeed in such uncertain setting. Would you?

Coffee, water cooler…

As a corporate woman or man, you may dislike a lot of things that come as a part of the package. Commute, office gossip, your boss who drives you nuts, high-maintenance employees… Wouldn’t it be nice to escape it all?

Sure it will, but if you have been a part of a large outfit for a few years, it is likely that you are used to being a part of something bigger, with its culture, challenges, dynamics and little idiosyncrasies, with the coffee machine and the water cooler and the cafeteria. We are communal animals, after all…

Do not underestimate the significance of these things to your happy self. I have seen many people becoming miserable and even falling into depression because of the lack of belonging. Solo consulting can be lonely and you will have to build these accoutrements yourself: network with fellow consultants, read newspapers, watch news, join associations and, if you have to, buy that coffee machine.

I have done it and so have my colleagues, it is not that hard, yet it does not happen by itself.

Getting things done

Whatever you do today in the corporate world has its boundaries. You may be the head of marketing, which means that you are probably not involved in Operations. You may be a network administrator, building and maintaining networks and completely removed from the sales process. Rarely do you have a staff member who is involved in all aspects of the enterprise, and not just merely involved but actually being a key decision maker in every area.

Guess what, once you are a consultant, you will be running your own business from A to Z, from IT to accounting, from product development to marketing. You don’t have to do your own books or set up your network, in fact, most often you shouldn’t, but you will make all the key decisions across the full spectrum of your little company’s functions.

The most successful consultants I know have an incredible knack of making things happen. For instance, you have decided to create a series of podcasts on your consulting specialties. It is not enough to just think up the concept but you actually have to line up the technology, record it, make it accessible to your audience and market it.  The likelihood is that in your corporate life several people would be involved, but now it is all up to you.  It can be difficult and you have to have the discipline to stick to it and diligently execute, from the beginning to the end.

As you have read my three points, you may have started questioning your thoughts about going on your own. This is fine and I wrote this short article not to discourage you but to inform. Independent consulting offers incredible experiences and as with every vocation, you have to love what you do to be happy.

This was originally published as a part of my monthly newsletter in February.

Today, many organizations find it necessary to reduce staff counts. In the last month’s newsletter I pointed out that these efforts are often a misguided knee-jerk reaction. Then, I received two emails from the readers saying, in essence, “OK, we got your point, but how do we do it right if we really have to let some people go?”
These points should be helpful.
Vertical or horizontal?

Under adverse economic conditions, organizations most commonly implement “horizontal” layoffs:  every department is asked to shed a few per cent of its workforce. This is fine if you have people wandering around and looking for something to do, but on behalf of your organization’s shareholders, I hope this is not the case. The proverbial “tightening of the belt” is harmful, in my opinion, because it slows down and jeopardizes outcomes of, strategically important projects.

The much better way is to assess the organizational portfolio of projects and do one of the following:

  • Speed up, strengthen strategically important work (yes, add staff, add executive support, allocate extra funds if necessary).
  • Mothball projects that are not essential at this time – meaning that project can be picked up at a later time. Release or reassign project staff, but try to retain people who have deep knowledge of the project and will be instrumental in re-starting it in the future.
  • Cancel projects that are no longer valuable. Release or reassign project staff.

Cutting vertically, along project lines, helps the organization to re-focus on projects that are truly strategically important, that propel the company forward and position it as the leader among peers. Horizontal cuts simply strangle, leading to a curious state of organizational coma, when a company, while technically solvent, barely manages to keep its head over the water, unable to move, progress, prosper. It takes years to recover, if at all.

Vertical cuts require strong leadership, strategic thinking, sense of responsibility and an effort. Horizontal cuts are effortless – this is why they are so much more common, unfortunately.
One time or many?

Do it once in one fell swoop. When done, always communicate to the remaining staff that it is over. Nothing impedes people’s performance more than uncertainty over their jobs. Have an open honest discussion about what has happened, encourage opinions and answer any questions that arise. Then, as a group, put it behind and concentrate on new challenges.

A colleague of mine once hired a guy who had been through a year of weekly announcements over the PA system containing names of employees required to assemble in the cafeteria, on each Friday afternoon. There was no communication from the top,  people merely disappeared. The morale of employees was in the pits and so was their productivity.  I doubt that the company is still around today.


Ensure that those who leave are treated equitably. Here is what I mean:

  • Check into the packages offered and other conditions of release. DO NOT simply rely on the HR people to take care of it. The package should never be a bare minimum required by the law.
  • Offer references, suggest job search strategies and resources, and show empathy.
  • If possible, take the person out for a nice lunch.
  • Be genial at all times.

Why am I saying this? Regrettably, it’s a common occurrence that one’s former colleagues are treated worse than war criminals, escorted from premises, prohibited from collecting personal effects, made to sign all sorts of “I-promise-to-never-come-here” forms. This is abhorrent.

Remaining staff

Have a plan – what happens when those who have to go are gone? How are their responsibilities going to be divided and absorbed by those left behind? Too often, people are merely told that they have to take on new duties and left to their own devices to figure out what to do.

As a manager, you have to create the sense of direction and certainty, and support your people in doing more with less. Simply dumping new duties on them is nothing short of abdication of managerial responsibilities. Arrange for training and coaching; communicate changes to the rest of the organization; foresee and timely clear roadblocks.


There is nothing pleasant in laying people off. The reality is, each manager will likely have to do it one day.

Comes to IT procurement, there remains to be a significant room for improvement. In fact,  many of the contracts sitting in your filing cabinets  today are likely to contain dangerous gaps and areas subject to interpretation, which may come into into  play one day, in the most unpleasant of fashions.  I have seen many legally binding agreements that would fail when you need them most that I thought it would be useful to list a few points that should help to prevent a disaster.

I am a believer in hiring a professional when you need something done well. An IT agreement for a business critical system or service and a non-trivial consideration is not a place to skimp on legal help. Get a lawyer involved.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor am I associated with any law firm. This is a completely unbiased opinion. Please do not ask me to recommend anyone.

Key success factors (in no way an exhaustive list):

1. I suggest to establish a relationship with a legal professional who specializes in technology contracts at a partner level of a larger law firm.

2. Do not simply rely on your house legal counsel. (Caveat: many technology firms have experienced legal professionals on staff who can easily trump any outside help. )

3. Establish a trusting relationship – this is essential.

4. Only work with a firm/professional who are willing to understand your business.

5. There is an advantage in working with a larger law firm as they will be able to leverage their other competencies, such as labour, intellectual property or international law experience.

6. Never simply sign the standard vendor agreement. (Caveat: I would like to have a different contract terms for my home phone, but I can’t. I am not talking about cases like this.)

7. Involve the lawyer early in the contracting process. Do not simply ask them to “check it over when we are done negotiating”.

8. Establish the understanding that you are the one driving the negotiation process, not the lawyer.

9. Ditto for your opponent – explain that you are in charge (usually they will agree and assert the same on their side, if they don’t, ask for it). If you don’t do this, you risk listening to bickering over legal terms ad nauseum (and paying for it, too!)

10. It is possible to make every contract completely watertight, it is just not practical. So, you have to compromise.  Listen to what your legal professional is telling you but apply business sense to everything you hear.  Is the problematic scenario too far fetched ? What is the worst that can happen? Do we have other means of mitigation?

11. It is ok to start with the vendor’s standard contract as a template – this will speed things up. If you start with your own, you may lose a lot of time waiting for the counterparty’s legal to review it. Sometimes, they just won’t entertain it at all.

12. The key to closing a contract is in finding common points and converging on differences. It is never an “us against them”.

 13. Keep your own house legal counsel informed of the process. They may want to take a look at the contract before it is signed, in fact, it may be mandatory. If they raise points, listen to them and seek to address, but beware of situations when the “not invented here” syndrome kicks in and trivial points are raised just for the sake of it.

14. Ensure that you and your law partner are clear on fees. I strongly suggest seeking an equitable fixed fee arrangement.

15. Maintain the relationship going forward. Ask to keep you apprised about developments in technology law. They should be happy to oblige.

You have probably heard about the CHAOS  study into project failures, now 15 years old but still often quoted and referred to. Since then, a few similar studies were undertaken by larger consulting companie, but they have offered little insight beyond what CHAOS report was saying.

If you read one of these studies, you will see that they go into estimating losses from derailed projects and you may notice that they only take very large projects into the considerations, those worth millions of dollars.

In my opinion, it is not the large projects that bleed money from organizations, but the smaller stuff, tens to (at most ) low hundreds of thousands in spend that can be authorized by mid-management because they “have money in the budgets to do it” .

Larger projects, which also fail spectacularly at times, are usually carefully looked into at the inception and measured agaist the strategic objectives. They usually receive enough attention from the C-level, which ensures good governance and strong sponsorship and project management. They are usually well funded. Usually is the key word in my assertions.

By contrast, smaller projects often receive little scrutiny in respect to their alignment with strategic business objectives, are often done on a whim, suffer from the lack of sponsorship, and are  poorely managed. In my experience, such projects die in droves and with little visibility, if any.

To ensure prudent cost management today, management must divorce itself from the notion that budgets are given to them to be exhausted, but this notion has to be subscribed to and instigated from the top of the organization to be successful. The seemingly insufficient trickle of waste from smaller project turns into a sea of waste which can be prevented.

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