The Project Notebook

Which One Came First — The Solution or the Problem?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Let’s say that you’re faced with a complex problem, and there appears to be no answer.  Then someone comes along and gives you an answer to the problem.  Is this a miracle or what?  Actually, this situation is a trap that ensnares many project managers and at the worst can be the “kiss of death” to their project management careers.

 Answers do not equal solutions.  Many project managers are assigned to projects and told to implement a pre-determined “answer” to a problem.  For example, an organization decides to install an enterprise-wide software package.  Does anybody ask why the organization has chosen this answer?  And even more remarkably, does anybody ask what the problem is that generated this answer?  Another situation occurs when a company decides that it needs to relocate one of its facilities.  Does anybody dare to ask why this decision is necessary?

 Organizations are perpetually in a rush to make decisions.  Information (good, bad and not relevant) is available somewhere in cyberspace for the asking.  The media is crammed with “30-second sound bite fixes” to any problem that troubles this planet.  As project managers we face these challenges every time that we begin a project.  Everyone has an answer, but few have a solution.  The following sample situations outline some techniques to use in determining whether your project will actually address the problem.

 Let’s start with the software implementation situation.  So often, installing a software package is deemed to be a quick answer to improve productivity, enhance customer service, or reduce labor costs.  A project manager assigned to manage the software installation needs to ask these questions in the initiation phase:

  • What is the true problem that is being addressed?  Beware of symptoms that masquerade as problems.
  • What viable alternatives exist that do address the problem?
  • How does this particular software package address this problem?

 Let’s move to the relocation situation.  It is critical that companies know what is motivating them to move facilities.  Cost reduction is typically a major reason that is given.  However, if the same ineffective management philosophies and operational processes are also being relocated, all that has possibly been reduced is the facility cost.  Some questions to ask in this situation are the following:

  • What are the true causes and forces that are mandating the relocation?
  • Does relocation truly address the problems that have been identified?
  • What (processes, job skills, etc.) needs to be eliminated or modified before the relocation?

 As young children we all asked those questions that frustrate every parent and teacher:  why?  what?  how?  As project managers we need to continue not only to ask the questions but to look beneath the surface of the answers to find the true solutions.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at

Change Management Video

I came across this professional training video for Cisco systems. Enjoy!


Put a Stake in the Ground

Change management is an often neglected and misunderstood area of Project Management. I don’t mean change at the micro level (as in scope changes), but change at the macro level. Many times our projects create change which isn’t readily embraced or is difficult to gain.

I once worked on a PeopleSoft Financials project in an accounting department which had only known “green screen” applications. The Windows OS was a new concept for them. There was a lot of fear and distress, not to mention concerns about being replaced by computers. But change was inevitable, and as a team, we sent them home with computers to try out games of solitaire and get accustomed to using a mouse.

That one was easy, but often change is more elusive. There can be lots of discussion and “socializing” a change, but there is a lot of resistance and inertia to overcome. Projects may even resist initiation because of the change they suggest. This resistance can be hard to overcome. One way to get some traction is to document your idea, build a model, paint a picture — let everyone know what you are thinking. Now, instead of just words, there is something to visualize. What’s more, an idea on paper is more tangible. So next time you are stuck getting acceptance of an idea or don’t know how to move forward, just put a stake in the ground to start the discussion.

Cultural Change Required

Introducing Project Management for projects and companies may require some cultural change to gain acceptance. This is especially important for high tech projects, achievement of productivity and cost control, and environmental improvements. But resistance to change is a part of our human nature — we are insecure and threatened, and even at times resentful of change. Change can be a threat to the in fluence of governments, unions, and other powerful groups.

To plan this change requires projects. Projects which encourage early adopters, those who would be change agents, and other users and beneficiaries of the project result to slowly adapt to the new outcomes and future. Within the corporate environment, there is a pretty solid list of things we can do to overcome resistance to change: training, team building, surveys, performance reviews, and job enrichment, just to name a few. Out in the world beyond corporate walls requires even more effort and I’d like to take a few moments to highlight a few I happened upon recently.

1) Recent efforts by the PMI Education Foundation include creation of Project Management as a life skill training materials for K-12 education, including teacher guides, projects, lesson plans, and more. In the US, education is clearly in trouble as studies have shown the longer kids are in school, the worse they perform. I’m also familiar where eight or more unions are barriers to change — education seems to be about the adults, rather than the children. Teaching Project Management as a life skill will benefit future generations of Project Managers who will meet less resistance and be more skilled at managing projects and making the changes necessary. At the same time, it will expose the adults to the necessary new thinking required.

2) Two years ago, a devastating earthquake rocked Pakistan and rebuilding is still under way. This is a country where everyone admits “nothing works” and the infrastructure of the modern world is limited or non-existent in many areas. To help the people be more self-sufficient, the government of Pakistan rejected the “import” of skilled workers from other countries, perferring to bring in those who could teach natives the management and labor skills required for the rebuilding effort. While the rebuild will admitedly take longer, everyone now believes the benefits will be enormous.

3) Fashion designers in Sweden didn’t have the funding to compete with neighboring Denmark and the events and outlets were drying up. Sponsors were nowhere to be found. A major corporation stepped in and sponsored a number of events themselves for the last couple of years, with the hopes of attracting more media attention, more sponsors, and most of all, more buyers. The result? A Fashion Week in Stockholm that had 6 trade fairs, 44 catwalk shows, and most of all, attracted 30,000 visitors.

To learn more about Pakistan and Stockholm, please see PM Network, February 2008, Volume 22, No. 2. For more information about the PMI Education Foundation and its programs, please contact the Foundation at or drop me a line at Additional information is also available at Project Management Life Skills.

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