What do you think of this project management scenario?

So I have this friend who has taken a job as a contract project manager at a big company. The group plans to have a number of projects of varying length and will assign her to specific ones as needed so she doesn’t know the details of any of them prior to accepting the job. I believe technically she reports to the VP of the group.

For her first project, the VP assigns her to a Director who asks her to take on a project that is due in 3 weeks. The project is currently being run by an Inexperienced PM who works for new Manager who was just hired (both employees of the company). My friend and the new Manager go over the project they have just been assigned and determine the Inexperienced PM has no project plan, no staff (they start Monday) and has just sort of been “winging it” for 8 weeks. The three of them work out a highly ambitious plan which still puts the final project at 3 MONTHS, not 3 weeks. In spite of this, the Director insists on the original 3 week deadline.

My concern is that either by intent or through incompetence, my friend has been placed in a situation where if and when the project fails to meet it’s deadline, she can easily become the scapegoat as an outside contractor.

OTOH, how does she raise these issues with either the SVP she reports to or the contract agency she works for to cover ass but without creating a political shitstorm?

As I’m sure you know, that’s one of the joys of being a Project Manager. When put in those situations I’ve always seen my job as presenting options to senior management in clear, stark terms.

Full visibility into the problems (don’t try to hide anything) and presenting management with valid choices at all points is one way to handle this. Management hates bad news, but hates surprises even more.

Not a lot of details to go on, but it’s definitely a CYA situation. I’ve been in that same position, and turned it down altogether (because I did have something feasible that I could work on instead). But your friend should state loudly and clearly that it’s all impossible. Since your is a contractor, I’ll guess that the business has made some commitment to her or agency, and they don’t really want to use her, so they’re assigning her to this disaster as way to wash their hands of the matter. She’s guaranteed to fail in this situation.

An alternative approach for her is to get creative and figure something that can be done in 3 weeks, even if it’s not really useful or accomplishing the impossible goal envisioned. At least she could get something completed on schedule. She still has to do the CYA. She’ll just state up front that it won’t accomplish the goal, but it will get done. Maybe she can impress them.

Then there’s the wing and prayer approach. I once was faced with an impossible challenge, to produce some pretty complex software, already scheduled for a 3 month completion under an ambitious schedule. The customer wanted results in 6 weeks. I got it done. I brought in extra people, and stayed awake almost 6 weeks straight, getting a total of 40 hours sleep in that time frame. But I was a lot younger then and could keep going like that without totally losing my grip on reality. I really don’t recommend this approach unless the payoff is very lucrative.

ETA: Some good stuff in Telemark’s less wordy post.

Sometimes the role of the contractor is to have all the blame pinned to them and walk out the door carrying the blame. Back when I did the job, that was how I presented the bad news…I’m willing to be paid to be the scapegoat, if that is my role as a contractor, but if you really want this fixed, this is what you need to do.

(I’m not sure if it was informing the emperor that he had no clothes, or me being good, but they never did scapegoat me. I saw other people get scapegoated. I worked for one firm as an employee where the employed staff pretty much sat down and picked which contractor theyd blame at the end. Not a functional organization, but at least self aware).

I second this. Plus, I would imagine that the Director must have some inkling that the inexperienced PM is incapable of handling the project, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired a consultant.

I would just lay out their options as noted above. Part of the role of the consultant is to be the bad guy.

I had to do that at my job at a software startup, not to mention during all my years as a management consultant. It’s totally not worth it. There is never any payoff. At best you get a pat on the back for getting the job done. At worst you catch shit for every little thing that went wrong.

It’s my understanding that Inexperienced PM, Manager and Director discussed the issue at length and are all aware of it. I don’t know if the VP is though.

As technically an employee of the contracting agency, does it make sense for her to inform the VP she works for and the agency of the issue? At the very least I suspect it will require additional hours of her time and they should probably be aware of it.

Unfortunately this isn’t my area of expertise. I’ve always worked for Accenture-ish firms where they just said “fuckit” and threw consultants and billable hours at the problem.

The role of the consultant is to be the bad guy when management has to make unpopular management decisions. It’s not to be put into an unwinnable situation and then blamed so some middle manager can protect their career.

Yes, she should let her firm know that she is being set up to be scapegoated. Impossible scope, impossible schedule.

Any firm, other than one like Accenture that just spends the clients money, has been there, done that. And all she needs to do is let them know that she’s walked into hell, will do her best (within reason, I wouldn’t pull all nighters, and as a project manager, frankly it shouldn’t be necessary - you don’t generally DO the tasks), that she might be looking for guidance on how to deal with it. She should also look for guidance from the client - if they are expecting 80 hours a week worth of work and to see a bill for 40 hours, expectations need to be set that the bill is going to be much higher (and the project is still likely to not meet its deadline).

Except that is very often the reality. If you don’t like that role, you shouldn’t consult - or you should consult for someone like Accenture, that protects their staff from it (although as an Accenture client, we still blame you. And often because some partner with his head firmly up his ass told some VP that didn’t understand the problem that our impossible task and timeline was possible if we brought in the right people from Accenture.)

I guess I don’t really understand how much of a problem this is. My job also involves something analogous to consulting (law) and if a client wants me to do something stupid, I’ll explain why that would be a bad idea. If he wants me to go on anyway, fine, I’ll do his stupid idea to the best of my ability as long as it’s legal and doesn’t get me in trouble with the bar or the court. If it fails, I can say that I did what I could. If someone sets me up for failure and then blames me for that failure, why would I care about pleasing someone like that?

I’d advise my agency (first) and the VP (second) of the impending failure under the current demands and ask them how I should proceed. If the director hates my guts as a result, he’s either a fool or a knave.

I would assume when you consult on your own, you have a choice up front whether to accept the project or not. But often when I’ve worked for companies where we have outside contractors, they don’t have a specific project. They are just hired to augment the staff for a period of time.

I do think it makes sense for her to contact her agency and mention the situation in the context that she may need to bill significantly more than 40 hours a week in order to meet this aggressive deadline.

It paid off for me, but it was my own company, and I doubled the price for getting the job done in half the time. But you are correct that it’s not worth it you are an employee. You’ll be a hero for about a week, and then all that is forgotten when the next crisis arises.

And yes, she should contact her agency, let them know what’s happening, and shift the responsibility for proceeding to them.