Solving the right problem – training as panacea

Posted on: May 12th, 2015 by Jim

One of the things I’ve personally identified as a top ten reason for projects failing is using training to solve other institutional problems. I ran into this situation recently and it provides a perfect example of what I mean. I am going to briefly describe a prospect’s situation but I’ll disguise the industry the customer comes from.

The company is a firm that makes software for certain kinds of tracking. In addition to this being useful to consumers, major industries use it as well. My potential customer – a Director of Professional Services – was very senior and had a number of project managers reporting to him. He advised me that his project managers were “very good” but there were a couple of problems. One was that sometimes when creating a report for management,  the PM’s would doctor it to look like it was going better than it was. They would do this in collaboration with their counterpart at the customer. As if this wasn’t bad enough, sometimes the customer would call up and (literally) scream at the Director and one of his PM’s for (again) missing a delivery date.

When I asked him how I could help, he said that he wanted me to train his PM’s to learn how to better “push back” on customers. He further admitted that he had recently had a similar training and wanted, I guess, a new approach. I asked him where the schedule dates were coming from in the first place. “Sales,” he said. “They need to make revenue.” So I told him that the problem did not seem to be one of PM’s vs. customers so much as re-education of the organization about having PM’s provide input to create a realistic schedule. He didn’t seem to be too crazy about that idea. Basically he wanted to keep doing things the same way and get a different result. And if they keep training the PM’s then eventually, well – magically! – problem solved. I subsequently wrote him an email declining to be involved and advising him that if he continually tried to solve a cultural problem by training project managers he would likely spend the rest of his professional life being screamed at by customers.

So that’s what I mean by solving the wrong problem. Training is great but it is not a panacea. Better to figure out what’s really going on in the organization and solve that problem instead of expecting an instructor to wave a magic wand. I have walked away from a number of these assignments and will continue to. I will only work with customers who – on realizing they need a change – are willing to work to effect that change. Otherwise I am just the fall guyu for another hapless scheme.

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