We need Project Mothers

Changing the title of a Project Manager to a Project Mother makes a difference. It brings together two disciplines that have been competing in a beauty contest over the past decades: project management and change management. It’s time to stop competing, because there is no outside.

A recent experience of a small project in our own house reminded me of the difficulties of tying it all together. Our kitchen has been installed by a company with a crisp and clean brand image and very skilled people. However at the end of the day we are not satisfied with some features that were promised in the beginning and got lost along the way. Or so we thought.

The trouble with projects is that communication gets lost along the way and needs evolve over time.

A kitchen, like any other project, is something that looks simple and straightforward from the beginning. List the requirements, make a plan, verify the plan, produce the parts, ship the parts, assemble the parts according to the plan. And this is exactly what they did. However, as the project was unfolding, different parties got involved (sales, planning, production, logistics and construction) and we (the customer) got a clearer picture of the destination.

Who’s to Blame?

Looking closer at my kitchen nightmare (watch the language I start using as a disgruntled customer) I have to admit there is no one to blame although I am not satisfied with the end result.

  • The sales person held his promises;
  • The project manager held on to deadlines and budget;
  • Planning screwed up a bit , but then owed up for that mistake and corrected it,
  • Production and logistics did what was expected of them – within the deadlines
  • The builders worked according to the details of the plan

Have a look at the below drawing to see how this translates into our own world. In fact, it is an old cartoon that has been going around in many variants and it pops up every now and then.

Image taken from: http://www.projectcartoon.com/

The point is that if everyone continues to be a specialist in their discipline, pushing their skills and service mindedness to a maximum, we may still have poor customer satisfaction.

That’s When it Hit Me

When I compare this situation with the way we run our organizational change projects I have to admit that we cannot outsmart the team that installed our kitchen. We are as guilty as them in “delivering the specs” and at the same time not satisfying our customer.

That’s when I thought of the interview I did some time ago with Dr. Debra France from W.L. Gore. At a certain moment we talked about a role they have: the Product Mother. A Product Mother is what other organizations would call a Product Specialist or a Product Manager. Rather than providing an exhaustive function description for this role, they have chosen for an indication that suggest a high level of vigilant attention and nurturing that a product needs in order to become successful.

This makes sense, because this is exactly what is missing in our lousy kitchen experience. Worse: this is what is missing in the way we deliver projects as well! What we need is Project Mothers instead of Project Managers.

Why a Different Label Makes Sense

You may think it is just a different label, but it’s not. The word mother changes everything. A mother cares about the development, the well-being and the future of her child, whereas a project manager will only feel accountable for the birth.

Granted, birthing is a big thing and I won’t underestimate the conditions that project managers need to cope with, but the way we run our projects is as if we are surrogate mothers. A Project Manager will do what is best for birth. A Project Mother will do what is best for the child, now and in the future. This includes the preparation and planning of the future environment and the stakeholders.

In other words: a Project Mother combines the work of a Project Manager and the work of Change Manager in a nurturing way. By using this new label it will become impossible for project managers to say “Here I’ve done my job on time and in budget; now it’s up to you – dear change manager – to sell it to the organization”. We all know that this is a lost battle, because a delivered project – like a baby – needs nurturing. Not lecturing.

  • Gerri

    Interesting. We often hear people referring to projects or products as their babies, but we seldom hear anyone referring to themselves as mothers of those babies. 🙂

  • Mertine Middelkoop

    Thanks for this nice blog and good metaphor, i will keep this in mind. It also looks like the scrum product owner.