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Interview with Max Wideman – His PM Career

Nov 28, 2006

 Max, please let us know a little bit of your professional background.

I am a civil engineer by profession. I knew that I wanted to be a civil engineer ever since my first project at the age of seven. That was digging a hole in the soft sand of one of the beaches on the coast of southern England and watching it fill with water from a rivulet issuing from further up the beach. Since then, I’ve dug a lot of holes and filled them with a lot of things like sewage plants, railway lines, water and ships, as well as hospitals and tall buildings.

I’ve also built dams to provide African villages with a water supply, and solved a native conflict over a valued six-penny piece by chopping it in half; Watched a hillside collapse and destroy a year’s work; Been in a cofferdam when it fails and floods with water; Carried a suitcase full of wages in cash and be rammed by a gang of thugs with a sawn-off shot gun. My assistant and I escaped with the cash and without injury, but the car was a real mess.

In the course of my career, I’ve flown right around the world and verified to my satisfaction that it really isn’t flat J. Had the privilege of addressing many different nationalities, only to discover that their problems are very similar to ours – but much more so; Been the only “white” in a large, inquisitive, swarming crowd and begun to understand what it is like for someone to be the other way round; Received awards for public service that I’m not sure I deserve.

How about your PM career?

For the last half of my career I have tried to study the effectiveness and efficiency of doing “projects”, how to do them better, and how to make them more successful, by satisfying the people involved. It has been both frustrating as well as rewarding. I think I can fairly say that I’ve had a few original thoughts in my day, frustrating because it takes five or more years for new ideas to sink into the popular psyche. Rewarding because eventually someone else discovers how to market the idea and makes a lot of money out of it.

A typical example is the Project and Program Risk Management handbook that I wrote and donated to the Project Management Institute in 1991, a book that brought the Institute very substantial revenue. Yet I had a devil of a job persuading the aficionados of the day that project risk management was a serious subject and to include it in the original project management body of knowledge. Would you believe? Now project risk management is the consulting flavor-of-the-day and almost transcends project management itself. By the way, most people now know that original body-of-knowledge document as “PMBOK”, a term that I also invented.

More recently, the challenge has been to what extent can a civil engineer migrate from engineering projects to software development or IT projects. I think that it is possible, but a lot of “relearning” is necessary, and in both cases you have to have a fair grasp of the technology involved. In short, one size does not fit all.

When did you start doing PM work?

I think that project management is inherent in any project-like activities. If you don’t have any management, the result is just chaos. Of course some people don’t know that it is called project management but do it anyway. Since I started work long before “project management” became fashionable, I probably started doing PM the day I first started paid work. Of course, there are people who prefer chaos. They are known as crisis managers. They are typically very good at creating crises where none exists before.

Why and how you started your PM work?

In general, there are two types of personalities in project work: Those who get their satisfaction from the interactive processes involved, and those who get their satisfaction from getting the job done, from creating a product and delivering it. I’m in the latter group. Of course there are other types of people in the world as well, but they have no business coming anywhere near a project. In my early days, I once spent four weeks behind a drawing board. While I can do technical drawings tolerably well, I had no idea what I was doing during those four weeks. That’s when they sent me out on site to dig a hole. Man! That’s when I saw real action!

What is the difference between the PM world at that time and now?

There have been a lot of changes from around 1974 when I first started seriously in project management. Since the majority of your audience is probably in or affiliated with North America, let’s stick to this continent. At that time the Project Management Institute was only five years old – and generally regarded by its members as one of the best-kept secrets. It was populated largely by the engineering, procurement construction (EPC) and building fraternity, although there was a significant contingent of “pharmaceuticals” who generally kept to themselves.

At that time there was no such thing as a personal computer, and while there were “systems” projects, information technology (or “IT”) was a thing of the future. Nevertheless, I was one of the first to recognize and promote the wider application of a project management “methodology” to areas other than construction. Looking back, I view that as rather more inevitable than prescient. By 1984 there was a great drive to “prove” that managing a project was somehow different from general management. And so the PMBOK was born, not a “Guide” as it is now, but a documentation of what specific knowledge is encompassed by the discipline.

One thing that has not changed is that project management is a high risk occupation.

First because when companies decide to “economize” (read fire lots of people) the project management folks are the first to go. They are, after all, an overhead.

Secondly, because project management tends to be populated by highly opinionated people that have difficulty in agreeing on anything. Perhaps that’s why they get fired. But anyway, no one could agree on how the original PMBOK should be updated, which is why after a lot of anguish, it morphed into a “Guide”. Of course, the Guide is not a methodology, although in places it seems to me that it looks very much like one, and too many people try to make it so. It is not even the sole source document for “PMP” certification content, but in the absence of any other published recommendations, it has effectively become so.

People must judge for themselves whether they are better off now than they were a few decades ago. In a few years you will see project management becoming “old hat” and people will either have moved on to more esoteric things like project portfolio management, or back to competing methodologies in the technological arena. We already see a greater focus on someone deciding to “Do the right thing” as distinct from “Doing the thing right” – and that someone, folks, is not a project manager!

Any particular memorable case study on your PM experience?

The term “memorable case study” is a polite way of referring to successful war stories, and most war stories are associated with difficult people, so here’s one. I was once promoted to project manager of a very large and difficult engineering project. In those days, perhaps even today, there was always a technical boffin in charge and a very pragmatic and forceful “superintendent” in charge of labor. My superintendent had no time for “educated” people like myself and whatever I and my engineering staff planned for the week, this superintendent would do just the opposite – at least, so it seemed to me. I finally concluded that it was either him or me, and so we had a “set to”. The exchange started quietly at first but soon became loud a raucous all the while we were walking from one end of the site to the other and back. By this time the whole site was at a standstill entranced by the show and waiting for a winner.

We got back to the site office and the superintendent’s massive frame filled the doorway as he entered inside. I thought to myself – that’s it, enough is enough. I’ll fill out my resignation immediately. But at that moment he turned and looked at me straight in the eye and said “Y’know, I really enjoyed that!” Folks, believe it or not, from that moment on we got on like a house on fire, the job made better progress and eventually between us we got a very difficult engineering works successfully completed. Lesson: there are times when you just have to bite the bullet and put your foot down.


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