I’m still on vacation (and will be for another week). I won’t be in a position to post a re-run tomorrow, so I’m sending this one out early. I don’t think anything in it has become at all stale, so give it a read even though you might remember it from 10 years ago. – Bob

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Remember the rule from the KJR Manifestothat there’s no such thing as an IT project — they’re all business change projects that make use of information technology?

It’s just as true for the projects that result in so-called “shadow IT” — the information technology that happens without IT’s direct involvement. And because it’s shadow IT, the folks who ask for it know this. They’re looking for business improvement — that’s where their thought process starts. The linkage is automatic.

Last week’s column explained why IT should start supporting shadow IT. But that isn’t enough. We need to support shadow projects as well … the too-small-to-notice-but-too-important-to-let-fail projects business managers charter to make their shadow IT happen, and also to make all kinds of other stuff happen too.

Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that your company has established a PMO or EPMO ([enterprise] program management office). If it’s like most PMOs, the company’s project managers all report there, and one of the rules is that all company projects must be managed by its trained project managers. That way, the company doesn’t risk investing in projects that are managed poorly.

Sounds a lot like the arguments against shadow IT, doesn’t it? Like those arguments, the driving force is risk reduction, but the actual impact is mostly opportunity avoidance.

Limiting the number of projects a business can take on to the number of available project managers artificially limits the company’s capacity for change. And when it comes to change, any bottleneck other than the company’s ability to absorb it is inappropriately limiting — a decision to adapt and improve more slowly than necessary.

Which is why, in so many companies that have established an official PMO or EMPO, business managers charter lots of under-the-radar projects.

The shadow project situation sounds more and more like shadow IT, doesn’t it?

On the whole, shadow projects have less risk and yield higher returns than most of the official projects in the company’s portfolio, a natural consequence of their being small, short, tightly focused, and properly sponsored.

Yes, properly sponsored, something that’s more-often true of shadow projects than official ones, because shadow projects are started by business managers who personally want them to succeed. This makes them sponsors … real sponsors, by definition … and the importance of sponsorship in effective project management is well known.

Just in case: Real sponsors want their projects to succeed enough to stick their necks out and take risks when necessary to support their project-manager partners. That’s in contrast to assigned sponsors, who are thrown in front of official projects, just because the methodology says every project has to have one. Assigned sponsors don’t really care, because why would they?

So shadow projects have less risk than their formally chartered brethren. Except for one thing: They’re mostly led by employees who, while promising, have no project management training or previous experience. Their managers/sponsors, themselves usually unaware of what project management actually takes, tell them, “This will be a terrific development opportunity for you,” ManagementSpeak for “There’s a bus approaching at high speed!” followed by a shove.

The result is that right now, many shadow projects aren’t managed as projects at all, because the employees who are put in charge of them have never managed a project and have no idea where to start.

They need help.

So here’s a thought: Instead of trying to stamp out these shadow projects the way IT used to try to stamp out shadow IT, why not provide some support?

Like, for example, giving about-to-be-run-over-by-a-bus neophyte project managers some tools and training, instead of treating them like orphan stepchildren. The secret, and the challenge: Those best equipped to provide the tools and training know too much about the subject. They know, that is, the techniques needed to implement SAP, erect a skyscraper, or build a nuclear submarine.

What many of them don’t know is which of those techniques can be safely jettisoned when the task at hand is managing a team of three people for a few months — at a rough guess, 90% of their expertise. As is so often but so strangely the case, scaling something down can be harder than scaling it up.

Still, it can be done, and doing it is important. In the aggregate, shadow projects add up, even if no one of them is a big hairy deal.

If the PMO/EPMO reports inside IT, the CIO can make shadow project support part of its charter. If not, there’s no reason IT can’t provide it on its own.

Which is a nice irony: Where IT used to do its best to stamp out shadow activities, it has just become an active conspirator in them.

I’m traveling on vacation, with limited time and less attention for writing stuff. Which means it’s time for another re-run. This one from 20 years ago give or take a week, is about brainstorming and how not to do it. It’s one of my all time favorites. Hope you find some use for it yourself.

– Bob

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In the end, technique can’t substitute for courage.

Take, for example, brainstorming. By now, most of us in business have learned how to brainstorm properly. We sit at the table, politely waiting our turn while the facilitator asks for our ideas in strict rotation, writing them down verbatim while we all take great care to avoid offering even the slightest appearance of criticism lest it intimidate the flow of creative thought.

Then we get our milk and cookies and take a nap.

Not only can’t technique substitute for courage, but it can prevent the very benefits you’re trying to achieve. Brainstorming, or at least the form of brainstorming most of us have been taught in facilitation school, not only doesn’t work but can’t work.

Let’s start with the standard practice of presenting ideas in strict rotation. The reason for doing so is to make sure everyone gets a chance — important among children; ridiculous among supposed adults who by now ought to grasp how to converse in public. Forcing adults to take turns in a brainstorming session is a superior way to drain the energy out of a group. Jill makes a point that Fred wants to embellish. Fred, however, has to wait until three other people have presented entirely different ideas, not because they especially wanted to, but because it was their turn. By the time Fred’s turn arrives, any remaining shred of continuity has fled the room and the effort Fred must expend to restore it greatly exceeds the value of the embellishment, so Fred doesn’t bother.

Nor does Fred bother to do anything else. His mental energy has been used to repress the expression of his idea.

Meanwhile, Ralph has made an off-the-wall suggestion. Rather than offer her critique, Kayla bites her tongue because it isn’t time for critiquing right now. That’s too bad, because had she been allowed to do so her comments would have caused a mental light bulb to turn on in Zack’s mind.

So here’s a suggestion on how to make brainstorming work: Rather than spend a lot of time and energy preventing the flow of ideas so as to cater to the timid, why don’t we spend a small fraction of it counseling the timid on the nature of professionalism.

My parents’ generation charged pillboxes on Guadalcanal. Compared to that, is asking someone to speak up in a team meeting too much courage to ask for?