Drilling Down VS Picking Nits: A Management Technique

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0September 2007

As project managers, most of us have experienced problems on projects. Most of us have also received help (that seemed more like interference) from concerned colleagues and superiors. Back seat driving, nit picking, hindsight memos - none welcome, none helpful. There is, however, an alternative. Let's start with the usual "help" and move onto something that is helpful.

nit: noun, the egg or young of a parasite insect.

nit picking: verb, inspecting someone closely for the presence of nits and then picking them off.

nit picking management: noun, watching a project manager closely and picking at every little thing they do to show that you, the project manager's manager, know more than the project manager. Also known as back-seat driving and perpetual second guessing.

Many project managers have experienced being "supervised" by a nit-picking manager. Few of us have enjoyed the experience.

I want to contrast nit-picking management with "drill-down management." In drill-down management, managers one or more levels above a project manager pay close attention to a key item in a project. The close attention may increase the chances of the project manager succeeding.

Both nit-picking and drill-down management fall under what is commonly called micro management. The nit picking occurs frequently, but usually brings bad results and almost always brings bad feelings. The drilling down, however, occurs rarely, and usually brings good results for everyone involved.

I experienced an excellent form of drill-down management on a recent project. The project lasted four years and consumed $70M. We had schedule delays and cost over runs for the first three years, but during the fourth year a new senior manager arrived who used drill-down management. He realized that we couldn't hit a projected ship date or budget for any of our interim products. He also realized that failure to start hitting these would bring cancellation. He assigned a schedule manager from outside the project to concentrate on the timing and arrangement of tasks in the project's plan. As a result, the final year of the project completed all tasks, delivered a high-quality product, and was 10% under both budget and schedule.

This drill-down management example had several characteristics not present in nit-picking management. First among these was a clear, stated purpose. The senior manager told everyone why he was concentrating on cost and schedule. The interim products in the first three years of the project had good quality, but missed on budget and schedule, and these factors were killing the project. The senior manager explained the goal clearly to the entire project team. There was no question what was happening and why.

The second characteristic was that the drill-down effort made sense. We knew that we were struggling with cost and schedule and had tried many things in vain for three years. While some doubted that adding another person to the effort would fix our problems, everyone agreed that the issue needed attention.

Another characteristic was that the senior manager added a resource to the project, not just a big task. He assigned an extra person to concentrate on the budget and schedule. That person did not charge to the project's budget, but to the organization's overhead. Hence, the person was extra help to the project manager.

Finally, the drilling-down person sent by the senior manager succeeded early and often. In the first month, he found time and money savings. The same thing happened in the second month, the third month, and on to the end of the project. Everyone on the project knew of these successes. Some of us were a bit embarrassed (why couldn't we have found these savings?), but we welcomed the good news. After all, we were succeeding in all areas for the first time in the project's history.

Drill-down management can work. If you are a senior manager with a project in trouble, consult with the project manager about drilling down into his or her project. If you are a project manager puzzled about and frustrated with a nagging problem on your project, ask your senior managers for some drill-down assistance. Ensure that you:

. Communicate clearly at all levels of the project and the organization.

. Agree on the purpose of the drilling down.

. Add resources to the project to do the drilling.

. Evaluate the effect of the drilling often.


. Avoid the searching and picking of eggs or young of parasite insects.