The Healthy Skeptic

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.010 October 1999

Every project manager needs to be a healthy skeptic. If I am not skeptical, I can get burned. If I am not healthy, I will burn everyone else and myself.

I was burned recently on two different projects. The first was a relatively small project. I had a couple of people working to update a system for Y2K. They had plenty of time to meet a deadline. I did not pay much attention as I assumed all would go well.

All did not go well. The long deadline came and went and the work was not finished. We had to scramble to finish before bad things happened. No one felt much pain, but we were all embarrassed.

The second case was a big project (spending $1M a month for two years). I and everyone else knew the project was behind (many reasons). I assumed the team was keeping track of the delays and knew when they would finish.

After several months, the team finally plotted out the entire schedule to completion. Their answer surprised everyone; another six-month slip. This one caused great pain for everyone.

In neither project was I skeptical. I had developed a trust in the project teams - too much trust. These were "my teams." I did not hold them and myself to the project tracking and oversight standards that I always ask of others when reviewing other projects. I felt we were different; we could skip steps and succeed anyway. I was wrong.

A project manager must be a skeptic. S/he must always ask for the fundamental project information. This includes a project plan full of individual, short tasks (some call these mini-milestones or inch pebbles), status of accomplisments, data on expected and actual time, manpower, and cost, etc. Everyone must know what has been accomplished, what is left to do, when the project will end, the quality of the product, and what the project will cost.

This work is necessary; every project manager knows how to do it and knows to do it.

A project manager must be healthy while being skeptical. This means being healthy in relations with the project team as well as being healthy yourself. First, constantly asking the team for status can become unhealthy. People who perform well feel they earn the privilege not to report fundamental project information regularly. The project manager, however, cannot grant that privilege. That would erase all the necessary skepticism.

The team will cry "Don't you trust us? We are wasting time telling you that we are on time."

Being skeptical has nothing to do with trust. The project manager must be respectful, helpful, and yet skeptical. The best thing to do is to explain the difference between skepticism and distruct. Also describe past failures and ask for the information you need.

Next, as a project manager I must care for my own health. Gathering project data is tiresome and not interesting. Part of my recent failures was that I, like many project managers on many projects, was tired, busy, and (a little) lazy. I was travelling too much, was given an extra five-week assignment, and squeezed in a week-long vacation with the family. I was not healthy enough to do what I needed to do. I did not have the required physical and emotional energy.

Every project manager and supervisor needs to be a healthy skeptic. We can never let our good feelings for our team erase the need to gather fundamental project information on a regular basis. We must, however, always treat our team with the utmost respect. We must also take care of ourselves so we will have the energy to collect the information and spend time with our people.

Dwayne Phillips has worked as a software and systems engineer with the U.S. Government since 1980. He recently wrote "The Software Project Manager's Handbook, Principles that Work at Work," published by the IEEE Computer Society.