Cost Management is an Oxymoron!

May 13, 2010

Cost performance is a symptom of other management functions. It is impossible to ‘manage costs’. The only way to change cost outcomes is to change the other processes that incur costs.

The three key areas of business operations and project management that incur costs and where a change in the process will cause a change in costs are:

  1. Changing the procurement / purchasing / supply chain processes that acquire the required inputs to the process being managed.
  2. Changing the way the work that transforms inputs to outputs is undertaken through enhanced management and leadership including skilling, motivating and directing the people involved in the work and ensuring they have the correct resources and equipment to undertake the work.
  3. Focusing on the quality of the outputs produces to ensure the ‘right scope’ has been delivered at the ‘correct quality’. Too low and there are cost consequences in rectification, too high and you may have spent money unnecessarily.

These three elements exist in a risk frame. Whilst risk management will not ‘control’ the future, it will allow opportunities to be identified and grasped and threats mitigated and avoided by changing the way the work is undertaken and as a consequence optimise cost outcomes.

The two key facets that permeate all of the above are stakeholder management and time management.

Both of the above need regular reviews and adjustment within the overall frame of the emerging risk profile.

Where ‘cost management’ adds value is via techniques such as Earned Value (EV). Applying EV effectively allows the symptoms of a deviation from the expected performance to be highlighted through Cost Variances and other reports.

As with medicine and diseases, it is capability to recognise and correctly interpret symptoms that allows diagnosis that leads to the effective treatment of the under-laying problem. In project and business management space, this should translate to the requirement for managers not only to report a cost variance, but also to identify the cause of the variance and to recommend and/or implement corrective actions.

Whilst it is impossible to directly manage or control costs; timely and accurate information on cost performance can be a valuable diagnostic tool to remedy the real issues. What’s needed is for senor managers to stop focusing on ‘cost’ and start asking deeper questions about performance and risk. I know many readers of this blog will say this already happens in their organisations, but I also know that far too many other managers focus on the symptom of cost performance rather than the under-laying problem to the detriment of their businesses.

Stakeholders and Risk

May 5, 2010

One of the interesting similarities between stakeholder management and risk management is the challenge of knowing what we know and more importantly understanding what we don’t or can’t know.

An enduring part of Donald H. Rumsfeld’s legacy will be his somewhat garbled comment at a DoD news briefing in 2002: “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Despite the wide spread ridicule these comments have attracted, Rumsfeld was right!

The challenge in both risk and stakeholder management is to identify the things we don’t know. This is made more important because what we don’t know about key stakeholders may constitute a significant risk to the project or business.

Plotting what we know in terms of our knowledge of the person’s wants expectations and attitudes in one dimension and how aware we are of that knowledge in another offers four possibilities.

The Knowledge / Awareness Matrix

The consequences of the four quadrents are:

  • Management Zone: When we are aware of our knowledge proactive management is possible. We know we know and can take appropriate actions. This is where tools such as the Stakeholder Circle® are at their most useful.
  • Risk Zone: When we are aware that we don’t know something, we can assess the implications and invest effort as needed. This is the zone traditional risk management works best in and we can use risk management techniques to asses the probable impact of our lack of knowledge and take appropriate actions to mitigate any undesirable consequences.
  • Research Zone: We don’t know we have access to knowledge that we could use ‘if we ask the right questions’. This zone is created by amnesia, inexperience and false assumptions (eg, assuming you cannot ask someone a question). Research and experience minimise this quadrant. Facilitated processes such as brainstorming, affinity diagrams and focus groups can help to unlock the knowledge that exists and allow it to be used effectively.
  • Reactive Zone: We don’t know we need to know. Particularly with people, there can be many issues problems and opportunities that you are simply unaware of. This area cannot be managed, you have no knowledge you need to be managing something. When issues and opportunities arise you need to be ready to react quickly and there needs to be processes in place to regularly scan the overall stakeholder environment to identify emerging opportunities and issues as early as possible.

Effective stakeholder management is focused on moving all of the key and important stakeholders into the Management Zone. However, you can never be 100% certain you know everything about everyone that matters and need to regularly review the other three quadrants to identify opportunities and minimise issues.

Several thousand years before Rumsfeld, Confucius said: To know that we know what we know and that we do not know what we do not know – that is true knowledge. Given the continually evolving nature of the stakeholder community surrounding any endeavour, achieving true knowledge is always going to be a major challenge.