When Life Gives You Stones, You Make Soup

Years ago, in university, I spent a couple of weeks backpacking through Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.  At the time, I was on a Chinese student stipend, and hence, often didn’t have very much money to spend – even if I could spend it, as many of those villages hadn’t quite gotten the memo that foreigners could actually use cash instead of those weird foreign exchange certificate things they used to foist on us.

I developed this game that I would play every time I walked into one of these villages.  Basically, I would go to the first villager I saw and show him this stone that I kept in my backpack.  This stone, I said, had magical powers.  You could throw it in boiling water and make the most delicious soup imaginable.

Invariably, we’d do just that, and throw a pot of water on the burner, and then start boiling the stone.  After a while, I’d make a show of tasting the ‘soup’ and making a face.  “Hmmm,” I’d say, “it needs chicken.”  And the guy would go out and butcher a chicken and throw it in the soup.

By this time, his neighbors usually had come by, and as the soup boiled and I kept tasting it, I would urge them to bring a selection of vegetables from their garden, maybe some celery or cabbage or onions…some salt….pepper…and all of that wonderful Sichuan spicy goodness that’s part of everything out there.

At the end of the day, we had a wonderful soup….all because of the magic stone.

Ok, right…..I never tried the magic stone trick in those days.  Instead, I do recall scamming a couple of free meals posing as a “foreign investor” in a southern Gobi salt mine and maybe hamming up my ethnic background to share a meal with my “minority brother” in some small town in Gansu.  I admit it….I stole the magic stone story from a kid’s book we got in a garage sale a couple of years ago.

But make no mistake, for the last couple of years, I’ve been plying the magic stone trick to great personal and professional benefit.  I can’t tell you how many times I walk into an organization and have been asked to implement a tool, only to respond, “Well, the tool is pretty good, but we’ll need a project intake process to make it work,” or “if only we had a schedule update methodology, we could get to where you want to go as an organization.”

At the end of the day, we have a wonderful soup….and it only took a little old tool like Microsoft Project to provide the catalyst.  That’s not to say that tools do not provide any benefit, because they do.  However, without the process and yes, governance, in place, the tools do not do very much.  Without process, they’re effectively the same value as a boiled stone.

For those of you who attended the Gartner PPM conference last week, one of the presentations discussed the role of tools in PMOs of varying maturity.  The guidance was to focus on people when the maturity is low.  Then focus on the process.  Only after the PMO is ready should you focus on the tool.

I would add a nuance to that by pointing out that no project management organization is a single homogeneous monolith.  There are always pockets of advanced project managers interspersed with less mature project managers.  Hence, even in “low maturity” PMOs, there are always individuals who stand to benefit from the use of an enterprise project management tool.

How do we get to the point where we have the right people and the right process?  Often, it takes a visible catalyst to drive it.  Often it takes the magic stone.

*Note that this metaphor isn’t even all that creative in the IT world.  Ian Clayton used it years ago to describe ITIL implementations.  Feel free to borrow it to illustrate every other silver bullet solution to the world’s problems: CMDB, Service Management, ePMOs, OPM3, etc.

When Life Gives You Stones, You Make Soup

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