On Being a Change Agent

When I introduce project management to my students, I always tell them that my goal in the course is not just to teach them how to do project management. My goal is to change their lives.

In part, this is because learning project management is about becoming empowered. No longer will you feel that you must sit quietly and do what you’re told. Instead, when you see bad decisions being made in your organization, you’ll feel compelled to ask questions. But you’ll be able to frame those questions in business-oriented language. Rather than simply complaining, you’re able to talk about the risk factors of a project and the implications of moving forward when the potential return on investment appears to be negative. By understanding project management, we gain the confidence needed to help our organizations learn, improve, and mature.

This is by way of introduction to Joel Spolsky’s excellent column on Customer Service
Joel is a change agent. He is willing to study his business environment and make decisions based on what he sees even when those decisions run counter to the current received wisdom about how to run a company.

For example, he understands that in order to run a successful software help desk, the staff must have the skills to both understand and communicate the customer’s problems. As he says,

It’s crucial that tech support have access to the development team. This means that you can’t outsource tech support: they have to be right there at the same street address as the developers, with a way to get things fixed. Many software companies still think that it’s “economical” to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but you’re going to have to pay $10 again and again.

When we handle a tech support incident with a well-qualified person here in New York, chances are that’s the last time we’re ever going to see that particular incident. So with one $50 incident we’ve eliminated an entire class of problems.

This resonates for me because we see the same class of issues in project management. Executives often choose to see the planning phase of the project as a waste of time and money. But in the same way that Joel’s $50 eliminates an entire class of problems, our investment in a project planning phase eliminates untold numbers of potential issues, with a savings in time and money that is many times the cost of planning.