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Project management tool threatens “central planners”

In the rebellion of the business users, in which top-down gets tipped over, even stodgy old project management is coming alive.

“Most of the decisions made in project management,” says Liquid Planner CEO Charles Seybold, “happen under the surface.” He’s now trying to win over the people who work on projects but haven’t run many of them. He’s using transparency and collaboration.

Liquid Planner, the cloud-based insurgent — “a Wikipedia for projects” — has its roots in Seybold’s experience organizing Expedia’s first project management office. Every time the 40 or so projects under his watch got rolled up, he says, there was “a new distortion of reality.” He had become frustrated with the usual tools. Finally, he and his team decided they had to start over.

Today, Liquid Planner discards a lot of project management fixtures, such as fixed start and finish dates. In their place, it uses ranges and “probabilistic scheduling.” That’s actually how people think, isn’t it? Other old habits are “percent complete” and “earned value,” both of which I’ve found laughable.

The tool also doesn’t allow overloading, by which team members are booked for more than 100 percent of their time. And the tool forces decisions on priority, making just one thing a first priority and not several.

Liquid Planner fights cynicism and standoffs with transparency. In a typical project, team members provide data — such as estimates, actual hours worked, re-estimates, and risk assessments — to a project manager, who a week or two later issues a schedule that can’t be traced back to the raw data. Hidden within that opaque but official schedule are broad assumptions about risk and uncertainty.

Team members have lost control but are still held responsible. So they respond however they can, he says, typically with covert adjustments within each one’s area. Team members and project managers then get locked in a hostile negotiation in which neither side can safely share information.

Seybold often hears from project managers who really don’t think team members should have a say. “Way too many [project managers] act like keeping team members in the dark is the right thing,” he says. “We hear this when people ask us to obscure and lock down information that, as far as we can tell, can only benefit team members.”

He’s busy now working on an iPad app, which he wants to make as functional as the cloud-based application. He’d like to see project managers be “100 percent mobile.”

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