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Author: Andrew Miller

Ethical Purchasing; Does It Even Exist?

Is there really anything ethical about purchasing? Are there companies that will actually change suppliers for ethical reasons? Whose morals and ethics are applied? All these questions lead me to believe that ethical purchasing is not a competitive strategy but something that sounds good and makes us feel even better. As project managers, we are sometimes responsible for purchasing on our projects, and we are typically involved in managing supplier relationships. Do we care if those suppliers are ethical?

To me, ethical purchasing means a few things:

  • That workers were not exploited in the completion of the product or service
  • That materials used to make the product were environmentally friendly
  • That environmental resources were not compromised

Ethical purchasing has become a nice buzz word in the business world. Why has it become a part of business today? Because it makes people feel good. I am not criticizing those who follow the principles of ethical sourcing, nor am I criticizing those who choose to buy only from ethical suppliers. I am, however, commenting on the fact that there are multiple reasons why this is a nice-sounding concept and not a competitive strategy:

  • There is no standard against which we can measure whether or not a
    company produces or purchases ethically
  • Everyone’s definition of ethical is different
  • Most companies do not use any specific criteria to ensure that they are
    purchasing from ethical companies
  • There is no way to prove that a company is ethical without performing audits and reviews of their business practices

I find it hard to believe that most companies will not buy a particular product or service from an “unethical” supplier if that supplier offers the same product or service at a similar level of quality for less. Business is still business. As a project manager, are you going to terminate a contract with an unethical supplier? That is an individual choice. The reality is that, as PMs, we are not likely to have the power to terminate the supplier relationship.

Companies and projects make strategic purchasing decisions every day and, while I do believe that it sounds nice to say that companies buy from ethical suppliers, I always question what ethical really means. I am not advocating buying from suppliers that take advantage of their work force or have questionable business practices, but do customers really care? Would a customer prefer a lower price or the knowledge that the product was purchased ethically? It is up to each company to be the judge of that, but I would submit that most customers will not know the difference at the time of purchase.

The way to solve this conundrum is to define what ethical purchasing is and what conditions surround it. In construction, the LEED process provides various levels of certification for buildings that are constructed based on environmental considerations, with specific conditions to be met. This certification is based on an international standard. Why not do the same thing for suppliers and projects? Identify specific conditions to be met in order to be certified as an ethical supplier. This removes any confusion in our definition and provides some tangible standards to be met. We can then compare suppliers from different countries and this status may even provide a competitive advantage for some companies over others. Only then will the term ethical purchasing hold any weight.

Why Projects Fail and How to Stop It

There are many different articles that talk about why projects fail, so why is this one going to be different? This is not only going to give you the five major reasons why projects fail, but is also going to touch on how to avoid these failures or how to correct them once they creep into your project.

Poor Leadership
Based on my experience, this is the biggest reason why projects fail. Poor leadership can manifest itself in many ways: an unsupportive project sponsor or executive; a weak project manager; or a company that has not bought into the benefits of the project. Project sponsors and executives must be supportive of the project no matter what the situation is. People take their cues from their leaders, and if the sponsors are not 100% behind the project, then staff cannot be expected to give it their all. Ensure that the right PM is on the job. Do not just look for someone with PM experience or credentials. Interview candidates and find the one that best meets the needs of the project; someone who can manage the team as well as the sponsors. Leaders must also communicate the benefits of the project so that people can understand what it means to them. This will alleviate the risk of the project not being supported by the organization as a whole.

Poor Communication
Poor communication can be considered the ugly cousin of poor leadership because the two usually go hand in hand. Many projects spend a lot of time developing the communication plan at the beginning of the project, but never execute it. It is usually done so that the task can be ticked off as completed. The key to effective communication is having a plan that identifies what needs to be communicated to whom, how often and by what means. The communication plan should be diligently executed and updated as the needs of the different stakeholder groups change. Executives and sponsors also need to be singing the benefits of the project or initiative, and the praises of the project team from the rooftops, in order to gain and maintain support.

Poor Scope Definition
Having poor scope definition can lead to projects being delayed, going on longer than expected and costing more than budgeted. All because the organization did not spend enough time defining what was required. There are always going to be hiccups within a project, but organizations need to better focus on what the requirements are and not get bogged down on what some “nice to haves” would be. Get a representative group of experts and naysayers in a room and identify what is the desired outcome of the project and the requirements to achieve that desired outcome. Any activity moving forward that is not directly related to achieving the desired outcome should be added to a list for future enhancement or improvement.

Poor User Involvement
Too many projects and initiatives have a very small group of people who make most of the decisions without taking into consideration other areas of the business. I am not a proponent of getting representation from every different department or office, but reasonable user involvement is appropriate. Without it, good luck in getting the project implemented successfully! Ensure that you have selected users from both large and small divisions of the organizations, and ensure that you have selected some dissenters to be a part of the group developing policies, processes and the direction of the project. Once involved, dissenters can be very quickly turned into your largest supporters. In the case where the dissenter continues their lack of support, even after being involved in crafting the direction of the project, find out why, and if it is irreconcilable, remove them from the project team (and possibly the organization).

Poor Risk Management
Not enough organizations spend time on risk planning and management. Like communication planning, many organizations put together an original risk plan so that it can be checked off the task list, but they never review it again. Projects should have weekly risk management meetings (or less frequent depending on the duration of the project) to manage the risks already identified and discuss any new risks that may arise. Risk planning should include identifying potential risks to the project, both positive and negative, what the impact of the risk would be, what is the likelihood of the risk becoming an issue, what would be the risk mitigation strategy and who is responsible. Once a risk actually happens, it becomes an issue that needs to be tracked through the issue resolution process.

As you can see, there are some easy ways to avoid some of the biggest project pitfalls. If you can reduce the impact of these five items on your projects, then you will see a remarkable improvement in the success and completion of your projects. They will also be more manageable because you will be taking proactive steps to avoid issues instead of having to react to them after it may be too late.

For further articles on these items that are more targeted towards project sponsors and Executives, see my website (

Is Project Management an Everyday Job?

Why is there such a focus on project managers being on site all day, everyday? Am I the only one that has noticed that? Whenever I talk with clients or colleagues about PM positions whether full-time or on contract, the focus seems to always be on being on site all of the time. In today’s world of global projects and excellent technology, I would submit that being on site could sometimes be a hindrance.
I understand, of course, that on projects where the team is there everyday working on tasks and deliverables, etc., someone needs to be there to answer questions, provide leadership and ensure things are moving as planned. I have been on many projects where this is the case and I have found that sometimes it is detrimental to the team to have the PM around all the time. Teams can use the PM as a crutch where, instead of researching the answer to a question or sharing the information with each other, everything needs to funnel through the PM. This leads to a dangerous level of dependence on the PM and does not evoke a very trusting environment. If I cannot trust my team to work on their tasks and deliverables just because I am not there watching over their shoulders, then maybe I have the wrong team.

If a PM’s job is to provide leadership, manage team members, communicate to leadership, work with suppliers and ensure goals and objectives are bring met, then why does being there every day mean all of this will be done? Are Presidents and CEOs present everyday at their workplace? Absolutely not, yet amazingly work seems to get done. My fear is that the world of project management has become one of controlling, not of providing skills and expertise to successfully implement strategic initiatives. It has become a question of how often can you be here, not what value is the organization going to get as a result of this project.

With today’s technology, I am reachable wherever I may be, whether on the beach, at a conference or in my office. Through phone or email, I can almost always be reached (except on planes, but that is outside of my control) If there are issues on a project, I can be reached, even if I am not on site. My MO is to check in with my project teams on a regular basis through face to face meetings, phone and email, but not to be on site all day everyday for the life of a project. I have found that this works effectively because it builds independence within the team, but also provides a safety net of communication when issues do arise. I encourage my teams to call me whenever they need to and I like to create open dialogue. If we see the results, then there is no relevance whether I am on site or not. You can call me the Virtual Project Manager!

Finding the Right Project Manager

In an ideal world, we are all great PMs and there should be no skill involved in picking the right PM for a project. But in the real world, there are PMs with many different skill sets and strengths (and of course weaknesses). Below are just a few things to consider when selecting a PM for a particular project:

  1. Leadership ability
    First and foremost, a PM needs to have strong leadership abilities. This means the ability to motivate, lead by example, act with integrity, handle crisis and stick to deadlines. There are not many things that will cause a project to fall off of the rails faster than a PM who does not inspire the team to strive for success. Look for someone who has consistently proven that they can successfully lead teams, or someone who is begging for the opportunity to lead.
  2. Fit with the project and the team
    Although PM skills are fully transferable across industries and projects, there does need to be a good fit with the team and project. Sometimes the right PM can get more out of the team than was thought possible and the wrong PM can cause a perceived excellent team to under-perform. Look for a PM who can recognize different personality types and knows how to leverage their strengths. It wouldn’t hurt if they can also focus on having fun and getting the work done.
  3. Discipline
    I have written about this before, but the one thing that PMs need to have that others do not is discipline. Discipline to track the budget and the project plan; discipline to follow-up on assigned tasks; discipline to track down suppliers for payment or required work products. Discipline is what can set a good PM apart from a bad one, so look for those PMs who are disciplined in their work and require that in those with whom they work.
  4. Creativity and flexibility
    As important as it is to be disciplined, it is always important for PMs to be creative and flexible. Things are not always going to go as planned, so you need a PM that can adapt to change and be creative in finding solutions. Look for PMs who work well under pressure and are able to come up with creative solutions when the pressure is on and deadlines are approaching.

Of course, there are other important characteristics in finding the right project manager and I welcome your comments about any I may have missed (or on those that I have provided above).

What Is Your Rate?

Why is this the first question that PMs get asked when someone is looking to bring someone in to manage a project? What happened to the days when skills and ability mattered? What about the need for someone to bring value to the project and see it through successfully? Has that all been trumped by the hourly or daily cost figure? It sure seems that way.

In the past two weeks, I have had three different colleagues contact me for potential project manager contract roles and all three started off by asking “what is your rate? I just want to see if it fits into our (or the client’s) budget.” We never even discussed the project details, project size, its scope, timelines, etc….nothing at all. Imagine their surprise when I told them that I could not quote a price for the project work until I had many more details about the project and the value that I could bring. The response was a bit of a shock for them. I think most people assume that contractors and consultants are just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

My point being that how can we even discuss the price of anything before we know the details? How can clients be making project management decisions purely on cost? I recognize that there is only a finite amount of money available to be spent, but we need to focus our efforts on identifying the right candidates before worrying about how much they will cost. As I am sure we have all experienced, it is much more expensive to fix a job that someone has done poorly than to pay a little more to have it done right in the first place.

If you bring a contractor to do some work on your house, do you ask him his hourly rate before he ever steps foot inside? No, you walk through the renovations you want to do, give the contractor the opportunity to take measurements, ask questions, clarify assumptions, etc. Only after all of that has been done does the contractor provide you a quote. Why are project managers any different? By giving an arbitrary rate before knowing the project, we are just coming across as an extra pair of hands to be used as needed instead of being looked at as a value-added advisor supporting the success of the project.