jim@millikenproject.com 207-808-8878 Our book "Life is a Project: How are you managing?" is now available!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why Should I?

It’s easy to get people to do what they want to do. The problem for project managers is that most people don’t want to do this. They aren’t particularly motivated to throw themselves enthusiastically into project work.

They have their reasons. Projects very often are extra work. The team members’ regular bosses have their own concerns. Functional managers can be quite unwilling to adjust team members’ regular workloads in favor of time to work on outside projects. The managers can flat-out demand that close-to-home priorities come first.

The reluctance also can originate with the designated team member him/herself. If you’re a committed worker, you don’t want to take time away from what you’re already devoted to. If you’re not a committed worker, you don’t want to take on more unwanted duties of any kind.

There are other factors. The project usually has unfamiliar activities and personnel. It’s uncertain, risky, time-consuming. You don’t like to be subject to the decisions of someone you don’t know – and who isn’t really your boss, anyway.

The very dedication of the project manager, when it exists, can be off-putting. Dedicated people can be really annoying to associates who aren’t. Doesn’t this guy/woman realize I don’t share the conviction that nothing in the world is as important as this thing?

If the project manager is not dedicated, or is a bumbler, disorganized, a poor communicator, impatient, uncaring . . . Well, you get the picture.

All of the above is no revelation to veteran project managers. Project leadership is openly built on the ghastly principle of responsibility without authority. The stage is set.

The situation is so daunting, in fact, that stakeholders and spectators often operate on the assumption that every project will wind up ‘way over budget, off schedule and under quality standards. That’s just the way it is.

When the project manager agrees with them, a disappointingly frequent occurrence, you’ve got a guaranteed dog of a project and a dispirited troupe of reluctant participants. You’ve got an organization resigned to mediocrity or worse in its attempts to innovate.

And, most seriously, you have a burned-out project manager who tried the “champion” role – pulling the project through by superhuman effort – or a cynical project manager – telling the world that you can’t expect anything different from a loser organization like this.

Refocusing this picture is not impossible, but it’s not simple. It means the project manager must refuse to share in a cardinal failure of our workplace culture.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Greatest Flaw

The seemingly endless catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is an excellent example of really terrible project management. From every angle, this is a colossal botch by some of the smartest and most powerful people in the world. That starts with British Petroleum (BP), which reportedly used at every turn the most primitive form of risk management – squeeze your eyes tight shut and cross your fingers.

As it drove its drill through four miles of seabed, starting under a mile of water, the huge, worldwide oil company used up-to-the-minute techniques and technology. Yet, for the prevention and mitigation of possible problems, it stuck with decades-old practices developed for shallow water, consistently choosing the least-costly protective measures. In essence, BP appears to have acted on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong, and the federal regulators seemed to agree.

From reports about what went on before and during the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, it begins to appear that a disaster was inevitable.

In the ensuing weeks, we’ve been treated to a series of incredibly ineffective efforts to stop the underwater gusher. Shortly thereafter, we began to witness the resultant chaos in trying to contain and clean up the millions of gallons of crude oil. The fishing and tourism industries, vital to the populations that rim the Gulf, are for now as dead as the beslimed sea creatures plucked from the gunk.

Regarding the cleanup, The New York Times reported last week: “From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials and BP.”

That description is a near-complete listing of the classic ailments of failed projects, including the most damaging flaw of all.

David Brooks, estimable columnist for The Times, concludes a commentary on the situation with this prescription: “We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.”


Monday, June 14, 2010

Jangling the Triangle

Nothing jangles the Triangle of Truth like the black magic wand of risk. For a terrifying example, consider the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
Drilling for oil in unprecedented circumstances is, of course, a project. The level of innovation and uncertainty in any project determines how much risk is involved, and therefore how the Triangle is to be constructed.
Drilling for oil a mile down in an extremely complex and fragile environment is a hugely risky project. It calls for strategic designs and tactical decisions soundly based in comprehensive assessment, analysis and planning with forethought.
Consider the Triangle of Truth (in more august quarters, referred to as “The Treble Constraint”).
The corners of the Triangle represent the three slippery assets at the foundation of the project manager’s job: Time, cost and quality. Projects are projects because they are uncertain, and the three corners are floating constructs required to make any action planning possible.
Amid uncertainty, we want to take time for baby steps, cautiously edging into the unknown. Can’t do much of that, though, because now you’re bulging out the cost corner. After while, certain desired outcomes can begin to look impossible because you’re running out of time and money – and maybe because they turn out to be just plain impossible.
So the triangle is dynamic, constantly tending to lurch out of control. At its center is the project manager, the busy string-puller who must keep the three corners in balance. The project manager works to manufacture certitude out of material that is largely speculative.
The multiple investors, participants and beneficiaries of the project must be empowered to act decisively and efficiently. You, as project manager, persuade them to do so, without let-up, through the life of the project. You start with forecasts and commitments that coalesce into a plan, then you execute, correct and accomplish. And negotiate.
Success at this enterprise demands proof that those making commitments can do so in confidence that the risks have been identified and accounted for.