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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reality Fiction

There are six of them sitting in a conference room, tasked with preparing for a project. This thing is going to be complicated. And important parts of it are unfamiliar to them. They are meeting for the first time, and they’ve never worked together before.

Theoretically, they will collaborate to organize and execute this difficult innovation. They will recruit additional team members, arrange resource investments, guide the work process and resolve problems as they arise. They will take responsibility for their own parts, while supporting each other as necessary.

Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work quite that way. Many people in such situations would consider such a theoretical construction to be a fiction. They face an entirely different reality.

Five of the project planners in the example count themselves lucky. The sixth has been designated as project manager. This provides something of an escape hatch for the others. They had plenty to do before the dreaded tap on the shoulder that put them in this room. Now begins the delicate ritual that will determine for each of them what this new assignment will do to an already impossible workload – if indeed it has an effect at all.

You know, maybe it will die off, yet another victim of benign neglect.

The project manager is the only person out there in the open, clearly tagged with responsibility for making it work. In many organizations much of the time, this is a pretty difficult spot to be in, because history indicates there will be a lot of work, a lot of hours and a lot of frustration.

Objective studies show a high rate of shortfall or failure in projects of all kinds. There are reasons for that. Some are organizational, some are personal and all frequently are deeply ingrained in the culture.

One contradiction at the root of the problem originates with the fiction, subscribed to by some senior managers, that plans would work if only those charged with managing a plan would stick with it. The contradiction is completed at the working level by the counter recognition that fiction is not reality, however sincerely it is believed.

Sometimes all involved know that this “planning” business is a charade in which the impossible is demanded, with the expectation that anything less won’t motivate anyone. The effect is, of course, the opposite.

If job security dictates that the project manager pretend the plan will actually work, so be it. March dutifully along for a while, maybe, but sooner rather than later you’ll have to do whatever it takes to salvage something from the doomed initiative.

Or maybe not. If a shortfall isn’t acceptable, or if even a poor substitute can’t be wrung out of the effort, it might just be declared dead, or allowed to quietly wither away.

And life goes on. One more proof that planning simply doesn’t work.

Well, this “reality” is the real fiction. Overcoming it can be done, often is done, but it’s not easy.