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Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Biggest, Sneakiest Project Risk

The accomplished engineer made no bones about it. “When I ask someone to do something,” he told a roomful of us, “I always do it myself as well, to make sure it gets done right.”

Got that? After delegating an assignment to someone, he would secretly duplicate the entire task himself because he trusted no one else to handle it properly. This was the triumph of personal perfectionism over everything we’ve all been saying about teamwork, delegation, personal productivity, staff development, supervisory responsibility. This was the ultimate failure of trust.

It’s an exaggerated example, but don’t kid yourself: It represents the major weakness of most projects. There is an implicit, general limit on expectations arising from our experience with our colleagues and managers. People often just don’t actually do what they say they’re going to do, and we adjust our estimates accordingly.

So you throttle back from exciting possibility to the safe zone dictated by experience. What you can do yourself, you do. When you don’t know how to do it, or there’s just too much of it, you fudge. You live the lie, knowing the best we can do will not be what we’re really capable of doing.

This is a huge reality. It overshadows and undercuts many or most of our projects, but rarely is mentioned and just about never properly accounted for. It’s sneaky. Projects have fuzzy plans, or inadequate tracking, so their failure to meet expectations can be chalked up to the myth that projects are fated to rarely hit targets.

Sometimes it seems that such lowballing becomes something of a norm. While we don’t acknowledge it as baldly as the duplicating engineer did, it is essentially a damper on legitimate risk-taking with many organizations, and with a lot of decision-makers.

In short, a common cause of project shortfall is inadequate engagement with this massive fundamental risk. We busy ourselves with stuff and activities, when the real basic, defining challenge of project management is the intertwining of delegation and risk.

Delegation is the magic management process that gets people to take responsibility for faithfully carrying out assignments. Risk is the possibility/likelihood that things will not go according to plan.

Risk is formally addressed in most project management formulations, generally as a system for identifying and addressing resource and event issues. Even when it is managed well within that context, it frequently doesn’t address the really important project risk area: Human performance.

Delegation, management of the “people resource,” is the catalyst for project management. All the other resources just sit there waiting for someone to apply them, install them, invest them. The action part is the contribution of the people resource, the most valuable of them all.

People also are the most risk-laden resource. Certainly, people make up the most vital, adaptable asset available to the project manager. Yet, they are the most changeable; while they are the most important, they also are the most risky.

This is where the project manager’s attention should be. If you get this vital, intricate risk under management, all other possibilities improve dramatically. Good people, properly led, can do really good things – including risk management.

The how-to for the solution is a laser focus on team members and other stakeholders. The successful project manager will get close to the top decision-makers and influencers as early as possible, and devote all the time it takes to properly select, prepare, inform, empower and lead the key individuals throughout the project structure.

This is by no means to dismiss or demean the other responsibilities of the complex project manager position. But, as a top priority, the project manager must get this people thing right. All those nuts-and-bolts arrangements are right up front, demanding attention. They can be delegated.

The huge people issues hang quietly in the background, easy to postpone and ignore. They cannot be delegated.   

The super-careful engineer worked for an organization large enough to absorb, at least for a while, the excess investment of expensive talent required for total duplication of detailed assignments. Few of us enjoy that luxury.

A better investment is devotion to selecting, preparing and leading the people who can be fully trusted to do what they say they will do. Our biggest risk is failure to properly set that priority.

Do the people stuff. It’s not easy, but it’s the answer.

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