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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Project Lessons Not Learned

     “Milliken left a lot of files. I threw them all out.”
     The speaker was my successor as president of a regional newspaper editor’s association. He was chatting with another person as they walked out of a meeting room, unaware that I was standing nearby.
     I had kept a number of neatly labeled folders, notes of the planning and conduct of projects and activities during my year in the position. The files included a number of possibilities that hadn’t come through in my term, but offered promise for follow-up.
     There were notes on our attempts to recruit major national figures as speakers for our events. Members show up, and participate more enthusiastically, when there is some star power on the programs. It’s worth pursuing big names if you want a dynamic group.
     A couple of prominent people had been favorably disposed, as a matter of fact, but couldn’t make it at that time. Now they would never hear from our organization again, and the spadework was wasted.
     There were other names in those files, phone numbers and notes about member recruitment, development activities and other matters involving potential growth of the organization.
     All of it wound up in the trash at the new president’s place of business.

     The guy who ditched the carefully assembled case history of my presidential term took advantage of a handy fallback position.
     He knew that the sponsoring organization had a full-time staff person whose job depended upon the success of our organization. While the man’s industry knowledge and professional connections had little to do with those of the association members, he had plenty of incentive to do the grunt work.
     That didn’t matter. The resultant programs were adequate if uninspiring, and one more unexceptional year rolled along.
     I attended the annual convention a few years later, and bumped into the current president. He was sitting idly in the hotel lobby. Why? He was waiting while the staff guy worked the phones in search of a replacement for a speaker who couldn’t make it.
     The association leaders who preceded and followed me observed a tradition that election to the position was an honorific matter, an opportunity to get some public attention and maybe go up a few notches in the boss’s estimation. That was it.
     I annoyed people by the approach I took. I felt that, as a membership organization, we should have the members taking the lead on matters of substance, such as the direction and content of our programs.

     One example of the annoyance was when, at the height of the Cold War, I invited a representative of the Soviet government to speak. Unexpectedly, the guy inserted himself into other parts of the program and insisted on rising occasionally to comment and question.
     I thought this was a grand example of editors opening themselves to counter-opinions. All hell broke loose, though, and I had to extract the official from the meeting and take him to the airport ahead of schedule.
     All these years later, I can reflect on the events of that year through the lens of project management.
     Collaboration, for example, and risk. The editor who became president after me had served as vice president during my year. I did not include him much in the development of strategy and content of the association’s work.
     Traditionally, the vice president’s duties in that association were pretty much limited to the nuts-and-bolts arrangements of the annual convention. The president and the board of directors would choose a site, and the VP would work with the hotel people and the paid staff guy.
     It never occurred to me to think through and plan together how we would introduce the Soviet functionary to the convention – or even whether we should do it at all.
     In regard to preparing the pursuit of the warmer prospects for quality speakers at the following year’s events? I didn’t think of collaboration there, either. I guess I just expected it to happen.

     Those vignettes illustrate the erratic track of many volunteer organizations, but the big takeaway for me is what they can tell us about how we address our duties as project managers.
     We rarely have the benefit of low expectations for our projects, and we never enjoy the involvement of someone else who actually is more responsible for success than we are. But there are similarities.
     Projects usually are mounted to produce solutions or innovations of significant value – not always realistic and frequently in serious need of clarification and realism. Unfortunately, the sponsoring organizations frequently have done things this way before, with disappointing results more often than not.
     There are reasons why they keep doing it. Chief among them is that we pretty much do the same thing as the guy who dumped my association files – usually without that motivated backup person to pull it out for us. We're always starting over.
     The fault generally predates the project start. If there actually are records of previous projects, they often are not of much use – spotty, superficial, incomplete in multiple regards. Usually, there really just aren’t any.
     And, in my experience, few organizations conduct meaningful lessons-learned sessions – including preservation and implementation of the lessons. And they often don't have very good documentation of original intent for comparison, so the lessons wouldn't be much good, anyway.
     In sum, the results of projects conducted by a typical organization do not survive as models for later  planning and execution.

     This could perhaps be the biggest lesson not learned: Failure to track and record ongoing project performance in ways suitable for learning how to fine tune it. That means there are no corrections to apply to succeeding activities.
    This inevitably condemns the organization to continue crippling projects into the future.
     Project managers usually are too busy . . . well . . . managing projects to stop and take notes on what’s going on. And even if they remember exactly what they did and how it came out, they often move on or move out.
     That being so, wouldn’t it be useful for their organizations to assign a group of seasoned project practitioners to this project: Produce a method for recording how each project is planned, implemented, tracked, corrected and completed?
     Here are the project requirements:
     The system must be very user-friendly, saving time rather than adding another burden to project activities. It must improve communication and collaboration, including those among all the stakeholders, not just members of the core project team.
     And it must build the ongoing lessons-learned history of the project.
     This would not be particularly easy to do, but what really worthwhile project is? It’s not impossible. And the payoff would be substantial and continuing – in cost, time, quality and staff morale. And therefore in productivity. A win win win win win.
     Minimum adequate documentation.

     Who would throw that out?

        Projects that Sneak Up on You

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