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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Can a Project Last 40 Years?

     Can a project last 40 years?
     My first response? Of course not.
     Why, then, did I post a commentary on the 40-year history of Borders Books & Music last November 8, and entitle it “Botched Project: Borders Book & Music”? I even noted in the same post that the business had been founded in 1971.
     Since the piece appeared, there have been more than 900 views of it, and countless comments about it on the various discussion boards. Just one writer, though, raised a point (for which I am grateful to him, Steve S), that is deserving of thought by all of us:

     This is not a project, because it was not intended as a temporary endeavor. This is a case study of a business. It did not have consistent objectives over the years, or a fixed timeline (due date) for completion. I wouldn't call it scope creep either, but more of a business going through expansion and retraction as it changed its mission and strategies.

     “It's an interesting case study, though, and illustrative for many industries as our economy and technology change many of the ways people accomplish things.
     I confess I had thoughts similar to those of Steve S as I was writing the post. But I’ve been thinking about it since.
     Can our current definitions of the term “project,” various as they are, accommodate something that was never seen as a project, never planned coherently? That underwent numerous business changes – typical and not -- over its decades-long progression to collapse?
     Can you think of anything in your personal experience that was considered a project . . . and otherwise displayed all of Steve S’s characteristics? (The 40-year matter is not that relevant.) More than a few come to my mind.
     We all start these discussions, at least theoretically, with the standard industry definitions.
     The PMBOK Guide, the ruling document of the Project Management Institute, says

a project is: a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

     Harold Kerzner, prolific writer of project management books that have earned him the justified status of guru, says

a project can be considered to be any series of activities and tasks that:

     Have a specific objective to be completed within certain specifications
     Have defined start and end dates
     Have funding limits (if applicable)
     Consume human and nonhuman resources (i.e., money, people, equipment)
     Are multifunctional (i.e., cut across several functional lines)

     Back to your personal history again: How many “projects” of your experience have been a precise fit to either or both of those descriptions?
     OK, in working terms, what exactly is a project, anyway?

     For my part, I have worked out a nutsy-boltsy set of factors that, when all present, tell me I’m into a full-boat project, and should be suitably thorough and cautious in planning, organizing and relationship development.
     When just some or part of my list is in evidence in the situation, the project leadership chooses among the project functions for those necessary and usable in that particular circumstance.
     The choices and applications are developed through research, consultation and, as necessary, limited pilot initiatives.
     My own definition:


     Complex Process                                                            
     Specific Goal                                                                               
     Differing People Must Collaborate                   
     Limited Resources, including Time                                                     
     Insufficient Knowledge/Information

     The planning, organizing and startup of a business constitute a project. As time goes on, there are changes and additions in the various subunits of the organization, and in the way its business is conducted. Those initiatives also are projects, or should be.
     You don’t do that successfully over 40 years if the process is ruptured by disconnects and erratic turns. There needs to be a program, or at least a continuity among the individual initiatives.
     As noted above, some of those initiatives call for major project management activity, and others require just some. None, if managed properly, are just tossed off the corner of the desk as afterthoughts during regular business functions.
     As the years roll on, you can decide to call the continuing expansion a program or some other name that connotes a relatively coherent intent.
     Whatever you call it, the enterprise must innovate and renovate if it is to last. And if it doesn’t manage the innovation and renovation well, it fails.
     That, of course, is what happened with Borders.

     A succession of decision-makers, ever-less interested in the charming and unique vision of the Borders brothers, imposed in turn their ideas on the stores. They sought to replicate what they were familiar with, which was high-volume retailing at low cost.
     They went entirely off the point. The Borderses weren’t into that at all. They wanted the ultimate booklover's experience, and that's what they created.
     What the successors were familiar with was what Barnes & Noble was already doing better. And who needed an also-ran? The outcome was preordained.
      The unique factor explicit in the PMBOK project definition, and implicit in mine, is at the core of true project management: The unique nature.
     Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, so you have to innovate. You need to do all this new and difficult stuff to make it happen – forever attentive to what it is that makes this project worth doing.
     What if all those veteran retail executives had made it their business to absorb and adapt the wonderful reader experience Tom and Louis Borders had innovated, and if the execs had grown the business accordingly? Can you imagine the environment we could be shopping for books in today?
     The lesson for us is to nail down at the beginning just what that unique factor is that makes our enterprise a project. We get all the decision-makers to sort it out thoroughly. They must agree on just what we’ll do to create this never-seen-before outcome.
     Once that consensus is in place, the rest is standard project management and disciplined execution. Not likely to take 40 years, but if that should happen, the process will handle it.




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