We were exploring Project Management in response to someone’s concern about the prospects for this fine old company. Its products were large, complex and individually crafted by skilled workers who had been at it for a long time. This was a high-end operation, much admired for quality.
Its process was very customer-driven, characterized by uncontrolled scope, nonexistent budgeting and loose scheduling. The entire workforce devoted itself to one beautifully crafted product at a time.
This was very expensive, and otherwise not well suited to a world of rising costs, increasing competition and a marketplace tossed by ever-changing global competition.
There was a general conclusion at the top of the company that it should prepare itself for an important business expansion: conducting multiple simultaneous design/construction projects and, by necessity, systematizing its way of doing business.
So, bring on the consultant.
Project Management was identified as a suitable approach for creating this new future. Without further ado, presentation of an off-the-shelf program (mine) was arranged. All the managers and supervisors would participate. That included the company owner.
Even a standard training design doesn’t work if it isn’t tailored to the participants’ context, so the sessions explored the Project Management process as it would work in their reality.
The owner sat in the midst of the descriptions, demonstrations and discussions, not detached but largely silent. The others really got into the examination of workplace routines and challenges. It turned out that not all of it was unfamiliar to them.
A frequent comment: “You know, we talked about doing that, but nothing happened.” The ones closest to the actual work, the foremen, were most vehement about the inefficiency and rigidity of the work processes.
Well along, the discussion turned to how the workplace practices could be modernized.As this consideration took hold, something strange happened. The business owner suddenly spoke: “Well, that’s not the way we do things here.” The look and the tone – together with the reaction of everyone else – made it clear the discussion was over.
As was the entire process.
This was an unusually raw and sweeping example of the much-mentioned “communication problem.” The key stakeholders were all working off their accustomed expectations. The end purpose, the goal, was never discussed at all. No one saw a need for that.
So each of us proceeded on our assumptions . . . until the logical objectives of each viewpoint became clear. The sniff of decentralized authority was enough for the boss, and he instantly nipped that prospect in the bud.
The resultant collapse of the training project was an important lesson to me, the facilitator.
I had initiated a multiparty activity (a project) without thorough sharing of intentions all around.
My assignment had sounded routine, and that was my assumption (there’s that word!) as I went to work.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with assumptions, now. We all operate on countless ones every day. The error in this case came in piling on an additional assumption, that my partners in a joint activity shared those expectations of mine. They never do.
In this case, the managers/supervisors and I quickly found that our ideas were compatible, and our common purpose developed from an early point. The ultimate decision-maker, though, did not share that understanding, and none of us accounted for the disconnect.
My guess is that he considered this to be an opportunity for his staff people to ventilate their frustrations, after which they would go back to work in the accustomed way.
When it became apparent that they were instead developing momentum toward real change, he blew the whole thing up.The abrupt crash in this case illustrates a common reason for project shortfalls. Flat-out failures are much less frequent than flawed processes and disappointing outcomes, but neither is inevitable.
In my experience, the top causes of damage to projects are:
Failure of clear mutual agreement among key decision-makers;
Inadequate communication among those decision-makers;
Poor planning of anything/everything from stakeholder participation through
project work packages.
Those three factors feed each other and produce each other in a toxic mix of reinforcing cycles. Everything else that goes wrong in projects: Cost and schedule slippage, personnel and resource mismatches and all the rest – results in some way from those rootsProject managers who find themselves repeatedly plugging holes in their project performance are chasing symptoms that will keep erupting in various ways in different parts of the project.
The cure should precede the onset of the disease. The project manager should conduct open and conclusive negotiations at the pre-beginning of the project.
All the key decision-makers should get clear on why they are to be involved in this effort. They should share those reasons with each other, and they should negotiate all the necessary fundamental agreements before they plan and before anyone acts.
Otherwise the train will be off the tracks before it leaves the station.