It will stand, O yes!
Hosanna – Harry Belafonte
Married 60 years? Wow! What’s the secret?
“We agreed at the very beginning,” the husband said. “I’ll make all the major decisions and she’ll make all the minor decisions. And, so far, nothing major has come up.” In 60 years.
See? It’s all a matter of definition.
You can visualize a marriage in which the parties have such a gentle, pleasant way of describing how they manage their relationship. It might not make sense for you or me, but it works for them. That description results from the decades-long negotiations that built and maintained the marriage. They can call it anything they want.
A thing is what it is, as Patriots Coach Belichick “explains” so frequently and insightfully. That’s undeniably true, but it can be something else if you want it to be.
It’s up to you.
Definition expresses attitude.
In “My Fair Lady” Professor Higgins interrupts his own solo to muse, “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”
Pronunciation as definition of a culture.
In the USA, we thought the prof’s aside was funny. I’m sure the British weren’t offended by it. I haven’t checked with any of my French friends, so I don’t know for sure what they think – but I can guess.
Humor or snark? Depends. Your definition arises directly from your initial premise, followed by how you talk about it..
Project Management functions on definitions. In its most important applications, it joins strangers in tightly interdependent efforts to innovate quality results amid complexity, uncertainty, risk and tight schedule/resource limitations.
The more innovative the project is, the more vulnerable it is to pressure and uncertainty. So the more dependent the participants are on their personal definitions of what it is they think they’re doing there. That’s what drives them.
Equally vital to success is that the diverse personal commitments are blended in a common sense of purpose that guides their autonomous efforts in productive collaboration.
People who have experienced such a process know where the greatest challenges arise. Ask them: “What generally is the most serious problem in getting things done, and in turning out a quality result?”
They’ll reply, “Communication.”
I once gave project managers in New Hampshire four ballots to allot as they chose among 10 areas of performance that included planning, stakeholder expectations, schedule management, etc.
Where was the most hassle?
One manager simply tossed all four of her ballot markers into the “Communication” cup.
But it’s not just “communication.” It’s the content and delivery of what is being communicated, and to what purpose. Communication can be confusing, divisive and counterproductive. Establishing and furthering the common base of understanding must be the first and continuing intent.
In my training and consultation activities, I need to pry people away from their absorption in the implementation phase of their projects, and get them to take a broader, longer and deeper view.
Because they define their roles in terms of the tasks they must do to achieve the goal they have defined. In poorly managed projects, that encourages assumptions that are both superficial and uncoordinated. It is why so many projects fall short.
The challenge in a full-blown project often is that the desired outcome is new. It’s unprecedented. It can’t be reached by doing what we’ve always done.
It’s an innovation.
While many projects are largely composed of combined processes we already know how to do, the top-drawer projects are heavily original. Perhaps nobody has ever done – ever even conceived of – what we’ll have to come up with if we’re going to pull this off. We have to combine our professional knowledge with creative invention.
That reality must be front and center from the very inception of the project. Why? Because every schedule-resource-process shortfall, large or small, is rooted in something that was skipped or fumbled ‘way back at the beginning.
More often than not, it was a failure to clearly understand and reliably commit to a course of action whose description is truly the same for all the parties involved. It demands communication of a very precise kind. Without that, people default to what is personally familiar.
“Define your terms.”
Easy to say, and really not all that hard to do. What’s hard is getting people to do it – and do it properly – when they’re hellbent to get going on this project (or this argument, or making this problem go away).
People never start with exactly the same information or intentions, although we often forget that, and fail to account for it. We never know which particular fact or insight is the one that will set various of us off on divergent paths we thought were identical.
That is a killer for Project Management. A key performance indicator is simultaneous separate execution of work packages that are expected to come neatly together at some point. When that doesn’t occur, which is often, bad things happen.
Similarly with disagreements between and among people. They talk about different things, or different sides of the same thing. They don’t listen to each other, and keep talking as they keep not listening.
One conflict management approach is to require each disputant to describe the other side’s position to that other person’s satisfaction. Properly facilitated, this gives people the opportunity to work out a mutual understanding of what they actually mean.
Definition supports solution.
A most effective time to focus on definitions in project planning is at or near the very beginning of the process.
It helps the Project Manager, the Project Team members and the other stakeholders become familiar with each other’s thinking and terminology. It requires them to communicate essential terms and intentions thoroughly enough to establish reliable, actionable understandings.
The discussion is structured. It covers a number of detailed points about the situation, the problems, possibilities and risks each stakeholder sees, the extent and limits of major scope items, etc.
Then the channels and processes of communication and change management can be tailored to the specific definitions the stakeholders have established.
When all that is in place, understood and agreed to by the key stakeholders, the assignment of separate responsibilities can be done and work package teams set up.
Everybody will be talking about the same things, and everybody will know that. There will be surprises, as always, but they won’t disrupt the project and they will be much less likely to diminish the quality of the outcome.
Like a successful 60-year marriage, a great project starts with a strong launch from a foundation solid as a rock.
SEE ALSO: Why Projects Fail
SEE ALSO: Why Projects Fail
YOUR TURN: What's your take on what makes projects hum right along, and what gets them off the track? Where, in your experience, are the pressure points?