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Monday, November 27, 2017

Failure Is Quick & Easy

      If it wasn’t the fastest-ever project failure, it had to rank right up there. The project manager appointed two people to get started on the design of a software program, then immediately left on vacation.
     Needless to say, there wasn’t much progress while the project manager was away.     The designers spent a lot of time fixing problems that were interesting and in the neighborhood, without really getting much done on the software design itself.
     The IT people were grateful for the extra help, but the project mostly wandered aimlessly away from the original short-term intent..
     After the project manager returned, the carelessness of the launch was reflected in a continuing lack of focus. The project wasn’t very large, but the eventual cost and finish date were way out of line.
     That example is somewhat extreme, but the hasty start and sloppy execution are common. The project failed at the start; the damage continued for five months.
     You can’t call it simple scope creep. For purposes of definition: Let’s say “failure” is a 10 percent variance – or more – in any of the three points on the Triangle of Truth: Scope, Cost and Schedule.
     Professional project managers, and their sponsors, should expect competent planning to provide a reasonable base to meet that standard.
     Yet, it is not unusual for executives and even project managers to operate on the expectation that projects are essentially uncontrollable. If the best you can do is limit the damage, then just go at it and hope for the best.
     Of course, projects are by nature speculative. We define them as such. In no way though, does that dictate a strategy limited to crossing your fingers.
     The competent project manager understands what it means to tend the tension between innovation and assurance. The more finely those two opposites are balanced, the more productive the project will be – and the faster it will move.
     The copout represented by the botched software project is at one end of the spectrum of mismanagement. The manager didn’t really attempt to control the project.
     At the other end is over-cautious rationing of risk, which produces an assured, but suffocatingly limited, outcome.
     A successful project plan inserts rational risk management into the process. It  accounts for the nature of group innovation in traditional organizations, and it can pull off quality results in demanding situations. It is driven by attention to the real  challenges, corralling the impatience and task obsession that derail so many projects.
     The ever-ticking bomb in project management is risk, tucked into numerous corners of every project. Pre-eminently, a project is a project because it is attempting something never done before.
     It’s different when you’re repeating previous activities. That requires knowledge of what worked and what didn’t. Your execution must adhere to the known method, and your risk is limited to carelessness in doing so.
     A good-sized project starts with the risk inherent in the reality of inventing something. You know what you want the end state to be, but you have no idea what it will take, in specific initiatives, to get there.
    Add to that the uncertainties about the strengths/weaknesses and relationships of the stakeholders who constitute your core organization. Then there are dependencies on people who are not under your authority.  Often none of the parties know each other very well.
      And the project frequently doesn’t have assured funding, materials, equipment and facilities. Those resources are drawn from units of the organization that usually will not benefit directly from the project, so the transfer is a net loss for them. Not a plus for the partnership.
     Hovering above it all are the multiple expectations of the stakeholders, particularly the executive leadership of the sponsoring organization. Not only are the expectations all different – some will be in conflict with one another.

     Those expectations are not fully articulated upfront. In truth, stakeholders often don’t know what some of their expectations are until they discover how the project is not set up to meet them.
     In short, the project is layered with risk. This is not for the faint of heart. Too often, the project is reduced to what the project manager feels he/she can handle.  
        To succeed, the project manager addresses the situation with a combination strategy: Preparing a project plan in ways that build collaboration with the stakeholders. Not only does this assure that everyone’s concerns will be addressed; it also guarantees broad ownership interest in the project’s success.
     This is a tricky and time-consuming business, but experienced project managers do it all the time. You can’t do a project properly all yourself, so there is a lot of negotiating and persuading to do.
     This is no place for the compulsive action figure, but project managers must be highly organized. They must have done their homework thoroughly.  They also must have the imagination and flexibility to get things done by including and accommodating the needs and ideas of disparate people.
     So they are great listeners. They are persuasive. They use the process to engage and convince, to build teamwork at the stakeholder level. 

     Planning, preparation, communication, discipline. It’s no vacation. It’s politics of a high order.
     And it all takes time. You can’t speed-date this work, so your excellence at time management underlies it all.
     Failure is quick and easy. That’s why we see so much of it.

Discussion Point: Does in-process monitoring help or hinder Project Management?

SEE ALSO: Projects that Sneak Up on You


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