The guy at the neighborhood meeting was livid.
“Just do what you said you were going to do!” he shouted at the developer. His two dozen or so neighbors all sounded their “Yeah!” They were fed up.
They had bought their lots and contracted for homes to be built in this planned development sited on a big vacant field in the city. They were promised features including a pleasant pond surrounded by their nice little residences.
Development had gone slowly. Most of the additional homes went up. The muddy track became a quarter-mile roadway, paved, center circle and all.
Within the circle, though, things remained undone. A big bundle of lumber hung on the edge of a crude, huge, muddy hole. There was a concrete structure in the middle that encased a drainage system that was the practical, original inspiration for the pond idea.
The neighborhood designer envisioned a rippling pool to be enjoyed by all. Water was always going to come in from the adjoining neighborhood and collect in the middle. There was a legal mandate to move it on through, and this was to be a way to make lemonade from that lemon.
At long last, the pile of lumber became a two-foot wall around the big hole, and a footbridge extended from two sides to a central roofless gazebo. It was going to be really nice.
But the broad interior of the space, covered by a black material, remained bare. The only standing water around was the undrained rainfall that accumulated on the road surface outside the periphery of the pond.
It was now two years or so on. That is when the developer came to the neighborhood meeting. He acknowledged that he had made a mistake. The only part of the wet central area that would not hold water, he said, was the place where the pond had to go.
And that wasn’t all. The incoming runoff would not be sufficient, and it would be so polluted – it came from city streets – that it would have to be purified. So there would have to be water treatment equipment, and the water district would have to be paid to pipe in a supplemental supply.
He would get rid of the failed pond, the man said, but he would not provide the additional water and he would not finance pollution abatement. He apologized, but the unexpected additional requirements would have to be financed by the new neighborhood association . . . if the members wanted to do that.
The fix he proposed, if the members should decide against the pond idea, was to install a sloping lawn. No beautiful pool, but a relatively mundane vista that the association members could populate with plantings of their choice. An underground drainage line ran through the neighborhood.
He would get rid of the pond walls, leave the gazebo and bridge and take care of the reworking of the site. That was it. Not a lovable prospect, but a majority of the grumpy assemblage voted for the lawn.
With that, most of the homeowners agreed he would not, in the end, be required to provide what he had promised.
An angry minority wanted to go to court, was voted down and devoted several years to reminding their neighbors how little they liked it. Mismanaged projects have a way of producing that kind of result.
This unhappy tale illustrates an important truth. You can’t anticipate everything that will come up in a project. Competent project management seeks to identify, analyze and account for potential problems before the project work starts.
To the greatest extent possible, you try to unearth what could go wrong and decide what to do about it and when. It's called risk management, and it is central to project management. If people are involved (when are they not?), human nature can be an important consideration.
The fix. The formula for readjustment to handle variances. All projects need it; bad projects demand it. The really awful choices erupt when projects are not well managed, and lingering bitterness can result from failure to properly manage – beginning at the pre-beginning – the people issues.
Because, you see, project planning is fictional. Yes, you have to do planning. By all means, you must do planning. But the plan, at least for any project really worth the name, will never survive intact at the conclusion of whatever action results from the original intent.
It’s why you have project management, instead of fully predetermined, rigidly observed process from beginning to end of a complex enterprise. It’s in the nature of projects that actual resource investments and results usually don’t match the original plan. You simply can't account for everything in advance when so much of it is speculative.
Projects generally combine routine activities – such as building houses and draining runoff – and untried innovations -- such as turning a swamp into a pleasant pond without knowing the nature of the underlying terrain.
Sometimes you pull it off, and sometimes you don’t. People who need excessive assurance should stay away from projects. I once had a participant in a two-day project management course express gratitude to me afterwards. The workshop had convinced him that project management was the last thing he wanted anything to do with.
In the pond example, the builder could have provided much greater assurance by having soil and hydrological studies done, and then investing in whatever it would have taken to avoid the problem. He had neither the patience nor the funds for that.
In project management, you’re simultaneously juggling, balancing and advancing multiple activities on a limited budget under time pressure through the efforts of people who may not all know for sure what they’re doing. The more definite and detailed the expectations for the eventual outcome, the less likely you are to fully achieve it.
An alternative is, of course, to not do it. Then you have full assurance of nothing at all.