Education is the First Step in Reducing Project Failure
Daily, we are involved in two acts—developing and following process and generating estimate. We cannot escape them; they are part of the human experience. Processes are required to maintain consistency, accuracy, and abide by regulations. Estimates are required in every task we do. Add people—people with personality, prejudice, and protest—and estimating becomes quite demanding.
Daily, we are involved in two acts—developing and following process and negotiating with stakeholders. We cannot escape them; they are part of the project management experience. Processes are required to maintain consistency, accuracy, and abide by regulations. Negotiation is required to create a valuable solution that meets the triple constraints.
To deal with the reality of business, you need a toolbox of techniques that can address the needs of the people who supply and consume information and the competing interests of stakeholders.
A project's destiny is set very early, often before the project even starts. A properly run project launch is the first opportunity when all of the key project stakeholders are gathered and can identify and correct issues. Critical to the kickoff's and project's success is having the right stakeholders reviewing and agreeing to the project approach, risks, and mitigations. Without this short alignment workshop the incident of project failure is much higher.
Project Launch Benefits Include:
- Set up the project for the best chance of success.
- Define the proper project approach through prototyping solutions.
- Identify and vet major project risks.
- Assess mitigation strategies.
- Determine contingency requirements.
- Attain consensus on roles and responsibilities.
As they say in the army, never volunteer. Nowhere could that be truer than when it comes to project sponsorship. Given a choice between a root canal and project sponsorship, most managers and executives start looking up dentists on the internet. It is a sad fact—one that project managers must deal with on a daily basis. It is often the project manager’s first solid opportunity to lead up.
Recently I received the book Strategies for Project Sponsorship by Vicki James, Ron Rosenhead, and Peter Taylor, all good friends of mine and trustworthy twitter contributors. It took a while for the book to trickle “up” to the top of my stack; however, when it did I was more than impressed.
Tired of doing the same thing and expecting the different results? The goal of a properly run retrospective is to do more of the good things and fewer of the bad. Even well run projects have lessons that we can learn. Preforming a retrospective on a project allows you to capture the highs and lows of a project and integrate that information into a library for others to use.
The lessons could be about handling risk, a new process for you company, allocation of resources, or a multitude of other data. Without discussing and capturing that item, you are left to reinvent this wheel or stumble in the same hole in the future. Objectivity, experience, and an unbiased perspective are key for conducting a value-laden retrospective that solves problems instead of looking for blame, and that complements team work over the individual hero. It takes an experienced outsider who is removed from the history and politics to see the issues and make the recommendations that will maximize the lessons learned.
Back in the eighties, I was working for a large aerospace company cutting my teeth as a systems analyst. My bosses were a little older than I am now, and they loved talking about the days before cubicles, pontificating on how personal computers were inferior to mainframes, and reminiscing about the days of the BOMARC missile. It was their way of telling us thirty-something kids that they were in control and we needed to respect their position. Then, as now, information was king and these pterodactyls were not letting it go. To earn the stripes, one had to partake in the tribal rituals, smoke cigars during three-martini lunches, and attend your boss's parties. They saw no value in email let alone the boondoggle shop floor automation project I was part of. In two words, communication sucked.
There I was, in a posh Montreal hotel conference room, two customers on one side of the table, and my client and me on the other. Taped to the back of my laptop lid was a conference-center supplied piece of paper with a hastily scrawled note on it. The entire message consisted of only two letters followed an exclamation mark. The letters were "N" and "O." They sent a succinct message that was hard to ignore as the customer incessantly strove to get a little more functionality brought into the failing project's scope. For every request, I would drop my chin slightly, look over the top of my glasses, tap my right index finger on the top of my laptop, and they would relent. Instead of being a pessimistic curmudgeon, I was bringing realism about the budget and timeline and doing what leaders do—making hard decisions.
The two most common project attributes that raise the red flag are cost and timeline problems. Both are easily measured and inextricable intertwined. As the timeline extends, there is a commensurate increase in cost; similarly, as cost goes up (usually from increased scope) the timeline increases. However, time is different. Benjamin Franklin said it best, "You may delay, but time will not." Work can stop work (controlling the burn rate) and extraneous features can be removed (decreasing the required work), but time marches on. We cannot control time. Although intuitively obvious, the concept seems to escape a large number of managers and executives.
Are there any ethics in business today? Time and again, headlines proclaim where companies and leaders have gone astray. You cannot help but wonder what our fellow humans will do next. Men and women in search of money, power, fame, or all three, decide they are exempt from the rules and social norms the rest of us struggle to follow. It boggles the mind. Unethical, however, is just a waypoint in the spectrum from truth to criminal. Face it, we are all liars. It may be telling our children about Santa Claus, portraying our speed to the policeman, covering up a politician's extramarital affair, or promising fortunes through investments in Ponzi products. Deceit is everywhere.
Few would question that executives are responsible for ensuring projects are aligned with the corporate strategy. They also need to ensure these initiatives remain in line with these goals as business conditions change. To achieve this, they have to be engaged with the project when it starts and maintain that context throughout its life cycle. This requires more than ensuring the project maintains its scope, schedule, and budget; projects must deliver value. Too many projects start with the inspirational support of upper management, but as the project (or company) drifts, the executives have long since disengaged from the project and are unable to straighten out the misalignment. This wastes company resources and hinders the company's ability to deliver.