People routinely ask me the question, "What do you do when you find yourself on a project that is a hopeless failure?" It was raised again a few weeks ago in a Focus.com roundtable and then last week in an interview with Andy Kaufman. It only matters if the executives above the project are ignorant to how dire the situation is. It is tricky, trying to convince someone that they have a problem when they refuse to acknowledge the obvious—a tough and politically dangerous sell. The general consensus is "dust of the résumé." However, there is a logical approach to the problem—be logical.
Optimism, Negativism, and Realism
The three "-isms"—optimism, negativism, and realism—must be conquered. The situation is difficult. Optimism is the trait people commonly attribute team players. Blindly promoting how successful a project will be drowns the cries of the realist. Report it as you see it and you run the risk of sounding negative. Management overlooks the pragmatist setting themselves up to be errantly led down a rose laden, but thorny, path. Management has neither the time nor inclination to suss out whether the realist is being objective or confrontational. Therefore, it is incumbent on realist to sell his or her assets. This is a slow process of analyzing, predicting, mitigating, and reporting. In time, people see the value and gravitate toward the realist for comprehensive assessment.
Dispassionate And Committed
The predicament is passion. In the corporate world, passion, zeal, and enthusiasm are virtues. They also beget evangelists, zealots, and bigots—the antithesis objectivity. Brushing aside risk pre-destines operations to devastation from unmitigated menaces and inadequate contingencies. Management hires a hero to ride in for the rescue. Our culture adores heroes, teams are envious, and companies lose.
Dispassionate and committed is the answer—commitment to success and dispassion of the answer. Finding the data that substantiates or refutes solutions to issues will lead you to finding the answer. Presenting management with a concern accompanied with a mitigation or solution is critical to running a successful project. This is the single most important trait for any project manager and is essential to fixing failing projects. There is no place for reaction. Every action must be well conceived and fact based.
Will the analytical approach make you the instant hero? No. On the contrary, it can make you a pariah. If you want instant fame, this is not your job. Patiently pointing out the hurdles and developing solutions is difficult work. It is far from the ostentatious white knight galloping in on his stead to solve the project's ills.
Recently, I described how I discuss PMOs with customers:
I ask them to tell me what a PMO is. I listen to their attempts to assign traits. "It provides governance," "It monitors projects, measuring their progress consistently so we can compare two dissimilar projects," "It makes sure projects are following the right process," and so forth. Trying to get them to realize that these are solutions, I reframe the question, "What does the acronym mean?" In harmony, I get "project," "program," and "portfolio" followed by "management office." Those three P's define wildly different scope. After people look at themselves for a few moments, I ask, "If we have trouble agreeing on the 'P', then maybe it will help to know what problem you are trying to solve." [...] Eventually someone gets to the point, "Our customer does not like what we are building for them." Now, that is a problem.
People first have to come to the realization that they are asking the wrong question. It is senseless to go against their perception of reality. They must go through the process of discovery and you are their guide. It is the subtlest form of leadership.
Have A Plan
When you find yourself in any situation where you can clearly see the answer and management has not come to that same conclusion, facts are your only way out. Provide a concise description of each problem and the ways to solve them. Remove yourself from the fray scuffling in a religious war over which solution is better and resort to reality. Be the honest broker, never taking sides. Ensure everyone is aware of the solution's strengths and weaknesses. Eventually you will be seen as the real savior of the project. If your case is contrary, resort to rule one—dust off the résumé.