Project Rescue and Recovery
If you must choose between managing a project or building a team, start with the latter.
Teams run projects, not project managers. Projects fail without teams, plain and simple. Project managers need to start by building a team. Red, or failing, projects have an even bigger problem, the teams are beat up, demoralized, depressed and frustrated. The recovery manager must focus on rebuilding the team. Balancing this with finding the project's issues may seem daunting. Fortunately, many aspects of these tasks overlap and good leadership qualities make it even easier.
In a recent blog on stupid decisions, a reader asked about lessons learned processes. I had to defer the question since my reply would have been as long as the blog he was commenting on. So here we go: the entire class of retrospectives, postmortems, and lessons learned are a waste of time. Well, to be fair, I have never seen them work. They may have worked for others. Maybe the reason I never see them work is that I am involved only on disasters, you know, those projects everyone talks about for years to come, the ones people cannot get way from fast enough. Surely, the type of work I perform taints my experience.
Businesses exist to make money. To improve operations they create various initiatives with promises of improving the bottom line. Projects, though, cost money. They do not make a profit. The dichotomy in a strapped economy to spend savings on projects to improve future profits usually results in the conservation of cash. Many an argument has been had over whether it is better to run improvement projects, burning precious cash and heading off the competition, or taking the traditional approach and wait for times with better cash flow. Subsequent to 2008's financial folly, it is well known that most companies sat on their reserves and waited. That action may have some unintended consequences that are in the midst of surfacing.
Few events start a project manager's day off worse than a yellow sticky note on his or her monitor saying, "The finance manager would like to talk to you." An email is equally as bad; however, the note at your desk means that someone actually hunted you down looking to talk about, you guessed it, finances. There must be some problem. Everyone knows the finance folks would never wander into project-land to invite you out for a friendly cup of coffee. You quickly review the project's finances. Everything seems in order. With a sigh, you contemplate whether you should walk over and see her or will a phone call be the least painful option? Yes, painful. Anytime the finance manager calls, there is going to be a lot of new work.
Management comes up with great plans for sweeping change, it implements the plans, and three years later the organization has reverted to the way it was before the initiative. Changing to new breakthrough systems is hard; maintaining those processes and procedure is far more difficult. The reason progressive ideas can have a successful implementation only to have the organization regress to its prior state a few years later has its roots in societal practices and human nature.
We have all noticed how there is never enough space, money or time. It escapes no one and nothing. If there are two weeks to do a task it will take two weeks, if there is a $10,000 budget it will take $10,000 to do whatever it was. It is human nature. The goal has been set, it must be acceptable, so we strive to meet it. I refer to it as the "Garage Syndrome"—junk swells to fill the space in the garage.
It was a classical interview in all respects, except they kept asking, "Can you handle stress?" After while, I replied that on my last project gas mask training was a first-day requisite, meetings were routinely held in bomb shelters, there were written emergency evacuation plans, and uniformed men and women with M-16s were common sights on the city streets. That was stress. I should have known better. Stress comes from the unknown, the events in life for which we have no plans.
Maintenance does not belong in projects. Combining the two violates the definition of a project, mixes deliverables with opposing triple constraints, and sets the stage for scope creep. Maintenance needs to be performed by a dedicated group that can quickly implement changes. Project teams should focus on completing enhancements that will provide additional value to the customer.
A speaker at a recent conference asked the well-dressed audience, "When is the best time to listen?" As with most presenters' questions, there was a host of blank stares, a few people rustled in their seats, and the remainder diverted their eyes to their laps as if a sudden important message had appeared on their notepad. After a pregnant pause the answer came, "When someone is talking." A relieved, yet embarrassed, chuckle rippled through the suit-clad audience. The advice is a good start; however, listening entails significantly more effort.
As mentioned last week, alignment is of the utmost importance. Achieving alignment, at first glance, is easier when the supplier works for the same company as the customer, say an IT organization delivering a new application to a business unit. However, from my experience there is little difference. In fact, exploring a vendor's world, where access to the customer is inhibited, sheds significant light on techniques to improve the customer-supplier relationship. Classically, vendors must wait for a request (RFP or RFQ) before they can get access to the customer. Exploring ways of "fishing up stream," as an eloquent account manager friend of mine says, is critical in improving project success. To understand this we need to review a couple of case studies on vendor success and failure.