Project Rescue and Recovery
The west coast of the United States is where I call home. Many refer to us as "left coaster" because... well... that is how it looks on a map and many of us are politically a little further to the left than others. Around here, common thought is that everyone should be open-minded. A sentiment that I proudly subscribe to as I lack most prejudices. You can imagine my shock when I found out that my unbiased presumptions are not only undesirable, but also undeniably wrong.
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 ability to deliver initiatives that make breakthroughs in the business is the differentiator of a truly successful IT department. However, the project success rates are very poor. Failure rate estimates range from 40-75% of project are over budget, late, or fail to deliver the required functionality.
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.
I have written about, spoke on, and lobbied against blame. Regardless, it just seems like a bottomless pit of contention, conversation, and criticism. People fail to see how to correct a crisis without hastily pointing fingers at failure's first sight. Yet, in the next breath they claim accusations serve no purpose as they attempt to sidestep the fate of blame's gauntlet. We can talk about how we should solve the issues rather than going on the proverbial witch-hunt to find the individual, group, or organization who we think should be burned at the stake and wear the corporate tattoo of failure. Why do we need this and what does it achieve?
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.
Walking onto red projects, anyone can see and feel the problems. The bedraggled team wears the pain with their long faces and the slumped shoulders. Knuckle draggers. They are carrying the weight of the world, or at least the project, on their shoulders. How can any project succeed with these demoralized, denigrated, and defeated folks? Their spirits are far from lifted with new project manager's enthusiastic optimism. It only irritates a team wallowing in their misery. Nothing is worse than a chipper cheerleader when you are absorbed in troubles. It is an ugly situation.
Vision, honesty, and transparency: three key traits of an organization that can guarantee project success. This was summed up in last week's interview with Tom Cox, the host of Blog Talk Radio's Tom on Leadership program. His audience, primarily from the C-Suite, is keen to understand how troubled projects are a reflection of their organization's overall health. Projects are, after all, the proverbial canaries in our organization's coalmine. Projects stop performing because there is trouble in the organization.
A couple weeks ago, I was in eating my pre-keynote dinner with a group of people that I had never met. Without being prompted by some general drift in the conversation, a person across that table said, to no one in particular, "Did you hear about the new app to do confessional?" Being unfamiliar with the group, how was I to know if I was sitting with a group of high-tech Catholics that would think this was great. Besides trying to determine how to react, I was trying to envision how confessing with an iPod would have the same effect as sitting down with a priest. Of course, who am I, a fringe protestant, to make any editorial comment about Catholicism's inner workings? However, I finally blurted out, "What happened to accountability?"