Project Rescue and Recovery
It happens hundreds of times a day around the world, the CIO calls an urgent IT Management Committee meeting. She has heard that one of the projects in the portfolio, a seemingly simple project doing a routine upgrade, is projecting a 20 percent cost overrun and will be three months late. How can a project go that far off track since the last week's executive team meeting? Managers scramble to get their stories straight, determine who to blame, form opinions and alibis, and pummel the project manager for failing to manage the project correctly, even though he has been saying the project is in trouble for months. The project has drifted from its initial intent and now the ultimate goal is to find someone to blame.
Objectivity is paramount. Above all Recovery Managers need to be honest brokers. They must look at every situation (before they become issues) and determine a fair and equitable approach. Allegiance to any party on the project is certain failure. Why? Recovery Managers are mediators in a negotiation process. Only fair and objective treatment of the project team, suppliers and customer will allow the recovery manager to reach an acceptable recovery goal.
For years, project failure rates have been ridiculous. Various groups have published statistics showing troubled or failing project rates range from forty to eighty percent. People have asked time and again the primary reason for project failure and I repeat the same list so many have already stated—poor management, inadequate understanding of the goals, miserable communication, the list continues. However, I have discovered one problem common to every project I have recovered that I think is core to many of these generic observations.
In a meeting the other day, one exasperated participant exclaimed, "This isn't part of all the processes I just learned to get my PMP, how am I supposed to run this project?" I bit my tongue and refrained from looking over the top of my glasses and calmly telling him that running a project is a heck of a lot more than a series of check boxes. The poor guy was frustrated and lost. He was truly dumbfounded. His hard-earned certification failed to prepared him for his new assignment.
The project team has an obligation to tell leadership or the customer when they think the direction of the project is wrong. However, at some point the team must follow management. They have to trust management has the insight to know what needs to be done. I call this "Finding Religion." People must act on faith believing the direction is best for the company. This is often contrary to data that is in front of the team and indicates another direction.
Projects can be on-time, within budget, meet the specifications and still be a failure. Case in point, the new Dallas 160x72 foot mega screen. It seems the screen displays what it should, but is positioned a bit too low. So low, that on August 21st, the punter kicked a ball into it. Did someone forget the purpose of the stadium was playing football?
Cultural issues can be devastating on any project. It is much larger than the obvious language barrier. In fact, since it is so obvious, language is often the smaller issue. It is critical to understand cultural differences and change the management style to accommodate it. Everyone should spend time learning about the different cultures on the project. A few examples help underscore the point.
In daily talks and presentations, I am often asked what the most common reasons are for project failures. I usually turn the question around and ask people what they think. It is a fun exercise and people list a mixture of symptoms and sources. As mentioned in the previous blog, one must drill past the symptoms and get down to the problem itself. It is my firm belief that most project problems are rooted in the people, however people are creatures of habit.
It is common that when I am called into fix a red project to have management assign all of the projects ills to one problem. As of yet, I have to see such a project. There are multitudes of problems deeply embedded in the organization and the project team to make a project truly crimson. Managers look at how the problems manifest themselves, skip diagnoses and assign blame. Prior to getting to the point of calling an outside party, they have tried to fix the issues by attacking these symptoms. This only makes matters worse and the project becomes a deeper shade of red.
"Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other." This quote, delivered by C. P. Snow, is one we should all live by. Mr. Snow was a physicist, a novelist and a bit of philosopher. Technology brings about great benefits that many of our projects rely upon. We are using it right now. However, take pause to reflect on how technology is also our nemesis. It haunts our projects with its false promises and lures us into implementing superfluous functionality.