Project Rescue and Recovery
The subpoena shows up at the front desk and you get the call to come and pick it up. You get that nauseating feeling in your gut that it is going to be a long day… no… a very long year. The subpoena asks for every contract, statement of work, change order, log, email, document, physical mail, specification, test document, picture, drawing, scratch note, etc. that ever existed on your project. You reflect back on the project and wonder how many corners you cut for the sake of getting the project done.
Walking onto any troubled project, guess what I hear? We are spending too much money, we cannot miss the due date, we need everything we are asking for, and it is "their" fault. My job is telling them the bad news—we need more money, we are cutting scope, and the project is still going to be late. Those are the unavoidable facts and the stakeholders need to accept them. Worse than that, I am not going to blame anyone. Blame is counterproductive. So, how does this compare to the situation with the United States Congress? In short, they do not get it. They need an apolitical, outside entity to build the recovery plan—just like we do anytime we are recovering any project.
The project was out of control. Within a two-week span, the project manager reported a slide of at least six months. To put the postponement in perspective, the original project plan was a total of nine months. Accusations came from everywhere. The customer complained about the project manager, requirements analysts were frustrated with the customer, the project manager was pushing on his leads to close requirements gathering, there was infighting within the team, and management did fnot know whom to believe. The organization was in mayhem and the only solution was to hire an external auditor to sort out the facts.
Estimates are a pain in the... er... butt. Everyone hates doing them. The reason? They are always wrong. They are either too optimistic, when we think we know more than we do, or they are overly padded, trying to account for the unexpected. Other times it is much more subconscious. Some little voice in the back of our heads is working on our conscience to change the perception of the work required. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to creating estimates and do even more harm when we go to work the task. For now, let us look at a couple factors that influence how we determine the length of time it takes to do simple tasks and save the effects of that estimate for another article. With a little audience cooperation, we will produce a fun answer from a simple mental exercise.
The costs of failing projects are huge. Roger Sessions estimates the cost in the US alone to be $1 trillion annually. The impact, though, goes beyond monetary; it includes reputation, the organization's morale, consumption of resources, and missed opportunity by postponing other projects. Fortunately, there are also many unrealized benefits to glean from troubled projects. To reap those rewards, companies must adopt a culture to exploit failure and learn from it. More often than not, people just want to get the project behind them.
Negotiation is at the heart of every recovery. Once the problems are determined, you must get everyone to concur on the solution. Achieving agreement, however, is inextricably bound to culture—from Asia's polite bows and constant "yeses," to the fist pounding demands of the Middle East. The distinction hit me in back-to-back projects. Culture shock abound. Little did I know, I would find solace and guidance in a favorite Monty Python flick.
Have you ever had a boss that simply wants to stand in your way? They avoid making even the smallest decision, never providing enough information to understand their objections. It is more common than most of us would imagine. In fact, this behavior is the central to every sales interaction. Even though you may be repulsed at thinking of yourself as "selling" to your boss, that is exactly what is required with any idea you are pushing. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to employ the same techniques used to sell large systems. If you think this is rubbish, as one of my esteemed readers once eloquently said, I will posit that you are already using sales techniques, just the wrong ones—the ones car dealers use. Changing this approach will subdue your unruly boss
Change is difficult. Regardless of who you are, it is tough. Recently, I challenged readers of this blog to improve how they tie their shoes. I can confidently wager that a large majority have stayed with their old habits. It takes significant force to reprogram out brains, affect the cultural inertia, and gain acceptance to change, tolerance of occasional mistakes, and, eventually, achieve an organization steeped in transformational principles. Nowhere is it more apparent than when delivering projects that alter the way people perform daily tasks. The reason is that, all too often, the goal is to deliver the project; it is someone else's job to gain adoption.
Why would anyone need to teach a group of managers how to tie their shoes? It seems improbable anyone could make it to this point in his or her career lacking this simple skill. However, I feel quite confident that a vast majority of project managers, managers, leaders, and probably you, are improperly lashing your laces. This prognostication will go one step further stating that even after proving a better method, they, and you, will be unwilling to put forth the effort to change. Adopting change, beyond just tying your shoes, is at the root of our inability to improve many of our business processes. Furthermore, studying this behavior and the subsequent difficulty of maintaining a new and better method will help us understand the high recidivism rate.
The other day, someone said, once again, that an issue we were discussing was like pushing string. She said it with the sigh of resignation in her voice. I understand the metaphor, but the people saying it are stuck looking at the problem wrong. Immediately, two solutions to their dilemma come to mind. First, add a little water, freeze the string. Voilà! Push that string wherever your little heart desires. If that is too hard, then roll it into a ball or put it on a spindle. Now, we can push, roll, carry, and even throw it. The problem is the predisposition to the inevitability of the issue—there is no reason to look for a solution because it is out of our control. Worse than that, we are so defeated that we rarely ask the question "Why are we trying to push that string?"