Sunday, 01 May 2011 00:00

The On-Again Off-Again World of Projects

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A Pretty Bar Graph

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.

Projects Spend Money

First, executives must get past the fact that projects do not make a profit. There are certain projects geared for increasing profits. They land a new customer, sell some special product, or implement a new capability, but their return on investment (ROI) is months or years after the project's completion. To make matters worse, if discussions drift toward creating an innovative product or service, in hopes of huge returns, the situation is further complicated by the addition of significant risk. This leaves these adventurous endeavors only to companies who have a healthy tolerance for failure.

Frugality Fatigue

In the down turn since 2008, risk aversion has been at a level unseen in my 30-year business career. For a large majority of companies (Apple and Google being two notable exceptions), the slightest hint of risk in a project, would blacklist it from ever seeing the light of day. Without attempting to recover them, management cancelled projects that stumbled into harm's way. For most situations, this was an appropriate reaction, since project failures need objective outside resources to identify their ills, which most companies were unwilling to hire.

Entire organizations hunkered down to withstand the financial storm doing just enough to keep the lights on with twenty percent less than the bare minimum staff. People are tired of bailing wire, string, and duct tape (and the fear of unemployment) holding their groups together. They want change and will find it in their current company or in a different company that they perceive will have better conditions.

The Revolt Against the Spendthrift

The tide is turning with some potentially disastrous consequences. Projects are being started, people are moving to new jobs, and others who have been on the dole for months, or even years, are returning to the ranks of the employed. With this has come an eruption (okay, maybe a small upsurge) of excitement about solving the problems that have beleaguered companies for the last three years. The result is an onslaught of hastily initiated projects to solve poorly understood problems. The pent-up frustration from performing only essential projects has created a hunger to jump, ill prepared, into the meat of a project, avoiding the drudgery of planning. Executives pushing for higher profits, more efficiency, and a desire to vault ahead of the competition fuel this attitude. It creates a perfect environment for fostering failures, frustration, and fire drills.

Meeting in Middle

If rapid results are required and executives are too anxious to wait for an exhaustive design, take a lesson from the agile community and try an iterative approach. Gather a team of key stakeholders—the ones that will use whatever the project is trying to produce—and challenge them to build something production worthy in thirty or forty-five days. The key is that they may need to live with these results. If they cannot make even the smallest of useful tools in that length of time, maybe the concept is too big to be addressed. The "fail fast" approach conserves cash and promotes a nimble organization. The short timeframe iterations promote team member creativity and innovation while maintaining a laser focus on the problem at hand. The result is an energized, productive workforce that feels purpose and value, while the company minimizes expense.

Kids In A Toy Store

The combination of the perceived need for immediacy and the pent up desire to do something fun, can only be analogous to telling your children that need to buy any toy they see that might make them happy. Best practices wane, common sense becomes scarce, and chaos is customary. No business, especially now, can afford to run off half-prepared in the hope of improving their business. Proper planning is paramount. Segment the goals into small achievable packets and assign people with the appropriate attitude to complete the tasks. Frequently assess their progress, stopping any work that will not achieve quick and decisive results. This requires an involved and progressive executive leadership to guide resources toward the toys that will truly provide the best results. This melding of executives and individual contributors is the key to a cohesive and powerful organization.

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