Blog: Fixing Problem and High-Risk Projects

Projects build in technical debt and maintenance groups remove it—if your organization has a maintenance group. Technical debt accrues in any product, whether or not it has a technical component. It is the result of taking shortcuts when building the product. Sometimes it is the result of not having enough time, on other occasions it is due to not having the right tools. Anything from the implementation of the software component to light fixture can have technical debt. Promises are made to correct it later, but later never comes.

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on five of the ten stupidest decisions management had done on troubled projects, as promised, here are the other five. Although these may all bring a little light hearted laughter, the goal is to educate in order to avoid repeat performances. We all have seen, and made, dumb decisions; finger pointing and blame will not improve the result. So, read on, enjoy and then share your experiences so we all learn more.

In many years of recovering failing projects, I have found a few management actions whose rationale seem completely absurd. Regardless of my efforts, I am unable to understand or dissuade them from their decisions. These decisions either precipitate the failure or greatly exacerbate the project's dilemma. Regardless, due to management's level of shear desperation, they can only be classified as stupid decisions. If there were the Darwin awards for management, these would qualify.

The Pointed-Haired Bosses Concept of Agile

Full implementation of agile project management requires a top-down approach. The differences in reporting, resource dedication, team structure, and customer relationship from traditional project management methodology requires buy-in at the highest level of the company. Educating superiors and customers on the benefits of agile project management is difficult, especially if they have a religious belief in classical project management style. Implementing a pilot project is the best way to quell their fears. Unfortunately, in a recovery this luxury is unavailable—the turn-around becomes the pilot.

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.

From years of experience in recovering red projects, I estimate that only a third of all problems that affect red projects are actually on the project; the other two-thirds are in the surrounding organizations. Poor policies and procedures or lack of commitment by the customer, vendor, integrator, or organization overshadows problems on the project. Unfortunately, project managers do not have the authority, or even the influence, to address these issues. Their only course of action to complete the project successfully is to band-aid the problem. This must change if companies are going to quickly and accurately implement business initiatives.

CCU, No Hugs HereA few years ago, we had a run in with the healthcare industry. I think of it this way since is sounds like a run in with the law. Doctors are the law, or so they think. Do as they say, or else. The problem was that my wife, at 46, was having a heart attack and had a hidden... oops... I almost spoiled the story. Unbeknownst to me, Doctors rarely think about two things being wrong; they only work on one issue at a time. Those of us who live in project work realize this assumption can have grave consequences. What the doctors in this case needed was an anal-retentive, tenacious, asshole of a Project Manager whose objective was a successful project. As Gene Kranz so aptly said, "Failure is not an option," the product, service or end result of this project was a life—my wife's. However, I am getting ahead of myself. Let me take a few minutes to set the stage to show my mistakes and how years of project recovery experience helped. I will keep it brief.

It is amazing how people on failing projects neglect to look at their own issues prior to blaming someone else. Yes, blame is easy and on red projects since no wants to be the source of the issues. The truth is, everyone is at blame, so before bringing in an auditor or recovery manager, tidy up your house first.

Stop Sign

Red project recovery is a four-step process. One must, however, determine a short-term plan for the project. It takes time to get to a resolution and it is nonsensical to continue spending money at the current rate. Other than doing nothing, there are two remaining options:

Recovery Flow The four steps to bring a project back from red. They are:

  1. Project Audit;
  2. Data Analysis;
  3. Solution Negotiation;
  4. Plan Execution.

Like any recovery, be it twelve-step or four-step, it goes nowhere without realization of the problem. Step zero is acknowledging the failure. Without this step, the problems and subsequent resolutions will not have full recognition and the project recovery will fail due to the lack of management support. With realization, the recovery process has meaning.

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