Project Rescue and Recovery
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?"
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.