The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Fresh or sour?

Can I honestly say I play Chess?

In my earlier blog I introduced the concept of using stories to break project disasters to executives.

I never took too much interest in chess as a child.  No let me rephrase that.  I was more outdoorsy – running around the hockey field, cycling, swimming or doing fencing and I didnt have anyone in my circle that was a chess player!  That does not mean I don’t like or cannot play board games, I am hooked on and love backgammon and can do draughts for my young niece and nephews draughts (uses the same board as a chess board~).

I can “do” chess – if I am really pressed to!  I know all the pieces on the board (by name).  I know how they are permitted to move, know most of the rules and some standard moves.  But that certainly does not make me any real chess player!  Even though backgammon, draughts and chess all use boards – they are entirely different games testing different skills.   I know I am not proficient to start the chess game with a winning game plan in mind, if all I can do is move around the board hoping not to be beaten, then that is a useless exercise.

One can know all the tools of project management, that’s not the question.  The real point I was trying to make when using this analogy is that a number of project managers are often not experienced enough to know the strategy of the game and come up with a winning formula.  They may know the tools and rules, but in the face of live clients with moving expectations – can the PM utilise these tools and practises to achieve a winning result.  OR will they simply spend hours of non product time shuffling pieces around the board waiting without truly gaining any traction – waiting for the eventual axe to drop!  

How many times have projects started out without stating up front what the value proposition is, how it will be achieved and what success represents – prior to doing all the detailed planning. 

Fresh or Sour?

In the last few years I have gained a reputation and role for being the 911 program reviewer and manager.  When the project or program shows signs of illness, I am asked to “pop along” and see what can be done!  Often I end up staying way beyond my sell by date (that’s what it feels like!).  Doing this I have learnt a lot about patience, perseverance and most of all human nature.

I recently sat down and had a very hard chat with our company MD.  He simply would not entertain the fact a project I was reviewing was too ill for us to continue in the same way.  The entire team had turned not once but twice in the preceding two years and the scope had leapt – the project team was resentful and exhausted while the client humour was threadbare of humour.

No matter how much I investigated, contemplated, considered, planned and re-planned – the project was just too sick to fix!

I had to figure a way for him to be able to hear this.  I finally settled on milk! 

I told him that no matter how much fresh milk one added to sour milk, the net effect at the end of the day is sour milk!  The only way to be rid of all the sour milk is to toss it out, clean the bottle and start by putting in only fresh milk. 

I told him that while this sounded radical, if we were determined to continue with this with the aim of completion – we had to go back to before it “got broke”.  I then listed all the broken items and what had already been tried in an attempt to work around the issues.

There was a lot of unhappiness for a few days.  Then the bad feelings stopped and the truth settled in.  Now we are all working with the same mind set and realistically evaluating what can be salvaged and what needs to be resumed and which parts needs to be restarted.

Often when something is broken it is hard to sell or believe that the right way forward is to either stop completely or alternatively take a few steps backwards, but the milk analogy hit home.

I was no initially popular, that’s for sure but at least we stopped pouring great volumes of effort for no return until we had done a proper assessment.


About the Author

I started in the world of computers in 1984 by serendipitous chance. I have since filled various roles in this intriguing world and worked in what is considered the world’s leading consulting houses. My initial focus was principally technical which evolved into an application fascination. My roles have included large scale functional solution designs and implementations, as well as business, pre-sales and management consulting. I am intrigued by what makes people think, how they learn, what moves them to think and behave the way they do, how to define and model excellence, and what influences and motivates people to seek and reach personal excellence. This led me to investigate, read, then study human behaviour and how people can define and then model their aspirations of excellence. I believe that sustained success is rooted in harnessing the collaborative strength of real teams which work in an energising, focused and planned manner and that proper communication is the glue which keeps this together. I am considered the master of crucial conversations done with grace. I have worked locally and abroad leading and managing diverse cross-cultural as well as offshore and virtual teams so have acquired good negotiation and facilitation skills. The science of influence, motivation and behaviour as the root for good negotiation are key passions of mine. My current passion is about growing; others and myself to look inward, reach outward and surpass their aspirations and dreams. On a personal note, I am in awe of life and thrive on learning new things as well as being exposed to new concepts, cultures and ideas. I am intrigued by synchronicity, and the concept of world connectedness. I am passionate about all things outdoorsy—photography, nature, sport (the more extreme the better). I have a deep love for my family (especially my stunning four-footed children) and music you can listen to without going deaf. I can even hold a tune and tinkle the guitar myself. I love travel and seeing how the world at large lives. I dislike more than words could EVER express; injustice, dishonesty, thoughtlessness, and prejudice. I regularly go and play with the lion cubs that live in the sanctuary near me; I have also played with baby cheetah, leopard and even tiger cubs, and have got up close and personal with a baby Ellie and fairly close but not too close to a baby rhino, all awesome soul feeding stuff for me. I am a certified Master NLP practitioner, a Language and Behaviour profiling practitioner (LAB), Prince2 project manager, APMG change management practitioner; with industry certifications in Consumer Goods, Food & Beverage, Life Sciences, Electrical & Industrial.
Creative Commons License
Note: This work and all associated comments are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

2 Responses to “Fresh or sour?”

  1. And, sometimes you have to throw out the sour milk and start making cheese, because the recipe for making milk had been lost long ago when the company founders left.

    Great analogy!

  2. Very inspiring, Eldette! Last week I was in a project team meeting with one of my clients and I blurted out “Don’t hate me for telling the truth!” I often feel like a lightening rod, but continue to commit to taking responsibility for doing what’s right and sharing my perspectives on “reality” as best as I can figure it. Maybe I’ll try the milk thing . . .

Leave a Reply