Recently I realized that I have become a little cynical about project management. Maybe I’m just negative, and most projects really are smoothly running systems, with disaster showing it’s ugly face only very ocassionally. Perhaps my attitude is a consequence of my consulting in the area of product development project management (my dad says no one would need me if everything was working great), but my own experience seems to be the stuff of the “Bad Project Management Olympics.” In my own lamentable experiences on one project, so many inconceivable blunders were made that one day we turned to one another and asked “Is this just a string of bad luck, or are we truly incompetent?” We sent a drawing for a sheet metal part to a shop to be prototyped and they’d call to ask “Which Rev. A do you want us to make – we have 2 different ones.” We sent the gold master to our hard disk duplicator to have hundreds of hard disk drives duplicated with the operating system for a critical production run only to find out that old bugs resurfaced because we’d sent an outdated version of the code. We flew to Asia to find out why we could never get the same color of paint twice on our plastic panels and found a bunch of open cans of our “custom” paint colors evaporating back in the storage room. We spent hours trying to nail down the requirements for the packaging with our Fortune 500 partner when, out of frustration, they finally asked us why we didn’t just look at the sample they’d provided us 2 months ago. The wayward sample had been given to our VP of Engineering and was stored tidily under his desk. He’d never thought to give it to the team working on this project! Considering that this was a “bet the company” project, we’d all hoped for better performance from ourselves and others. Unfortunately when we are overworked and stressed, two common occurrences in project teams, the brain misses a nerve impulse or two, and performance can be negatively impacted.
In this particular case, the story had a happy ending. In spite of all of these set backs, we managed to pull success from the jaws of defeat. One day the entire team sat in our meeting room and swore a blood oath that we were going to make this project successful no matter what! We created a high risk schedule that the team worked to, pulling out all of the stops and thinking well outside of the box in order to stick to that (impossible) schedule. We made a second schedule that was much less risky, and we promised that later finish date to the outside world. But we kept working to the more challenging schedule, knowing that surprises would occur that would eat away at the margin we had between our aggressive schedule and the one we promised our customer. Through a combination of relentless hard work and an occasional miracle we managed to deliver a day or two earlier than we had promised. It was a tremendous triumph for the team. The entire company was saved from what could have been a terminal failure, and I personally feel very fortunate to have been able to work with such an extraordinary team in pulling this off.
RIP TIDE MODEL OF PROJECT TEAMWORK
Sometimes the speed of mistakes exceeds the speed of progress. I think about projects gone haywire as being similar to what happens when multiple people end up drowning in rip tides. One person is being pulled under by a strong current, so another person wades in to save them, also becoming ensnared by the violent tide. Seeing two victims struggling, yet another brave soul tosses himself into the fray. The news reports inevitably report multiple drowning victims. Instead of one tragic loss of life, a whole heap of people meet a watery death.
Sometimes projects are like this, with everyone thrashing about instead of keeping a cool head, thinking, then acting with the common sense required to break free of the unproductive adrenaline-fueled struggle. One by one or in mass, each person finds themselves drowning in an overwhelming tide of tasks and demands. Mistakes mount as they struggle valiantly to do what needs to be done. If only one person would say “Hey guys, let’s step back and think about why we’re here and what we’re doing.” the team might be able to regain their perspective and take a more productive approach. Instead, they panic. They work longer hours, work harder, but they most assuredly don’t work smarter. In the grip of the adrenaline rush so familiar to those of us who work in fast-paced project environments, they put in more effort, but get less done. Fixing mistakes takes more precious time that was desperately needed for other tasks. Even if no one notices yet, the project has started to unravel. Eventually, however, a critical deadline is missed or a damaging mistake brings the team and curious on-lookers up short, at which time someone finally decides that “Something must be done!”
TIME TO THINK
The most amazingly hideous things can and do happen on projects, and many of them can be avoided or mitigated relatively painlessly. When a team is in chaos and people are starting to wander into the tidal zone, what they need more than anything is a little time to think. Planning isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when alligators are nipping at your naughty bits. As a project leader we can best serve a team fighting to avoid the grip of the mobocracy by insisting that they do 3 things:
- Then, and ONLY then, ACT!
Believe me, people with adrenal glands working overtime are NOT going to think of this option, but they need to spend time individually and collectively thinking and planning before tackling the next pile of work waiting for them. The best way to do this is to have a set of guiding principles and stick to them. I know a pilot who has flown 7000 hours. I asked him the other day “Chuck, the next time you fly are you going to use your pre-flight checklist?” “You bet!”, he replied. Now why would an experienced jet pilot with that much experience use a checklist? Because that’s what professionals do. And even professionals know that, in the heat of battle, much of our blood rushes to our arms and legs where it’s useful for the flight or fight response, leaving little to nourish the one major advantage we have over monkeys, our frontal lobes. Professionals do what needs to be done regardless of whether they have time to do it (there’s never enough) and regardless if they think other people will like it! (People rarely think that they have time to pause and plan.) A checklist, or a set of operating guidelines, is one way to instill this kind of discipline. It’s a rock is a sea of flotsam and jetsam. It’s the next best thing to being lucky. Your team deserves a shot at success and it’s up to you to keep your head, stay on solid ground, and guide anyone mucking about in the rip tides safely to shore.