Home » Change Management » Disrupt The Project To Make The Big Improvements

Get out of sync with what everyone else is doing.  When our project is not succeeding and we keep doing what was done in the past, we are going to get the same results.  The path to improvement often means using disruption as a project management tool.

Change is scary to many people in project organizationsChange is scary. Change is hard.  Much of what a good project manager or any manager does is to bring about change to the organization.

Half the time I was changing an organization my bosses hated me while it was going on.  Many folks talk a good story about kicking the organization up to the next level of performance.  When it comes to actually doing the things that need to be done, they often retreat back into the safety of the way things had been done in the past (which may still be pretty painful — but familiar).  Happily, all my disenchanted bosses liked the final results and even asked me to stay on or to join them in another organization.

Here are some examples of out of sync and disruptive activities that proceeded significant improvements.  Some of these will be obvious.  Keep in mind that each is in a context of what was needed at the time.  These worked because they were appropriate based upon the current conditions in the organization.

1. Work Around The Clock When No One Else Does

This is pretty straight forward.  I found it especially effective as a difference maker in government organizations for bringing about a new way of doing business.  I’ve also frequently been in companies where just about everyone worked long hours and weekends.  Often in these organizations, routinely long hours are not efficiently used hours.  In this environment, working smarter during those long hours becomes the key difference.

Also see: The Most Effective Part of the Project Management Day.

2. Report Project Status With Brutal Honesty

Monthly we reported on the status of our development project to the corporate VP of software development.  When everyone else was reporting their components being only a week or two behind schedule, I was reporting our component was triple digit days behind schedule.  We could not all be right.  The corporate VP came to rely upon my updates to know where the overall project schedule really stood (we ended up nine months late).  (See also Brutally Honest Project Management Tools.)
Work two hours a day and the project still makes great progress

3. Work Only Two Hours A Day On The Project

I was sick.  Really sick.  I came in at six in the morning and by eight in the morning I simply could not function anymore.  In those two hours I would do what work I could, read my e-mail and any notes left on my desk.  I would send out e-mail replies and leave sticky notes on people’s desks with actions I needed or with answers folks requested.  This went on for a week.  This was one of the most productive weeks in my career.  Sometimes the best thing to do is to restrict the time, money, or resources available when things are not going well.

4. Ignore The Highest Priority Of The Project

Senior management wanted to constantly know the status of the defects that stopped us from shipping our products.  We had dozens of project managers frantically and competitively working the management of those issues.  If you were the first to report a breakthrough to senior management, you got great recognition for being on top of the critical issues.  I ignored the critical issues.  Instead I showed senior management the overall trend of all the defects, the arrival rate of new defects, and the overall rate at which we were fixing the defects.  It showed we would not ship for months when the goal was to ship in a week.  It showed that all the meetings and project managers used to speed up the repair of defects were making no difference in the repair rate.  We finally shipped a few months later.  The stated highest priority (“staying on top of the defects”) was not the activity that was making the difference between success and failure.

See also Project Management Defect Reports Are Your Best Friend.

5. Say The Project Will Take Longer Than Requested

We always shipped our products three to four months late.  Always.  As a project manager we got the biggest rewards for putting together a plan, usually by twisting lots of arms, that showed we can ship by the requested market window.  If we were late it was no big deal because other folks would inevitably not be able to make their promised schedule and besides we were always late.  Heretically, I said we would need three months longer than requested.  I showed recently shipped product completed schedules and how long things were taking.  I showed product defect curves and how long those curves were taking to complete.  I was told to never bring up such things again!  An emergency arose.  We would lose significant resources from our product development staff.  My “longer”  plan was adopted as it was ready to go.  No one who had to commit to the new schedule objected to it (unlike the original schedule).  We shipped on time for the first time in memory.  It took no more time to produce this product than it did any previous product.  It was personally risky, but the right thing for the company, advocating a realistic schedule.

For more on this example, see Project Management Crisis?  Hurry, But Do Nothing.  Also see Get The Project Management Schedule Right.

If what we are doing is not personally risky and not making us sweat, then we are probably not making a difference in the organization.  Not everyone needs to be making a difference.  The majority of our folks just need to do a great job everyday.  But if we as project managers need to or want to improve our organization or projects,  and we are not going against the grain and disrupting the organization, then we are probably not on a path to successful improvement.

What personally risky changes have you ever made that then helped your project to succeed?

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11 thoughts on “Disrupt The Project To Make The Big Improvements

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Owen,

    I find that leading change is often swimming against the tide, even when the change is supported by “all levels” of management.

    There is a quote that goes something like “it is just as hard to have a good life as it is a bad life.” In other words, the work and challenge is the same, but we make a decision to try and make things better or just “suffer” with how things already are. My experience is that it is worth the “pain and suffering” to try and improve things.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Bruce

  2. I agree that you can swim against the tide to make a difference. However, I would say that i think that leading change is probably less risky than just fighting the system. That applies to you as an employee but also to the company also.

  3. How has IT arrived in a situation where often our whole psychology is driving towards over promising and then focusing our resources on the completely wrong thing to achieve customer satisfaction and business goals? There must be some core reasons as this appears to be reported on across so many forums and companies.

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Owen,

      That is a good point. I’ve often wondered how we get into these situations and how they become so ubiquitous. We know good practices and we know they make a difference and often we’ve built a great company by following them, but then we lose our way. I look at the financial sector and the practices they followed (high risk mortgages, etc.). We seem to do too much “follow the leader” and not keep grounded with enough bedrock fundamentals. And then we all jump over the same cliff, together, as if that makes it all right.

      Disrupting the organization is one way to break us out of bad patterns. It can be risky, but I’d rather take the risk and risk failure then not take the risk and go over the cliff, Lemming like, with everyone else.

      Thanks

      Bruce

  4. Bruce Benson says:

    Good related article on restricting resources as a way of helping an organization to improve:

    http://money.cnn.com/2009/09/08/smallbusiness/easy_money_can_hurt.fsb/index.htm?postversion=2009091013

    Bruce

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