I talk a lot about using project management tools and methodologies. What happens when we are not using a tool or method? What do we call it then? I call it management by intuition. Others call it management by experience. Dictionary.com defines intuition as “direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process.”
Let me admit that I love a good system or process. While I’m a creative person and like to just leap in and try things out, most times when it comes to doing something important that needs doing, I’d rather have a well defined, well thought-out, process that is followed with discipline.
I have observed that many methodologies are originally chosen when management by intuition did not serve us well. For fairly non-complex activities, just doing what seems right and natural will work well enough (home, social, volunteer, community projects, etc.). However, I’ve never experienced a project in the military, federal or corporate world where “just do what seems right” has worked well. This is where, often after poor results, we finally decide to try a disciplined process.
Many of you reading this might well be saying “yeah, yeah, this is all obvious, what is the point?” The point is that many of our projects are probably run by intuition rather than by methodology or process. Even as the project appears to be following a methodical approach, it really is being driven by the “seat of the pants.”
Huh? We either have a methodology or process or we don’t, right? Not necessarily. Think about it. How many times have we seen a team working on a project and when we ask them about some aspect of the project we get indistinct answers and hand waving? “Can I see your plan?” “Oh, it is not finished yet.” “Do you have an overall schedule estimate?” “Sure, here is our PowerPoint slide.” “What did you base the schedule on?” “Oh, we think everyone will like it if we say it will take this long.” How do you know it will take this long?” “Oh, but everyone says this is the right amount of time to take.” “OK, so what are you using the plan for?” “We need the plan because it has to be checked off on the QA checklist …” The process being followed is indistinct and being done intuitively.
Ok, but — you know — if it works who cares if a process or methodology isn’t strictly followed? “Don’t worry, we’ve done this before, everything will be fine.”
All these phrases came from a range of projects, all that ended up cancelled or late with low quality. Just about all of them commented at the end of the project that “This is how it works. Things are not perfect. Thinking that it would be on time and with few issues is just unrealistic. Real projects just don’t happen that way.”
In one particular case, with a Director of Development who was managing a product that was late and buggy (and saying many of the things above), we outlined how we had just delivered the premier product of the company on time and with quality touted by the customer. He at first didn’t realize we were talking about a real project, just completed. He showed visible disdain and scoffed that we were naive and inexperienced in the real world by talking about any such thing. He quickly went quiet when he realized we were talking about a large project — much larger than his — that he was well aware of, but didn’t know it’s whole story. Even with his long history and notable reputation in the industry with startups he had never led nor been apart of a successful large project and was suddenly speechless when face to face with real performance. The details behind his intuitively managed project are worth examining.
This particular manager had been told to go off and create the next great product using whatever methodology and approach he wanted to use. This was going to be a special project that developed not only a great product but also a great project methodology and process that the rest of the company would adopt in future projects.
I was visiting their site as part of a team that was going to adopt what they were doing into a couple of our new projects. In order to get an idea of the size of the schedule, I would regularly ask them how long some phase of the process took (e.g., getting commitments from a strategic contractor on delivering their part of the project). I would get an answer such as “Oh, it will take you about 2 weeks.” I would then ask “How, long did it take you?” Often I would then see visible annoyance or discomfort and they would finally say something like “it took us twice as long, but you will be able to do it in half that time!”
In just about every case where I asked “how long did it take you to …” I got this same answer “it should take you X” followed by a reluctantly given “OK, it took us longer, but ….” During the actual projects, it turned out that in every case the amount of time to accomplish what they had just accomplished was comparable. It didn’t “suddenly” only take half the time. It took just about the same amount of time it had taken in the recent past.
We had two key products that were going to be on this new great approach, and we finally cancelled them both as all the evidence that came in at the beginning of the project (i.e., ability to hit milestones and cost estimates) significantly exceeded the plan we had devised based upon the “intuition” of the experts who had just completed a similar project. The other evidence to cancel these two products was the fact that several other products this new methodology team was also managing, were not performing any better than the first.
These experiences helped me to characterize how typical “intuitive” project management plays itself out (which shares similarities with inexperienced project management and underestimated projects):
- Phase 1: The project starts out with great press, good looking plans, and appears to be on the fast track. Everything is reportedly going well.
- Phase 2: Milestones start to be adjusted as some unanticipated things have gone not quite right, but we should have no problem dealing with the change as everything else should be fine.
- Phase 3: Just about every milestone is off track, we’ve come too far to cancel the project. We just need to replan and then everything will fall into place.
- Phase 4: The project just never seems to complete, has been replanned multiple times, and there is always a few more things that still need to be fixed, completed, re-worked, and we just need another week. Then it will be done. Months go by.
- Phase 5: The project completes or the product goes out the door with little fanfare. Everyone wants to go work on something else. Lots of slides are generated on lessons learned and the heroic things we did to get this “really hard” project completed. Often these slides will show the anticipated project “benefits” we’ll see, someday — in the future — after one more release or update to the what we’ve already done.
Too often we manage by intuition rather than by methodology. Intuition just seems easier and is not complicated by doing hard things. Intuition is always essential in managing a project. But, our underlying approach should be based upon a methodology we understand and anchored to the brutal honesty of our reality if we want to be consistently successful.
Does your organization seem to manage projects more by intuition or by methodology?