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How To Avoid The Slow Death Of Responsibility For Project Management ResultsIs our organization in a place where it makes decisions that leaves us wondering “what were we thinking?”  When I was in the Air Force we would say that these organization needed “adult leadership.”

Getting A Project Approved Does Not Mean It Has A Good Plan

For example, we had a proposal to launch a new product in one year.  We had never launched any new product in one year.  The normal time to launch a brand new product was 18 months. Our group of senior account VPs who blessed all products apparently heard enough to give approval for a one year new product development.

Ultimately, this product shipped seven months after this originally approved ship date. Which was very close to our normal launch schedule.  We did “rescue” this product early on (i.e., gave it a realistic past performance based schedule) and it in fact became one of our most technically successful launches even though the product itself was not the huge hit we hoped it would be.  Even better, this product baseline became the springboard for a whole line of on time projects due to its high quality.  Up until this point we were known for our edgy products but they were always shipped many months after we said they would be ready — and were always an iffy quality.

A Schedule Significantly Shorter Than Normal Is Bad

However, the fact this product began as a 33% faster than ever before project  is something worth examining.   One would expect a special effort to be going on to make this new approach a reality. Normally at the twelve month point in a product launch we would be receiving product hardware prototypes and be rapidly ramping up to full software development to bring the product alive.

As the software project manager, I put out a notice to all the global account teams that the software functionality we currently had in the pipeline was all they should expect to get for a product that would ship in 12 months.  Amazingly and gratifyingly, their response was “yes, this hardware with the coming software — that would be a great product in that time frame.”  I thought, maybe this was possible.

Other members of the product team, however, chastised me severely that we had not finished figuring out all the software functionality we wanted on the product!  This was not good.  It normally took us six months to work through the give and take of new worldwide requirements (e.g., what vendors could deliver what components by when).  I also observed what I would consider no extra sense of urgency by the product team to nail down the “rest” of the software requirements.  They were pursuing business as usually in a project that was to deliver 33% faster.

Teams Saying They Can’t Meet The Approved Schedule Is Bad

The whole thing then completely fell apart when the hardware team said they could not deliver a working prototype for nine months.  That would leave three months to do what we normally did in twelve months.  It was almost humorous at this point. The fact that we were still having “serious” discussions about how to make this work put me back at the “how is it possible that we are still having these discussions?” mind set.  Neither software nor hardware could deliver in this time frame, yet we were approved by senior leadership to pursue this project.

I’m always torn between the notion that this should never have passed muster as a twelve month project and the notion that if we ever wanted to be able to do a product in twelve months, then we would need to take a chance like this.  Yet my experience is that these things don’t happen on faith.  I had a boss who once told me not to give people the real project management status, because it might discourage them.  He felt that as long as they believed it was possible, it could happen.

Exceptional Results Generally Requires Approving Exceptional Plans

I’ve just never seen it happen that way.  When we ever did something that made a huge difference there was always that central idea, a unique or insightful approach, that was the core reason why it was different this time.  It was usually something painful to do (besides work around the clock for months!) and well defined and not just a PowerPoint slide with 10 indistinct reason why we were going to complete a project 33% faster than we had ever done in the past.

It was clear that senior management had the performance data to know that it was currently taking eighteen months to ship a new product.  The challenge then would be to hear and accept how the team was going to do it in only twelve months. I have to believe that the senior team, hearing this revolutionary proposal, would have done something like ask for a special review and hear from each manager what they would be doing differently to warrant taking this risk.

Senior Project Approvers May Need Your Help To Get It Right

What I concluded instead is that this decision was just another “why not, nothing else is working any better” type of decision.  The senior approvers didn’t feel a sense of responsibility for ensuring this product delivered when they approved it to deliver.

The company had achieve a cultural norm where neither the company nor the customer had any real expectation that we would deliver when we said we would deliver.  Hence decisions on project completion dates, while discussed with great vigor, could ultimately come down to dates that would consistently slip many months.   This was just the way it was. Anyone talking seriously about delivering when we said we would deliver was seen as naive and not in touch with the complexity of large projects.

Achieving Exceptional Results Requires Doing Exceptional Things

Achieving something exceptional usually requires … doing something exceptional. Rarely will we exceed expectations by just thinking we could do things better or by just setting a goal of doing things better.  If we see decisions for faster or better results being made, without an accompanying — real and insightful — effort to achieve those results, then we may be seeing a slow death or responsibility.  Our job as project managers is to ensure this management malaise doesn’t seep into our projects.

Are you seeing any signs of a slow death of responsibility in your projects?

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3 thoughts on “How To Avoid The Slow Death Of Responsibility For Project Management Results

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Madeleine Grinyer • Management malaise can indeed creep into programmes and projects too. Especially when they are called the equivalent of initiatives. Too many organisations don’t set up programmes and projects to achieve specifics but prefer (often for cost and resourcing reasons) and also for political reasons) to carry out ‘initiatives’ part-time using people who are already potentially stretched doing their ‘day jobs’. I have also seen in one worldclass global pharma and a global insurer with so many projects that it simply was not possible to effectively distinguish between them all. Thus the achievement of the original target objectives was weak or at best weakened. And, all too frequently, the projects simply did not get finished with many of the projects just faltering and slowly dying. Some organisations such as a utility I have recently worked with because astute. They set up a ‘Change Unit’ which they might call a macro Project Management Office. This unit while appearing to be an overhead usually does a good job of rationalising and controlling the delivery of these so call initiatives and projects. The payback can be significant to any organisation investing in this approach.

    Bruce Benson • Madeleine – ” just faltering and slowly dying” — I too have observed this in government and corporations. They often just kind of fade away (at least in terms of noise and reports) and we’ll see a new batch of initiatives.

    In government (federal), I’d see a project office carved out of existing resources (or even a budget increase from higher HQ to cover it) and it too would quiet down after an initially noisy period, but the project office and all the resources would often continue on for a long time. At best, they would be given a new initiative and that would keep them going until the next one(s) came along.

    Overall, it was not a positive/productive process to implementing initiatives.

    I admit I’ve not seen where a new project/change/management organization, layered on top of the existing ones, ever really make anything work any better (this is another technique often used in government).

    What I’ve seen work is what I call the 25% rule. This is where we take existing initiatives and find the 25% of the people/efforts that are making a difference and set them free to take the lead. Think of it as getting rid of all the overhead that builds up in initiative/project organizations and spawning a new independent pilot project to run with the initiative on their own. 25% came from looking back and noticing that what worked inevitably averaged about 1/4th the people (and even less as to budget) finally being the core force that finally got the change in place and seeing the benefits of the change.

    I become an advocate of self managed teams and independent pilot projects after years of seeing this pattern. We also spend a lot of time looking at an organization and trying to find and nurture those small teams that are doing something new and unique (and leading the way to what will become industry wide innovations). This “control free” innovation approach (think of the Google policy of letting people use 20% of their time for their own ideas/projects) seems to work well, even as it scares us for its lack of control and unpredictable results.

    Great feedback, thanks.

  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Dave,

    I’ve seen too many officers say “we can do it!” when they had no clue how to do it. They saw being positive and “can do” as the best approach, especially to senior officers, but the folks doing the work knew it wasn’t going to happen.

    Gen Fred Franks (1st Gulf War) said he knew if he could get the equipment, supplies, materials to his troops on time and at the right place, they would carry the day. Good leaders provide both good goals and the means to achieve them.

    Thanks for the BOGSAT insight!

    Bruce

  3. Dave Gordon says:

    I served in the Army, rather than the Air Force. We had an expression for decision like the one you describe. “It was decided by a BOGSAT,” which is a Bunch of Generals Sitting Around a Table.

    Smart leaders don’t issue an order to do the impossible. It alienates the people who have to do the work, setting them up for failure, and it creates the (probably correct) impression that the boss doesn’t have a clue. Effective leaders are those who are able to set “stretch” goals, rather than “break” goals.

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