Home » Planning » Project Managers Follow The Crowd As Your Last Resort

“What’s sad is that I didn’t educate myself, … I was so naive.  I just thought, ‘Everybody does it.  It has to be right.’”  The Mortgage of the Future, Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov 14-20, 2011.

In my college economics text book I recall the advice of the author when it came to conducting business and as well as investing.  The author provided several approaches to assessing risk and return but then added when one could not confidently assess the risk, then to simply follow the pack until you found something that suggested another course of action.

Project Managers Follow The Crowd As Your Last ResortI always liked that advice.  It gave me an action plan while I was still trying to figure out what to do.  Yet, as one may guess, such an approach of just doing what everyone else is doing is fraught with its own risk.  Too many people, I’ve observed, choose “follow the crowd” as their plan of choice.  It is safe, everyone is doing it, why do we have to get real smart on something when we know this is what most people are choosing to do?

In just about all the businesses and government organizations I’ve worked with, the solution to finally delivering projects on time with good quality had to do with breaking the old habits and patterns of the past.  Generally, these old habits and patterns were just bad habits and patterns, but because it was how it was done, any hint of  inadequacy was muted by the observation that everyone was doing it.

In one experience, we had just delivered a major project on time and with good quality.  One of the other project managers who had worked with me on this project, and had helped me convince other managers and senior management to accept our realistic schedule, had taken on a new project.  I expected him to carry on estimating and using realistic schedules.  Instead, I saw he had proposed a short schedule.  It was very typical of the too-short schedules we had been doing that averaged several months late.  I asked him what was up with his short schedule.  His response?  He asked me why he should use “an old approach of the past” when he could do it faster?

It was clear when talking with him that “everyone” wanted a shorter schedule — just like the ones “we use to propose.”  Even though he had gone through the first successful on time project we had had in the recalled history of the company, he was still strongly influenced by the crowd rather than his own direct knowledge of what works.  It was safe, everyone was supporting his proposal, as compared to continuing on with a realistic and attainable schedule based upon past performance.  Sticking with the crowd was simply more comfortable than continuing on with an approach that was successful but different than what the crowd wanted.

As typical with these kind of compressed projects, the early milestones were missed so we used that performance as a reason to adjust the schedule, and put it on to a realistic plan that delivered the project within a week of its target.  This became the third project to deliver on schedule after years of regularly delivering projects months late (background: there were about a dozen projects delivered throughout the typical year with a total of in the mid 30s of all projects in some phase of planning or execution at any given time).

Sometimes as project manager we just have to take action without knowing everything we want to know.  There is nothing wrong with this, but we also need to stay focused on being the expert on managing and delivering projects.  This means executing projects based upon observation and insight and not necessarily just following the crowd because it appears safe to do so.

Are you planning your project based upon what is acceptable to the crowd or what really needs to be done?

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