The problem with being a good project manager, or any kind of good manager, is that often your project or organization is running along too smoothly. You stay on top of the issues and continuously improve the way you do things based upon feedback from your team and customers. You are pro-active and the organization sees you as a good solid manager using the best project management tools.
The really interesting stuff is in that project that is careening out of control. It is over-budget. It is running very late. The CEO is asking about it. The customers are saying that it is so late, that it will no longer meet their needs. They now have additional requirements you have to implement if you want them to take it. When you finish one of these projects, everyone knows your name and how heroic you had been and how you saved it from crashing on the rocks, even if it did still sink.
I stepped in as the lead on our organization’s biggest annual project. Every year we had to put out a merged and updated version of our premier software intensive system. This system had visibility all the way to the highest levels of government in Washington DC.
It turned out to be a pretty exciting project. We implemented improvements in how we organized our teams and how they worked together (see The Leap To The Exceptional). We focused on an improved development and integration process that helped ensure accuracy and stability as the product was developed. We worked around the clock for months. We had few defects reported by our internal testers or our worldwide customers. We broke the pattern of delivering the system late which is what had always happened in the previous years.
Most of the excitement, however, came from many folks assuming that this project would proceed as the others had in the past. So we had lots of folks constantly describing how we were running late and how buggy the software was.
In actual fact, we were running on schedule and the significant defects we did find were not from the current effort, but were left over defects from the previous year’s version. So we fixed our problems and found and fixed many lurking issues from previous releases. But it remained really exciting to many people, until we said we were done — and it was on time. (Actually, it was a month early but see Is Your Project On Time?)
Done? People were startled. Some were in denial: “They can’t be done. They always say that!” The test team found few issues, so they spent a significant part of their time devising new performance tests and applying them (see The Best Test Organization). They had talked about doing this for years, and now they were able to tackle it. Suddenly the exciting project was not so exciting. It was over. The customers were using the new system without any reported issues. Done.
One individual said to me that I was lucky. I got to lead a project that didn’t have all the issues the previous ones did. I got an easy one. While we were in the midst of the project, I never heard anyone suggest this was an easy project. We lived on the job. My team gave me a whip as a going away gift when I moved onto my next assignment. It seemed that if a project goes well, is managed well, and ends successfully then there is the notion that it must not have been a difficult project. It delivered on time didn’t it? The customer is happy, yes? How bad could it have been?
Many of you will recognize this situation. My wife mentions that in a major project she was on at IBM, their team got a “stinking coffee mug” when they successfully completed their project. Another project, equally as large but had lots of problems and had delivered late, was treated to a steak dinner when they were done.
In this world of ours, things that go bad are often the things that get noticed. Once they get noticed, resources are directed at them. Those resources often help enrich the folks they are trying to help.
In conclusion, don’t be boring. Make sure your project does not go well. At least make it look like it is not going well. Get a lot of attention. Tell folks how really hard it is. Scream bloody heck when even a minor issue appears. Think of this as nothing more than marketing. Your audience of this marketing simply doesn’t understand the benefits of a well managed project. They may never have seen one to recognize and appreciate it (see Successful Managers Without A Successful Project). You have to show them your value, your ability to do heroic things, even if you’ve managed it so well that no heroics were necessary. It is OK to blow things up out of proportion. We see it in advertising, politics and news reporting all the time. This is how it is done.
For more see Don’t Be Taken for Granted