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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.

Good Project Managers Are BoringBoring!

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.

Often people assume that a project will go just as bad as previous projectsMost 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.

Make lots of noise so your project is not boring!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.

Not.

For more see Don’t Be Taken for Granted

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16 thoughts on “Successful Projects Are Boring!

  1. Akshat says:

    Wow…

    Finally, I see a lot of people around me, with theh same thoughts, and I thought I was the smartest of them all to have known this and follow this.

    Really, this concept works wonders in any project. You might actually delay one phase of the project (only to be made up in the last leg) to see a nice one page appreciation from the customer, copying all the presidents – vice and otherwise.

    I think, as managers, we need to learn to manage chaos and disorderliness. The more accustomed we are, to these things, more wonders, we can do to the successfullness of our projects.

    Talking about an important aspect – people aspect – People or team members like to work in a highly visible, tight timelines project, rather than working on a normal day to day project.

    Thanks for initiating the article.

    Akshat

  2. Sadly much as I insist that I prefer a nice easy to manage project which runs smoothly, the reality is that deep down I prefer turning around the projects which are express trains out of control. I like the challenge of getting my hands dirty and the satisfaction of getting them delivered.

    I must just be a masochist deep down and obviously am paying for some misdeeds in a previous life!

    Regards

    Susan de Sousa
    Site Editor http://www.my-project-management-expert.com

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Susan,

      Yes, especially when I was younger, I loved all the activity and seeing what I could make happen.

      But I got tired of being the go-to-guy for taking on the problems. One project I didn’t lead from the beginning I was told was because they always knew they could throw it to me if things went bad. Great. Just about guaranteed I’d only manage the end of bad projects (i.e., late, low quality, etc.).

      I found it was more fun and satisfying to manage them from the beginning and deliver as promised. This is when I started to notice the things I mentioned in the article. There was nothing easy or smooth about the projects, only that the success of delivery was often met with muted enthusiasm. I made it less fun then the problem project! Do we see a senior management problem here?

      Thanks for the comment,

      Bruce

  3. Michiko Diby says:

    Wow – this is so my issue. I love taking on complicated problems so much that I’ve niched myself in that spot. But once the projects are running on a good clip I’m so bored!! Thanks for this article.

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Michiko,

      They do get a bit boring when things are running well. They can still a challenge and keeping them on track requires constant vigilance.

      I’ve noticed this with programmers. I’d have some that just needed to be doing risky cutting edge work. I found that most of my programmers, maybe 80-90% I just needed them to come in, do a good job, and go home. I needed 10-20% to be the ones that thrived on challenges.

      When you hire or attract only folks that are big on working in crisis, you have a tendency to get an organization that is always working in crisis. Rarely have I seen a crisis driven organization that is doing well.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Bruce

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  5. Brad Egeland says:

    Nice article. It is true…we sometimes thrive on chaos – at least it certainly keeps things interesting. It’s much easier to manage smooth projects when you have a full plate, but if you have the time to spend on it, then taking on a troubled project can definitely keep those creative juices flowing. My wife tells me that she thinks I seek these things out.

    In reality, I enjoy the successful project – it’s just that in the PM world there is rarely a perfectly smooth project so I strongly believe that those conflicts and issues really keep us focused and excited…

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Brad,

      When I was younger, I loved the chaos. I loved the energy. So much going on. I soon decided that I wanted to do more than just put out fires, so I worked on getting things to be orderly. Worked out pretty well too. Then I started to notice the type of things I mentioned in the article. It is just one of those things, human nature, we have to recognize and work with.

      I agree, some of my “best” projects were things out of control that I took over. If nothing else, they helped me get the next project, the one I could really plan and make work well. You know, the boring ones.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Bruce

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