In the Marx Brothers movie “Coconuts,” a customer walks into a real estate office. Real estate agent (Groucho): “Would you like to buy a lot?” Customer (Chico): “No that’s too much!”
Over the years I have had thrust upon me many excuses from project teams on the overdue status of projects. Once on a long drive home I took the time to characterize the statements made to me and came to the conclusion that they actually were the great truths about project leadership. Great truths because the play on words contained therein convey a deeper meaning and relate directly to various issues in project management. They always make me smile; first and foremost they are absurdly funny and have that ”Marx Brother” quality to them.
But secondly they have a critical truth about the various steps of a project. Now I am not saying I abdicate accountability, but I do hold a special place in my heart for people that make me laugh. And each of these statements brought a smile to my face, either from the contradiction in terms or the gusto with which it was delivered. I offer them up for your review:
- “It’s done but not complete”
- “It’s complete but not finished”
- “It’s finished but not working”
- “It’s working but not used”
- “It’s used but not in production”
Have you not heard these great truths before? Think about it. Each of these statements correlates to a portion of project management 101. Let’s explore them:
DONE BUT NOT COMPLETE = Scope Management
Managing the scope of project and project creep is often the hardest job. Initial planning is the most vital part of a project. Defining goals and expectations is critical. The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary should be “NO”. When dealing with scope, remember that nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it, so make sure the goals are realistic by the individuals with responsibility for using the product. Each and every large project is composed of many small projects so have your users segmented into smaller responsibility groups. Remember Parkinson’s Law. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you find yourself spiraling down a hole, stop digging!
COMPLETE BUT NOT FINISHED = Human and Cost Resource Management
Most projects succeed on the skills and strength of the team. Too few people on a project can’t solve issues and too many create more problems than they solve. A poorly defined team will always result in additional cost. The human resources attached to a project are directly related to the cost of the project. A weak team may be forced into committing to a deadline, but a strong team is what will make an informed collaborative decision on a deadline and has a much better chance of meeting it.
Most project task progress quickly until they become 80 percent complete. Cost overruns tend to be acquired in the last 20 percent of the effort. It’s the Pareto Principle at work. 80 percent of your cost is produced solving 20 percent of the issues. This is all about the team, how they plan and how they are managed. An experienced PM is your best protection. Early in the process set up a method for resolving issues and moving on, but remember when your choices are fast, cheap or good, you can only have two of the three.
FINISHED BUT NOT WORKING = Quality Management
The nice thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, and there is no period of worry and concern. Quality is all about definition. You must define the goal, the business reason for the project. This is often mis-categorized or poorly defined, and prone to the LAW OF TRIVIALITY which states that “the most time and attention in meetings or group discussions about projects centers on trivial issues rather than important ones.” Stay focused, look at the big picture and remember a few key elements. A change freeze is a myth and will melt at the slightest pressure or heat. If you are unsure on how to do a task, there are many people who will tell you how to do it. Find them. Decide what your business metrics are before you start, make sure they are tied to the goal, and report them even when they are blank to help keep focus.
WORKING BUT NOT USED = Communications Management
This is entirely about communication and behavior. If your product is not used, you either missed the point of the product or forgot training and education. This is the Law of Requisite Variety. “The unit within the system with the most behavioral responses available to it controls the system.” So remember to define your goals and groups for training. Identify the people with the largest influence over the use of the product and train them first and frequently. A user will tell you anything you ask about but nothing more, and when there are several possible interpretations of a communication; the correct one will be the least convenient. Tease the answers out of your project members. Over the course of the project, your working meeting should not be bigger than 6 people. And the most import thing to remember is to hear what isn’t being said.
USED BUT NOT IN PRODUCTION= Risk Management
If you have completed the steps of a project, done the testing, done the training and completed education, what are the risk factors preventing production level use? This is where Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle comes into play. There is uncertainty in all observations because you cannot know everything about an object or event. If something can go wrong it will … plan for it, but you cannot know what will fail. This is true because there is not an exact list of specific unknown risks we might encounter. The best we can do is aggressively attack the risks early in the project and solve for them during implementation. Expect that you missed something because you most likely did, and plan for recovery and modification along the way. The most valuable thing you can say is I am unsure.
We like to pretend that managing a project is a science; a systematic method of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing it into testable laws and theories. Project management is more than checklist and testing hypothesis. Project management is an art. It is the use of skill and imagination to create something that can be shared with others. There is an emotional side to the equation as well. It is the bled of art and science that makes for successful experiences. It is part of the human side of information technology. Thomas Mann once wrote “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.” The epigrams I started with are great truths once they have been deconstructed. So is the art-science nature of project management. Well I guess I’m done, if not complete.