Why projects go wrong. In brief.

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Flame out. Death march. Bad days and worse nights. If you work in consulting or IT or software development this has happened to you or it will. You will look up one day from whatever knowledge worker den of iniquity you call home and realize, I am screwed and it is not going to get better.

I think we are prone to such unpleasant showcases of doom because so much of what we do consists of ones and zeroes whose complexity and design are invisible to most people. We arcanely lay down our nerdy magic over the course of weeks and months and if we are not careful, smart and unusually lucky we end up being on the wrong side of the “schedule”. Generally speaking the larger the deal, project or effort the more likely it is that we will be left gored, panting on the floor, probably bleeding, definitely cursing and above all angry.

And if you are the nut-job who volunteers to lead these sorts of endeavors, you must be the sort of person who likes abuse, who relishes the thrill of knowing that at some point, in the very near future, your work life (and you had better not be taking it home) is going to go to hell. Probably in a handbasket, which will absolutely be full of unreasonable, angry people who really, really want to blame someone for their problems.

Granted you might get lucky, or if you were smart you or someone who likes you stacked the deck a bit and made sure there were people around who can both understand what happened and help. Even if these people are going to help, everyone is counting on a “fix”, which will get harder and harder as the situation unfolds. When things go from bad to worse, some people start behaving in ways that could charitably be described as irrational, but really more closely resembles the characters from Lord of the Flies.

Perhaps it does not have to be this way? Or maybe it does. Frankly I am not sure, people seem to like drama.

But there is good news. We can easily list the reasons for failure.

  1. Somebody, maybe you, but perhaps someone else did not do the right thing at the right time.
  2. Unforeseen circumstances.

We’ll start with the second item first. Put simply, this is something you cannot and should not plan for. Rogue comets hitting the office and killing your whole team, alien invasion, mass extinction or mass revelation. Everything else can generally fit into category one. But if that’s true, then doesn’t that mean that failures are always someone’s fault?

Yep and they and you will mess up again and again. Because we all are, just a bit crazy.

What was that you said? Was it something like… it profoundly sucks that most failure, even the most tragic is rooted in the day in day out lives we all take for granted, which many of us effectively sleep through.

Maybe you did not say that, maybe I am just jaded enough to put words in your mouth. Or maybe you do know that really all the pain and discomfort we feel is actually all of our own making.

The good news is, we can stop if we want to. The bad news is, many of us won’t. We don’t know how.


Categories: Planning, Strategy

What if it was true…

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Some great short videos on the now and the future

February 20, 2009 1 comment

First watch this interview from Bill Moyers journal, then watch this TED talk.

Now how do you feel?

I felt queasy and excited all at once.

Categories: Uncategorized

Blogging to increase organizational agility

February 17, 2009 Leave a comment

I have been thinking about blogs and blogging lately. I have not been blogging in a long time. But I have something interesting to share and I have to present this material tomorrow so…

I have been thinking about something I recently read in John Robb’s timely (and awesome) book Brave New War. In chapter 6 (Open Source Warfare) he talks about swarming techniques both new and old and how disparate groups of “actors” use Stigmergic signaling as a basis for coordinating collective action without central leadership. Essentially stigmergic systems use simple environmental signals to communicate and coordinate the actions of individuals and groups. To quote from the book:

These signals are used to coordinate scalable, robust and dynamic activity. This activity is often much more intelligent than the actions capable by the individual actors.

He further goes on to discuss the possibility of potential for Open Source Warfare networks to exhibit signs of emergent intelligence. He asks the questions – can the interactions of the participants in the bazaar of violence create in their network a form of “macro-intelligence” which could allow the network to tackle strategic goals.

I would tend to think that complex systems like the ones in the Iraq insurgency or like what could be created in correctly created organizational culture could yield greater intelligence than the sum of its parts.

I think blogs (= stygmergic signalling) are a low cost vehicle for coordinating groups using minimal bandwidth with maximum impact and will if used correctly (defined as how they are instantiated in the orientation of the culture they are embedded within) will likely result in a more complex and effective behavior set for the actors in the blogging ecosystem. Furthermore I also think blogs are a fine way to build organizational intuitive competence (expertise).

I am thinking about advocating for the usage of  blogs in my firm for a few key organizational transactions:

  • Project status and update – once a week (or more often) asking each project participant and the projects leadership to write a quick post including both qualitative and quantitative project and task information. Examples could be notes about our customers and also upcoming due dates, percentage completes etc. If we established a template(s) then others could easily consume this information when joining new projects or wishing to monitor or gain insights. Furthermore each team member could read their buddies posts to gain a continuous baseline of knowledge. Do this enough and a finger tip feel for project status and state would be developed by all participants. Bonus points for putting it all on an RSS reader.
  • Lessons learned, Pre-mortems and technical challenges could be blogged. If you mandated and encouraged both your team affinity groups (for instance all your PMs or Developers) and organizational affinity groups to blog  about their experiences you would share wisdom (refined and effective mental models) which could lead to building collective expertise (yielding organizational intuitive competence in time).
  • Organizational alignment could be built by having each level of leadership blog about present intent and focus at each level of organizational structure. Starting at the team level and going up – each level of leadership could be encouraged and required to post timely blog posts which would in aggregate form a running set of intent statements showcasing the ongoing evolution of organizational strategy. Each level of leadership could then easily compare their statements both up and down to verify their present alignment with organizational strategy and goals (defined missions and the current desired future state).

What would it take to make this happen? A blogging platform would need to be installed, each project and/or program would need a blog, each person in your organization would need a blog, some templates would need to be generated and the hard part… the proper incentives would need to be put in place.

Further reading:

Communicating Intent and Imparting Presence

Evolution of Commander’s Intent in the US Military

Multicellular Computing: Stigmergy — the secret of complex organization

Categories: management, Strategy

Charlie Rose Interviewing Warren Buffett

October 4, 2008 Leave a comment

So you say – what happened in the economy?

You say, is it really that bad?

Yeah it is. Warren Buffett lays it out to Charile Rose and the money quote is “this is our financial Pearl Harbor”.

Categories: Education, Planning Tags: ,

Pre-mortems in practice

September 26, 2008 2 comments

I have recently started to use an exercise from Gary Klein’s very good book The Power of Intuition. This exercise is called a Pre-mortem, if you have lead or participated in a Post-mortem or an AAR then you can easily grasp this idea.

Essentially you and your project participants imagine that many months have passed and that your project has catastrophically failed. You have to make it clear, things have gone badly, very badly. But you say we do not know why. Gary suggests using a mythical crystal ball – I have found that this whimsy helps people relax and works to lighten the mood. However you explain the scenario just be certain to tell them a story which puts the participants in a mind set which allows them to accept that they have failed. This allow their minds to begin searching the present patterns in the project to find the sources of this horrible failure.

You then proceed as if you were performing a post-mortem, except that everyone is using their imaginations and drawing upon their past experiences to tell a story about what could happen. A real key to success here is to force the participants to describe specific scenarios – draw out the details and you can really surface your likely key challenges. However if you allow for vague platitudes like “lack of management support” or “budget cuts” you will not maximize the potential of this exercise.

Instead strive to get colorful, yet plausible scenarios like “server hardware too small due to unforeseen data on Foo server” or “competing project XYZ stole key contributor Bob McCodes aLot”. Being specific forces the participants to focus on things that can really happen which you can probably do something about, whereas vague causes of failure generally can not be fixed.

This has fantastic results and really allows people to accept the possibility of failure without getting stuck in a blame game or analysis paralysis. I have found that this exercise can allow people to prepare for the possibility of failure much more effectively than merely generically reviewing plans for risks and arriving at luke warm mitigation.

Bonus points if you review this list with your project team at least once a month to keep the possibility of failure fresh in their minds and allow those minds to keep looking for early warning signs which will show up if you are on the wrong track.

One of my favorite quotes

“Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the latter than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

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