Straight Talk on Project Management

Challenging times

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IT Project Management in challenging times. How well-intentioned shortcuts can lead you astray.

One of my project-consultant friends shared with me an experience this week that may ring true for many of us. He’d been working with a project team of experienced, time-served, qualified, and certified project managers who had endured an unusually bad run of project failures. In fact, since the post Covid return to “business as usual”, this team had delivered few projects that they could put their hand on their heart and claim a success. 

Pre-pandemic, success was an almost nailed on cert! So, what had happened? 

The organisation thought Covid was somehow to blame, all but one of the team members had, at some point, tested positive. Perhaps long covid and the exhaustion that accompanies it was the cause, seemed a pretty big coincidence if not.  

As we all know, correlation does not equal causation, so my friend spoke with the team members who were quite cagey and defensive about their roles and responsibilities.  

The problems all seemed to be “out there” with this team. The attitude was “this is the way I do things, it is the way I’ve always done things, so the problems cannot be with me.” It brings to mind the joke, “I’ve never been in a car accident, but I’ve seen plenty in my rear-view mirror.” 

The problems here actually were with the team members. 

This team had started to take shortcuts, the post pandemic nature of the projects seemed to demand it. Their projects had become very reactive to ever changing market needs. For instance, like many teams they’d had to recreate all the IT resources that the office had to offer for the organisation’s entire staff to access remotely – and they’d been told to deliver this “yesterday”. 

They’d found ways to do this at speed, crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ but assuming that every ‘f’ and lower case ‘j’ got crossed and dotted in the process – and it worked. Everyone worked from home, all connected and in touch with the same applications they could access at the head office – end user feedback was positive, the board were thrilled. The team knew that they’d shaved off a little due diligence, but they’d delivered a successful project. They’d become complacent and comfortable with the everyday tasks that keep a project on track. 

Writing for, Andy Jordan, the author of Risk Management for Project Driven Organizations shared a similar experience and says that, “In most cases, project managers subconsciously begin taking things for granted. There are so many things that a PM has to consider and manage; those areas that seem more straightforward don’t get as much conscious attention. Instead, we tend to run on autopilot where those basics are concerned so that we have the time and energy to address the more complex or more unique challenges that occur on every project.” 

The problem is that these shortcuts and moments on autopilot quickly become habits. If something worked last time, you try it again and if it works a second time you assume that you’ve created an amazing new hack which becomes your new way to operate.  

It’s like driving to a T-junction and turning left onto a main road. A Police Officer recently told me about the number of accidents he’d attended at T junctions caused by the same thing. You look right to make sure the lane you’re joining is clear and left to be sure it’s safe to pull out, but, after a while, you stop checking left because any traffic coming that way is in the opposite lane to the one you’re entering. You’ve never encountered a car on the wrong side of the road, so you make an assumption – that this way is safe. Time after time you approach the junction and each time the experience backs up your theory and subconsciously you start just looking to the right. This works fine until the day that you pull out and a lorry from the other lane is overtaking a push bike and you have a head on collision with a juggernaut. 

As Andy Jordan goes on to write, “Within the framework of one specific project, that’s okay. When it stops being okay is when we automatically apply the same approach to every project. We start a project assuming that there will be too many things that we have to deal with, and we’ll therefore handle estimating (for example) without too much conscious attention, because that’s what we did last time, and it worked out fine. In just a few cycles, that becomes our standard operating model, and we take things for granted without even realizing that we’re doing it.” 

The trouble is that sooner or later you get found out, those repeated shortcuts can leave you exposed. 

Andy Jordan adds, “That may work out fine for several projects, perhaps even several years. But over time, our approach slowly deviates from what’s needed, and sooner or later that subconscious decision to start mindlessly performing a task without considering the implications results in a fundamental mistake being made. That mistake then hurts the project’s ability to succeed and damages our reputation as a project manager.” 

Andy Jordan concludes that project management is not like riding a bike. I agree and disagree. 

I think that Project Management is like riding a bike, but not in the sense that once you’ve learned, you never forget how to do it – you’re good to go forever.  

More that, like cycling, you must apply the disciplines day-in day-out, week-in week-out, month-in month-out or, as with any skill, you become rusty. A mate of mine recently bought his first bike since his teenage years and ignoring the MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra) jibes he set off on a Sunday morning looking as steady on his wheels as a new-born baby deer does finding its feet. He’d lost the ease with which his teenage self had glided along by not riding for 30 years.  

Whether you’re riding a bike or delivering IT Projects, repetition leads to mastery but beware repetition can also breed familiarity and can lead to complacency! Mindfulness in Project Management is underrated! 

I came across this quote from the book, ‘You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train’, by American historian Howard Zinn which I love. Zinn wrote:  

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.” 

What I think what this is saying to me, as a project management professional is, that whatever the external provocations, to get to the goal of successfully delivering our IT Projects – we must attend to the minute-by-minute duties with the same care that existed in more normal times. That “infinite succession of presents” combines to create the outcomes we deserve. 

In short, no matter what pressures you’re under, you mustn’t let the basics slip.    

I sound like I’m putting this all on the talent on the ground, I’m so not, project leaders have a responsibility to make sure projects are fully resourced and that teams are not feeling pressured to make judgement calls or slip into habits like “phoning in” parts of the job. We all have a responsibility to make sure we’re fully present during every moment of our project. 

Let’s commit to do just that. 

If you need help resourcing your projects – Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) resources can help, if you need a fresh pair of eyes to call-out where you’re calling-it-in – our assessment services and provide a totally independent point of view with no ‘internal fog’ and Stoneseed’s Technical Advisory Services, is a great way to ensure that there is a fresh pair eyes always evaluating your projects to ensure that they’re fit for purpose, aligned with business need, etc. At Stoneseed we have lots of other ways to take control of your outcomes too. Call me on 01623 723910 or email.

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Risk Management for Project Driven Organizations