The perfect IT project leaders in 2019 - optimistic realists who ask for help!
What could be easier than delivering an IT Project?
You know what needs doing, you plan a budget, you set a deadline, you gather together a team and away you go - success is in the bag.
One of my Project Manager friends has a poster of a beautiful ocean liner, under a cloudless blue sky, on a calm turquoise sea with the caption - "Full Steam Ahead". That is how IT Project Management is, right?
Except, things go wrong. Calm turquoise seas have a habit of turning into violent snarling oceans, blue skies cloud over, there is a reason why that beautiful ocean liner has an equally beautiful row of lifeboats on its deck.
In IT Projects, the scope creeps, it turns out that you picked the wrong crew for your voyage or if you picked the right ones - they leave, you miss a deadline and the ripple effect means you miss another - and another, KPIs and actual performance become distant strangers ... lots of things can go wrong - and probably will. It's how you deal with it that counts.
One of my big takeaway lessons helping teams achieve successful outcomes in their projects over the last year is that few have the resilience needed to truly deal with the problems that can (and usually do) happen along the way. Full steam ahead is a great mantra until you come across an iceberg and it's the mantra you adopt at that point that will keep YOUR ship afloat!
So, with 2019 around the corner, I thought I'd share the lessons that I've learned over 2018 and share just two changes that could make a huge difference to your project outcomes in the future.
1 - Be an optimistic realist - Develop a sense of expectation that things WILL go wrong - and be COOL with that.
Expect failure and more importantly expect to learn from it - in fact, insist that failure teaches you something.
Having achieved this, become an Optimistic Realist in your reaction. Let me explain.
I work with Project teams all the time who are optimists, always have been, their glass is always half full rather than half empty and they expect good things to happen. Thing is, life and IT Projects are not always like that. Sometimes things go wrong. All the optimism in the world won’t stop a project with a creeping scope from running into serious trouble. I'm all for optimism but that won't stop your board from restructuring the business and making your project redundant. To be an optimist but EXCLUSIVELY expect things to go well can cause project teams to painfully crash and burn.
I've also worked with teams who are at the other end of the scale. Project leaders who are pessimistic and are constantly asking "What could go wrong?" or "What if this decision turns out to be a bad one?" You'd think that these types would be more prepared for the bad stuff, but it can be just as painful. The pessimistic PMs also have a tendency to talk themselves out taking a risk that could yield huge benefits or making a decision in case they end up getting it wrong.
I did an exercise with a Project Leader this year if you do catch yourself being pessimistic and saying, "What if this goes wrong?" or "What if I get this judgement call wrong" you might want to try it too.
This PM's usual reaction to his natural pessimistic outlook was to try to play devil's advocate and be an optimist who asks "OK, but what if it all goes right?" As this really isn't his nature, he never truly listens to that contrary voice in his head and so doesn't benefit from its wisdom.
Instead, we carried on the "things going wrong" scenario to its natural conclusion because ... well, things do go wrong. The darker outlook might be the one that does actually play out in reality.
This is where the Optimistic Realist position trumps both optimist and pessimist. Yeah, it might go wrong but by continuing it on, and by giving proper thought to how you'd deal with a problem and visualising solutions, you eventually come to a point where any potential problem just doesn’t matter. The optimistic realist in you knows that you will sort it. The more you practice this idea of things not going the way you planned and you being OK with that, the more the optimist in you can dominate your feelings towards and reaction to problems. You start to process them as just part of project life, as mundane and expected as the first cuppa of the day.
2 - Be REALLY cool with asking for help - EARLY
It’s true, your IT Project might not go to plan. By now though, you have learned to deal with it by being an Optimistic Realist. Good for you. Problem is that your beautiful ocean liner is still heading for that iceberg! You need all hands on deck to avert a catastrophe!
Often, project teams call for help too late. The Project Management as a Service sector is now so evolved that I believe any challenge you may face is catered for. You need help transitioning your project into the service delivery phase? You've got it! Need end to end, hit the ground running Project Management Office? You've got it! Need a little extra experience when the complexity of a project is beyond your in-house capability? You've got it!
BUT you do need to ask!
I've written before about why teams don't admit that there's a problem or that they are out of their depth or that they need help. It's usually driven by some kind of fear or ego and that's understandable, to a point. Admitting that you've bitten off more than you can chew with a project that you've already started may seem daunting but it's better than waiting until you're two or three months further down the line when the heat is really on! I think that "fessing up" that you need extra resources or help, or that you haven't a clue what to do next is a strength, not a weakness. Get help sooner rather than later, because later can quickly become too late!
One of my neighbours heard a knocking sound coming from the engine of her car and her solution was to turn up the radio. Weeks went by and after a while, EVERYONE in the street could hear a knocking sound. "You need to get that looked at!" we all said in a concerned, neighbourly way. She turned up the radio some more. A couple of weeks back the knocking noise just stopped. It was around the same time that her engine also just stopped, and she had to be rescued from the motorway. Ironically, the queue that her broken down car caused made the travel reports on the radio station that had helped drown out the racket! The moral of the story is that the most opportune moment to seek assistance is as early as possible.
So, as I'm writing this in December, that's my Christmas present to you (if you're reading this at some other time it's my Easter or Summer Holiday gift to you). Become an Optimistic Realist and ask for help - early. I guess, right now, there will be projects that are in trouble - I hope that they're being led by optimistic realists who anticipated the problems and are, at this very moment, dialling up their favourite Project Management as a Service partner. These are the projects that will make it to those Easter and Summer Holidays and beyond into service.