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Thanks to a reader of my CIO.com column, Gareth, who wrote to me with an idea for an IT Project Management blog.
"Hi David," he writes, "Have you ever written a blog along the lines of 'you're only ever as strong as your weakest link.'"
Gareth was inspired to get in touch after a train journey home that, in his words, "could have almost been a metaphor for IT Project Management".
His email made me smile (and empathise as a parent myself) and beyond the 'you're only ever as strong as your weakest link' angle, there are so many parallels with IT Project Management best practice from having the right talent and resources in the right place at the right time to transparency, and from planning and scoping to having the desire to win. Here's what Gareth wrote ...
"My youngest son's school Christmas play (in Nottinghamshire) and the annual company conference and Christmas party (in Cardiff) fell on the same day. I worked out that the bit of the conference that was most relevant to me was due to finish at 1 pm, so I could do that then catch the 13.45 train to Nottingham. That train would have arrived just after 5 o'clock allowing enough time to drive to the school by 6 pm for the play. I'd miss the afternoon part of the conference and have to sacrifice drinks, dinner and the party but I'd be there for my lad and everyone would be happy.
What could go wrong?
Well, the guest speaker (who was really interesting) overran quite a bit. When I got out at 1.20 my pre-booked taxi had gone! Arrrggh! As luck would have it, after ten minutes, another taxi driver arrived to drop off a passenger. I think it's actually illegal to accept a fare by being hailed but I pleaded and explained my situation and (reluctantly) he said, "Get in!"
This guy was a legend! He promised to get me to the station on time. He turned into a New York cabbie with a Welsh accent, honking at lorries, zipping through impossible gaps! He told me a little of his grandparent's journey to the UK, how he believed that he was the only Asian cabbie with a Welsh accent. Looking back, this reassuring small talk kept me calm as we drove through the city centre lunchtime traffic, which was horrendous. True to his word he got me to the station with two minutes to spare. I could have hugged him and was SO grateful I doubled his fare with my tip!
I felt unstoppable! Despite all the hurdles and obstacles, I was going to make it! The train departed on time and I started to look forward my lad's Christmas play.
Then, on the approach to Birmingham New Street, came the announcement that blew the whole plan out of the water! Due to a 'staff shortage,' the train would be terminating here!
I knew the timetable inside out, I knew the next Nottingham train would not get me there on time. I called a cab firm and they told me it was "improbable" that a taxi could get me there. I knew it was all over!"
Gareth's right. His journey was a metaphor for IT Project Management best practice.
Let's start with ...
1) You're Only As Strong As Your Weakest Link
In Gareth's case, some pretty solid planning was undone by one weak link - the train operating company not having enough staff to complete the journey. Compare your own IT Project Management experience with this rail trip. How many times have you scoped out a project journey, left breathing space for unexpected challenges, creatively overcome problems along the way only to have a vendor fail to deliver a key dependency?
In this case, Gareth was at the mercy of the rail firm but in IT Project Management a multisourcing partner can monitor and manage vendor performance, you can ensure great governance with KPIs and SLAs, you can create transparency that flags up issues at the earliest stage (the train firm must have known of staff issues at an earlier stage than Birmingham)
Above and beyond Gareth’s suggestion, I also noticed ...
2) Have The Staff You Need To Complete The Journey
Thank goodness we have Project Management as a Service (PMaaS)!
Could you imagine terminating an IT Project half way and telling your client that it's because you didn't have the staff for the whole journey? How long do you think that you'd stay in business? Did the train drive itself from Cardiff to Birmingham? Of course not, so why couldn't the driver take it forward? In his email, Gareth says that his ticket had been checked and he'd bought a sandwich from the guy with the trolley - so sounds like they had staff - what happened to them?
The most likely explanation is that they were needed to work on trains in the busier peak period.
This happens in IT Project Management where talent is taken off one project and reallocated to another. Having a relationship with great PMaaS partner will prevent you falling short on your IT Project journeys by giving you access to Flexible Resources on Demand, from full Project Management Office to Process, Methodology, Tool Sets and people when and where YOU need them.
3) Do You Have That One Crazy Winner?
I love the taxi driver in Gareth's story. He sounds just on the right side of crazy to get things done. He delivered on his promise - knowing Cardiff and imagining the traffic that lunchtime - that was a bold promise to have made. He could have said, "I'll try" and taken the fare whatever. He didn't. He honked and zipped and made it. Probably drawing on those stories of his ancestor's immigration to the UK that he alluded to, getting Gareth from the conference to the station was a walk in the park. No wonder he had just the right calming, reassuring language to keep Gareth sane.
Every project team needs that one crazy winner with a strong bias towards "doing".
4) Don't Let Dysfunctional Rules ... Rule Your Outcomes
I can't really comment on whether I think the taxi driver breaking the law picking up a passenger in this way was a good thing.
However, sometimes in IT Project Management outcomes are dictated by rules or procedures that are not fit for purpose. I remember a friend telling me that he had been given a verbal warning once for breaking a rule that all project expenditure had to be signed off by the project leader. His crime was to have bought five power cables from Argos that allowed a roll out of customer-facing tablets to go live on time. Half of the charging docks built into the shop fittings had failed, it was Monday morning at 9 am, launch time for the new approach to customer service. His quick thinking saved the day!
OK, there's a fine line between being a hero and being a maverick, but in my book, this kind of 'rule breaking' should be ‘bonused’ and not punished. Regularly check your own project methodology for rules that don't serve you.
5) Transparency And Honesty
I don't think that you can be too transparent, open, honest and trustworthy with your clients and stakeholders.
If the train operating company had been upfront and said that the Nottingham service would terminate at Birmingham, Gareth could have made an alternative plan.
Gareth says that a taxi ride from Cardiff to Nottinghamshire would have cost about £400 and would have taken three and a half hours by road. Let's say our hero cabbie had taken him all the way home - Gareth would have made it to the school in time for the play. Gareth's train terminated at Birmingham at around 4 o'clock. He called a cab firm in Birmingham and was quoted £150 but was told it was "improbable" that they could get him there in time.
Your stakeholders deserve the truth!
6) Have A Plan. Also a Plan B, C, D ...
It's clear from use of the words "I knew the timetable inside out" and the fact that Gareth said he called a cab on approach to Birmingham New Street that he had planned this journey meticulously.
He'd digested the various train scenarios, worked out what time the conference session would end and booked a taxi accordingly, he either had or knew how to get the number for a taxi firm in Birmingham. He had the guts to ask the Cardiff taxi driver to break the rules and the fact that he made the train having arrived two minutes before its departure suggests that he ran to the platform.
In IT Project Management it is worth playing through possible challenges in your mind and devising a workaround ahead of time. Then, when the worst happens, it's amazing how much it feels like second nature to implement. One of your back up plans should be having a great PMaaS partner on speed dial for people and resources when you need them!
7) Know When It's Over
Having a plan B, C and D is great but sometimes there comes a point where you have to call it a day. Knowing 'when' is a great Project Management skill. Having an independent pair of eyes look at your IT project or whole project portfolio can be useful in making these decisions. Project Management assessments and analysis can often reveal truths that you are too close to notice yourself.
(Google) X's Astro Teller talks of the cost of a false positive being greater a false negative. In other words, choosing to go on with a project that is heading for failure costs a business more than choosing to end a project mistakenly.
This train journey was a great metaphor for IT Project Management.
Reading it made me think that the train companies need a rail equivalent of Project Management as a Service! Next time you embark on a Project journey check that you have your PMaaS partner's number to hand and you won't have to terminate early! Happy travels!…