What is it that makes learning from projects so elusive? This article posits that culture has a significant influence. Presented here are the most common challenges to learning identified in industry and academia—reframed as cultural issues—alongside practical recommendations for overcoming them.
Sign in a Bicycle Repair Shop
Many of you have heard this one: “Sign in a bicycle repair shop – Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two.” This is about the pressures on project managers. I heard this analogy during a very well-run seminar in project management that I attended years ago. I’ve never forgotten it because it sums things up so well. How do managers determine what’s important when new requirements or other outside influences produce pressure? Can we reduce functionality and keep the schedule? Is quality important? What is the minimum we need to deliver by the due date? Must we stay within the original budget? Can we add more resources and cost?
Then there’s the issue of the definition of some of these terms. What is quality? This always has at least a partly situational answer. Quality on some projects is simply costly overengineering on others. Do we really understand the requirements for quality, functionality, budget and schedule? If any of these things is undocumented at crunch time, because “everybody just knows,” this is a good time to document the critical requirements quickly so that you can be certain there is a clear understanding.
Thomas Edison: Project Manager
So often the initial answer at crunch time is that there is no flexibility – “We need everything we asked for by the original date for the original cost with no latent defects (bugs).” This is usually a bluff. In a critical situation it is very often the case that the flexibility lies in the budget. An old case in point comes to mind.
There is a story that they tell you when you visit Thomas Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, Laboratory, now a museum. It seems that Edison was first to market with his phonograph, and it was doing well in the marketplace. A competitor began to advertise a product that would leapfrog the Edison product once it became available in the near future. While Edison was working with a team on the next Edison model, his original schedule would not bring it to market soon enough to avoid losing market share to the competitor. Edison’s response was consistent with his belief that “genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.” He and his team worked day and night, sleeping at the lab, until the new model was ready for market, beating the newcomer and saving market position. This was a heroic effort indeed; people will do things like this when the mission is crystal clear and the leader inspirational. Most of us don’t live with this much clarity.
What’s the Purpose?
Knowing what mission--the purpose--of your project is of critical importance. (Edison’s team knew exactly what was at stake--and/or Edison was a slave driver!) For example, what is the result of missing your deadline by months? Would there be a major loss of dollars? Lives? Would your company suffer horribly? Would people lose their jobs? If a project is not of critical importance, the schedule is the first place to look for relief, followed by functionality (the reverse of these priorities can easily be argued). However if the project is of critical importance, it is the budget that must be tested. In Edison’s case he and his team contributed personal resources to the budget, and I imagine there where other costs associated with pulling in the schedule as well. There was too much at stake to do otherwise.
Review the Situation. No Time? Do It Anyway!
When projects come under pressure, it is good practice to review the project quickly from two viewpoints:
Are we doing the right things?: Are the requirements well understood? Is there anything that can be cut out with little or no impact? You run the risk of overengineering if the specific requirements for quality are not understood.
Are we doing things right?: Is the project well-managed? Is the pace of completion in keeping with the schedule? Are we using measurements such as earned value that truly reflects percentage completion? In other words, do we know where we are in the plan? And most importantly, do we understand the purpose and importance of our project well enough to make decisions so that what is important is completed on time?
When great demands are put on an already stressed team, it will seem impossible to stop for a review. That’s exactly when and why a review must be done. The review should be looking for a way to accommodate the new requirements without compromising anything of importance. If the team can’t be objective, have a team from your Project Support office do a review or call in an outside team, but – do it anyway do it now. Don’t “suck it up” and try to get the new work done with the same resources, approach and schedule. If you are going to use Edison’s approach (ill-advised for most of us, by the way), you must recognize that the resources are coming from you and your team, and there will be a price to pay--sometimes a very high price. Heroic efforts are always expensive.
There was another sign in the bicycle repair shop: “Hourly rate - $35. If you watch, $45. If you help, $60.” This illustrates that one option when projects come under pressure is to reduce the size of the team rather than adding resources. This can free and empower the real experts at the core of you team. It just goes to show that the best solution is not always the most obvious one. During the review, a healthy dose of out-of-the-box thinking will go a long way. A keen appreciation of what’s at stake will help encourage this. I imagine Edison used this approach – great leaders generally do.
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