Categories: Agile, Benefits Realization, Best Practices, Change Management, Communication, Government, Human Resources, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Project Failure
Life after NASA
I’ve rambled on about NASA and the great things I learned while growing up there in other writings. But, I’ve had a life after NASA too. A group of us decided we could help troubled projects, programs and operations turn-around their troubles. So, we left NASA-Houston (and other places) and moved to Orlando, Florida (why not?) to start a company.
Most of our work came from companies both large and small that had won US Government contracts and weren’t able to perform. Why them? Because there are very strict Federal procurement laws in-play that pretty much insist (legally) that for a fixed price contract, you MUST finish what you started. It doesn’t matter what it takes, it must be finished and meet the customer’s needs.
At first, that was our niche. We’d swoop in, understand the problems, give the poor company a bid for our services, put some of our key people in place and do our best to recover the project. We never had one fail! It was clear that after a few years of doing this, we saw the same reasons for failure over and over. There were a few creative ways in which companies crashed while performing a project but not many.
Well, word spread. We started taking on commercial contracts (a different world from Federal contracts). Surprise! Commercial companies made nearly the same mistakes in their projects and programs as Government-suppliers. There’s a continuity there, that would be an interesting study to do.
Mistakes that stick out in my mind:
- A software company decided that no existing database application would fit their needs, so they decided they needed to write their own database system.
- A systems integrator decided to save money off the final sale price by NOT conducting inspections of custom items that were ordered from vendors. They just bolted things together and *knew* it would work.
- A large supplier to the project was “bankrupt and didn’t know it.” Neither did the people that had the contract to include their product in the final deliverable. They just couldn’t believe it when I told them. We ended up buying the bits and pieces and hiring key employees.
What’s common in these stories? (there are many, many more)
- Where is the boss? Where is the Project Manger? Where are the executives? “Oh, we never talk to them except during our every 6-week review cycles. “
- The executive desire to never hear bad news. Or, “Don’t tell me what your problem is, tell me what your problem was.” This is totally wrong-headed approach. Executives exist to knock down the problems workers are having, not to shove them back at them.
- This created a saying on our team “Bad news is good; Good news is Great" (the subject of a PMI paper I wrote years ago)
- You as the PM – NEED to hear bad news, all the bad news there is! If you don’t hear it, you can’t do anything about it.
- Poor / no status tracking Many of these companies had a very high-level Gantt chart that they met once a month about and everyone said it was fine. Risks were not discussed, budget was not discussed. (see item one above).
The flip side of this was companies that had people planning down to the minute every action the project team should take. Bathroom breaks, lunch… whatever. That’s just plain silly and won’t work.
- No or poor communication between groups working on the project. It was common on troubled projects that one group had no idea what another group was doing. Yet, both groups had components that needed to work together for the product of the project to work.
- No WBS: This used to get me very hot under the collar. It clearly points to nearly zero project planning.
- No cost accounting: No idea what was spent for what or when. Overrun? Maybe. Funds remaining to help a failing area? Maybe…
These are all true. I could get a group of people on the phone to explain these and much, much more.
I’d better stop now – I want to create a nice chart like my best buddy EM THE PM did.
-- Dave (or DAM PM [my initials are DAM] not to be outdone by EM the PM)