Project Fantasy v Reality Check

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There’s a common fantasy in Project Teams that ‘the worst is behind us’ coupled with ‘the future is bright’.

Nothing wrong with a spot of optimism but on projects the past really does predict the future.

If you get off to a bad start it’s difficult to turn that around. The genesis of your problems will cast a long shadow onto future events. Small problems loom large.

The scenario can go like this. The project is rocky. A few senior people take the fall and are replaced. Corporate oversight is increased. More effort is applied. Progress is tracked more closely. But if the root causes of the chaos (it’s rarely only one root cause) are not examined, discussed and fixed then the chaos will continue.

If (say) project funding is a problem then changes to the project team will only increase the chaos.


Sources of Chaos

Let’s look at some of sources of chaos and see how they affect projects. I’ve went through every one of these and came out covered in scar tissue btw.

To start – ‘projects are temporary organisations established to manage an established outcome whose scope, duration and budget are rationally derived’.

The temporary aspect generates serious issues. The scramble to kick off a project has to be seen to be believed.

1: Location Location Location

A) I was once part of a world-class bid that failed because the proposed location for the project office was driven by a corporate need to fill an empty building under lease, not because it made project sense. The potential client was not amused. But, if we’d won the job then the hapless Project Manager would have struggled to get people to work on the ‘wrong-side’ of the city. Which is why the property was unoccupied in the first place.

B) I started a project where there was no office available for us or the client. The only suitable office was occupied by another project. Appealing to Corporate I was told to ‘fight the incumbent PM and take the space’. When I went to see ‘my director’ to say that my appeals had went unnoticed he said, ‘no Jim, I mean you will actually have to physically fight him’. I couldn’t box eggs – so it wasn’t a feasible scenario.

C) I had a project where my team, the client and the site were in 3 different countries. The outcome hardly needs to be aired in public.

Two: Project Funding

A) Projects are often under-funded. The mechanism may be that the project outcome cost was kept low to get through the funding committee. The PM has to live with that one.

B) The decision on the draw-down of funds is held by someone not on the project. They can save their company money by slowing funds to a trickle. “PMs are such needy people anyway, always overstating the case”.

Three: Project Personnel

Often projects are loaded up at the start with sub-optimal people because…

a) other projects are trying to shed them

b) they’re on the shelf in Corporateland (because they’re not wanted on projects)

c) it’s all that the resourcing guys could find at short notice (there is no other kind of resourcing notice)

Four: Readiness to Launch

Chaotic precursors (at various stages)

A) No/Slow-start because the basic elements of a project are not in place.

B) Permissions to start work not complete. Clients often urge a quick start before the paperwork is completed.

C) Changes to scope. Usually from 2 sources. The changes held back because the bid process was ongoing and changes emanating from the incomplete design (eg concept)

Five: Others Worth a Mention

  • Purchasing started before the design is complete
  • Client’s team nowhere in sight
  • Client offloads all his scrap onto your project

Six…. well you get the message. The genesis of chaos is right a the start of every project, often well before the project is sanctioned

The Bad News.

There is no way to avoid these problems. No way in hell.



Projects. A Critical Path Network Idea You Never Thought Of

The Critical Path Network.

Yes, the old CPN again. My mantra.

When I worked on a Chevron project many many moons ago, their Project Manager taught me something that I think is truly amazing. It’s so obvious that you’ll wonder why everybody doesn’t use it – but few companies have a decent enough CPN to enable it’s use.

A usable CPN.

If you don’t have one there’s no point reading any further, the content of this blog will be academic.

If you do have one, update it to ensure all  vendor activities are in and correct.

Now, one at a time. List all the vendor activities ranked by criticality. A criticality rank is given by the number of days float the activity has. Zero float means it’s on the Critical Path. Two days float means it will go critical very quickly. Negative float means your CPN is bollox – go and fix it so that there are no negative days.

Having done all that, start with the most critical vendor with the most expensive Purchase Order – that vendor is a threat to your project. You need to protect yourself.

Next step

Here’s what I was shown to do – an act of sheer brilliance.

Arrange to visit their top managers at their premises. If the the owner can be present that would be excellent. Not the Project Team and not the Buyer. This is not a team meets team or a buyer meets buyer. The top management team + PM. No doubt they will invite the Buyer anyway.

The reason for your visit is simple. You want to show your appreciation.

To do this you will

  • give them a presentation on your project
  • show them how critical they are to your success*
  • allow them to present their company profile to you
  • allow them to show you round their facilities
  • and YOU then buy THEM lunch.
  • Have a photo opportunity, to which the local press can be invited, where you will give them a memento of your visit (something inexpensive with the Project Logo on it)
  • After lunch – ask them for assistance to get them off your Critical Path. What idea’s do they have? What can be done? Explore the possibilities. But more money is never an option.

* a cynic may think this is a good opportunity for the vendor to hump you. Let’s not go there, but keep it in the back of your mind.

Back at home office

  • Assess the suggestions
  • Insert them into the CPN one-at-a-time (biggest schedule opportunity first)
  • Run the network after each insertion. See what happens.
  • Take the benefit
  • Let the vendor know that their suggestions were helpful – and if they have any more? Call this number.

Maybe It’s Not All Good News?

A potential spin-off from this approach is that perhaps not all is well with your order. And you didn’t know that. Let’s say – you ordered the wrong item. If nothing positive comes from the visit then at least you know something you didn’t know before. And you’ll be sitting at a dining table with the people who are going to fix the problem for you.

Why is a vendor so important?

On site. You can always whistle up some manpower. You can wangle a permit. You can conjure up a crane. You can dig holes, move earth, shift sand. But if you don’t have a valve? You do not have a valve. End of.

If you don’t have the valve you’re goosed