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.



Risk Management and Arkad

Risk and Management – two words that induce drowsiness in most people. Put them together and you have the antidote to insomnia.

There’s nothing ‘sexy’ or ‘edgy’ about it. But it can help you sleep by ensuring that you don’t sit up all night out of your mind with worry.

Risk Management is associated with ‘Brainstorming’ and ‘Risk = Probability x Severity’ and ‘Risk Matrices’. But not all risks are equal, some risks are so probable and so severe that your company’s not going to make it no matter how hot your product is or how smart you are. We could catagorise these risks as systemic. The system itself is the risk.

You know? I’m so bored by just writing the above that I’ll stop and have a coffee. Because I’m about to write another word that could induce catatonia in a hyper-active teenager.

OK, Back again. Where was I?

The catatonia word? Procedures.

Yes. Risk and Management and Procedures all in the same sentence. Zzzzzzz.

But don’t drop off just yet. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about a man called Arkad. He was (reputedly) the Richest Man in Babylon. He started as a slave and ended up loaning money to the Kings of Mesopotamia. And he wrote the book on Risk.

People who lend money are always good at risk because they manage a simple and tangible asset. There’s nothing complex or intangible about gold.  Any loan of it starts with a Risk Assessment which has two elements a) what is the probability of getting the gold back + interest and b) how do I get the money back if the loan goes bad?

Read the Book !

Arkad had a fantastic is somewhat esoteric way of assessing his risks. He had a chest full of artifacts and before he made a loan he looked through them. Each artifact reminded him of a specific failure. One was a jewel recovered from a man with an avaricious wife – a lesson on how to look at why someone wants a loan. For every type of risk he had an artifact. He learned from his mistakes and reminded himself of them frequently. They were his ‘procedures’.

The money used to finance a project is a loan. The company expects the person entrusted with the project to return the money with interest.

Let’s go ‘off-piste’.

How many company managers and how many project managers understand that simple fact? Neither the company not the project is in business to (say) construct a pipeline. They’re in business to make money from the construction of a pipeline.

Understanding the difference is the Genesis of Risk Management.

Fast forward to Procedures. Just like Arkad and his esoteric box of artifacts a company needs procedures because they are the first line of defence against risk.

There is another expert on risk we should all re-read, his name is Sun Tzu. But that’s for another blog.

And I’ll not delve into Procedures because I need to stay awake for the next eight hours, but think about it. How can simple instructions on how to do something protect a company or a project from Risk?

Answers please on the back of a certified cheque made out to CASH (your first lesson on risk right there).

If you want to understand how to make money in a risky environment – read the book