Thursday, September 8, 2011

When Projects Become Unmanageable - Part 1

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A Project is a cooperative, collaborative and coordinated (i.e., managed by a Team Leader) team effort to achieve a defined objective, within a certain time frame using defined resources. The responsibilities subsumed under the Project by the team (to get to the desired and anticipated objective) constitute its total scope - the Project Scope. Within that Project Scope, are the roles and responsibilities of each of the team's individual members - each member has an Individual Scope, specifically defined within the greater Project Scope.

Projects become unmanageable for number of reasons:
  • Project Scope Creep;
  • Individual Scope Creep;
  • Poor communications, monitoring and feedback among team members, and/or between the team leader and his or her members - situation reports and progress reports serve a strategic purpose in keeping the Project and team members all within the scope...but just as importantly, they serve to inform the participants of where their performance may be in terms of what was expected of them, and in terms of the project as a whole, as well as to provide an opportunity for constructive input, or a reallocation of resources or a reordering of priorities in the interest (based upon the experiences of the team members to that point) of getting to the objective more efficiently;
  • Poor initial estimates of timeframes and of required resources;
  • Problems with team member interdependencies, i.e., when one member (in assembly line fashion) requires another's work in order to proceed with his or her tasks. Ironically, if there are too many interdependencies (team embers working in serial fashion, like a water bucket brigade putting out a fire instead of in parallel fashion in order to minimize nonproductive time) the slowest team member produces the greatest bottleneck -- he or she, is [groan] a 'serial killer';
  • Unforeseen changes in situations and circumstances, forcing the team to re-group and make new decisions in terms of either reducing the MVP ('minimum viable product') and narrowing the Project Scope (as well as making settling for a less grandiose but more attainable objective) , or of reallocating resources, and reassigning tasks. This happens when program budgets are suddenly cut, or during periods of shortages of various resources necessary to the completion of the project.

"Scope Creep," as I've recently become aware, actually can take two forms:

1) the first, where the Project Scope is not firmly established and the objective is not truly defined -- these are cases where the Project becomes a moving, shape-shifting wraith...with no clearly determinable end in sight (think of the United States situation in, say, Afghanistan). It is as unsatisfying as it is endless. Expectationsions, hopes, budgets and relationships are damaged in the process. If the project or program is supposed to follow a sort of road map, what is point of having any map at all when you will never know what your destination really is, or when/ if you have gotten there? This communication is essential in keeping the project on time, within budget and squarely focused on the objective. Optimally, this communication should be frequent, civil and brief; and,

2) the second, where one team member jumps the fence (Individual Scope Creep!) intrudes on another's turf, creating a vacuum in his or her Individual Scope while meddling in another's territory or area of expertise, invoking the Law Of Diminishing Returns and inviting deterioration of the team's output in furtherance of the project.

In actuality, if each and all of the above factors is civilly and intelligently addressed, a Project does not have to become unmanageable; at worst, its objective can be re-defined to something more realistically attainable given the constraints of real-world, real-time issues.

With the right definitions, expectations, estimates, plans interactive communication, good faith cooperation, flexibility and technical skills, and given with the right leadership coordinating the focused effort, Unmanageable Projects Need Never Exist. The biggest difficulty, it seems, comes from either an incompatible team, or from unmanageable individual team members.  

In sum: The vast majority of project failures have, as their root cause, some "Human Factor."

By analogy, more than 90% of fatal plane crashes are ultimately caused by pilot error. And in a Project, the project leader is the pilot, and the team members are the co-pilot and crew.

To be continued...

Douglas E Castle [],
for TNNWC Group, LLC, Management Consulting Services For Emerging Enterprises.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I think you've touched on a unique subject, which is discussing how projects become unmanageable. I've never seen this discussed before.

    I would like to republish the above post on PM Hut. Please either email me or contact me though the "Contact Us" form on the PM Hut website in case you agree.


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