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How to rescue the problem project

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Monday, April 04, 2011

By Tom Cox

As CEO you are the last line of defense in stopping a problem project from spinning out-of-control. How can you ensure that projects stay on track — and when they do not, how do you identify them, and save them or cut them off? According to Todd Williams, long time project rescue professional and author of the new book Rescue the Problem Project, the first sign of trouble is … silence.

“It’s like being a parent of young kids,” says Williams. ”When you suddenly notice the kids have gone silent, you need to investigate.”

Projects always have problems, so every project should have some baseline amount of problems being reported. When the reports suddenly stop, go look. CEOs can fail when they mistakenly try to be supportive by exhibiting “faith” (wishful thinking) by not looking into things. It’s great to trust people, and it’s also great to check their work. In fact you’re being a better, more supportive boss when you check frequently on quality.

People sometimes go silent because they fear being blamed. You should save them from this by making it clear that it’s okay to make mistakes.

“Recognition” vs. “realization”

It’s not that you should recognize what’s wrong, says Williams — you can only recognize what you’ve seen before. You need instead to realize something is wrong, and then act appropriately. The only leading indicator of a problem project is sudden silence. All the other indicators are trailing indicators:

Excessive change requests

Late deliverables

Cost or budget overruns

By the time these show up, the project is already in trouble.

When to label the project “in trouble”

It’s really hard to realize when you’re in over your head. That’s why it’s a good idea to get an independent third party involved, looking over the project, much earlier than most people are willing to. You need external eyes to see the things you’re blind to. It’s said “by the time most couples seek marriage counseling, it’s usually too late to save the marriage.” The same is true of projects — by the time Williams gets called in, it’s usually too late to make the project profitable, it’s just a matter of cutting losses.

What should we expect a third party expert to do for us? Foremost, the outsider must be completely objective. When they’re being paid by just one party — a vendor or a supplier or the customer — that creates a strong perception of bias. The good project salvation expert will sit directly in the middle (being paid equally by all parties) and will call fouls on everyone impartially. A good third party will be have their first loyalty to the project, not to one stakeholder over another.

The expert needs to dig in to the purpose of the project — both what it was when it began, and what it currently is. That reveals scope creep, among other sins. Yet scope creep is almost never a root cause. The expert must always strive to find and fix the root causes of the project’s problems. When is scope creep not a root cause? Consider a scenario Williams has seen many times: a customer wants to build a “green field” microchip fab. The customer at first relies heavily on the expertise of a key vendor. Then the customer starts to become more educated. In a few months that customer starts to ask for things they previously didn’t know they wanted. Bingo, scope creep appears. Here, the root cause is an uneducated customer.

Culture of blame and indecision

Another root cause can be a culture of blame — where problems are turned into blame, rather than being treated as opportunities for systems improvements. Here, the project rescue expert can build enormous credibility by being very honest and candid yet not blaming — just saying “this is red, that is blue.” By calling it like it is, you create confidence in yourself.

Another root problem can be indecision. When executives are indecisive, projects can quickly spin out of control. You’ll see lots of indecision in cultures of blame, because making a decision can set you up to be blamed. Blame-centered cultures usually don’t single out ditherers, so dithering and indecision becomes a defense mechanism. To fix a project you may need to fix the organization, or parts of it. Next, you need to create a new team. The prior project team is almost certainly poorly functioning. As you, acting as the project rescue person, create credibility by being honest, you create a powerful environment for positive team formation.

What are some root causes of project failure?

Customer who des not understand what they are asking for

Management that is not supportive

Teams that are not properly equipped or trained to handle the task

Doing it right — avoiding problems

To avoid problems, Williams recommends these three practices:

Get the right team — get people with the right training, experience, and skill set.

Start projects well — by getting the implementers (engineers, technical experts) involved in the dream stage, much earlier than is typical, to create proper expectations among the sponsors.

Use proper change management — you cannot control change, only manage it. What’s the difference? ”Change control” refers to the effort to prevent changes from happening, which is impossible because the world is changing — or it’s the behavior of accepting a change request without challenging it. Change management is the process of adapting the project to unavoidable changes — this requires a strong process. It also involves challenging change requests to see if that change undermines the original purpose of the project.

Business consultant and author Tom Cox is a contributing columnist for Oregon Business.

 
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