Going Off-Road

By Tom Barker, PhD, PMP

(appeared in the PMI Troubled Projects SIG newsletter in 2009)

In a recent Start Trek movie, the young Jim Kirk leaves the highway in order to evade a highway patrolman and instead of getting booked he ends up driving the “borrowed” car off a cliff, just managing to scramble to safety himself.

In addition to being entertaining, this scene contains some important lessons for troubled projects. After all, people don’t usually set out to create a troubled project, it just seems to happen. In particular it happens when we go off-road, that is we deliberately turn the wheel away from PMBoK and venture off into uncharted territory. The questions I want to explore here, and share some perspectives on, are as follows

  • Why does this happen?
  • How does this happen?
  • What can be done about it?

Let me first deal with the obvious statement that many Project Managers will be saying to themselves, which is “You can avoid the problems by not deviating from PMBoK, period”. True, but perhaps not helpful. Let’s consider for a moment one of the classic situations that leads to a troubled project.

I recently received a phone call from a young project manager who was exhibiting all the symptoms of someone who has a tiger by the tail, someone in charge of a troubled project. The organization sponsoring the project had experienced a great deal of uncertainty in the last ten years, a very traditional organization in a deregulated market, in a state of “strategic drift”. Frequent changes in direction had led to outsourcing of functions like IT and a loss of talent due to restructuring and uncertain prospects.

The organization decides that a transformation is needed, and as part of this transformation an ERP system will be implemented. Ideally the design work for the transformation should be done prior to system implementation, but urgency requires that these are done simultaneously. In Project Management terms this is both Schedule Crashing and Fast Tracking, in other words both expensive and high risk.

Are we off-road yet ? Well, the individual projects that are part of the transformation are not yet off-road but the conditions are conducive to this happening. It’s like saying the highway is in darkness, it narrows to two lanes with many curves and frequent side turnings that lead to dirt track roads which ultimately end in open desert.

This is the situation highlighted in a recent Auditor’s report for the Province of Ontario’s ehealth initiative that reported on numerous Project Governance deficiencies that led to a series of troubled projects. One output of the initiative referred to in the report is a network infrastructure that cost approximately $800 million dollars, yet is barely used because it has almost no applications or healthcare data. Somehow, healthcare professionals and users were left out of the loop.

This leads to another common cause of troubled projects, the self-fulfilling prophecy of an IT driven project. At some point, early it the project lifecycle, clinicians and other healthcare systems users must be put in a position to drive the project forward. The steeply sided silos within healthcare, as elsewhere inhibit this.

As Fran Shields, a project change facilitator with extensive experience of similar initiatives in Western Canada says, “ involving busy healthcare professionals is tough, its not easy, they wont thank you at first, but you have to believe it will pay off eventually. Luckily for me, the sponsors I worked for could see the necessity, and made the gutsy move.”

In addition to a “build it and they will come” approach to infrastructure, the Auditor was critical of a widely used practice of sole sourcing vaguely worded consulting contracts.

Lets go back to see how the story unfolds for the young project manager.

The young project manager was contracted to lead a team to complete specific design work around the new business model for the organization. At first all went well, stakeholders were consulted, analysis proceeded to plan. Then, the projects interfaces changed dramatically. A large number of project teams came into being to complete preparations for ERP implementation. Meanwhile Executive leadership were creating a new organization structure and fast tracking business cases for the next set of projects. The project manager started to spend most of his time in meetings with interfacing project teams and HR recruitment panels for new positions needed to sustain the project deliverable.

Here we come to a common trap. The young project manager, keen to do the right thing for the sponsor burned hours on managing the project boundary and helping other projects get started at the cost of progress on his own project. Now, as deadlines loomed for the project team’s own deliverables, the PM, far from being a hero is about to become a fall-guy. Is the project off-road now ? Yes for sure. When did it turn off the highway ? I’d say a long way back down the road. What can be done ? At this stage, only a realistic analysis of the options for the sponsor’s approval can get the project pointed back toward the highway. These options for completing the deliverables must have the associated implications on quality, cost and time, and be couched in straightforward business impact terms.

In my experience, a management culture of code phrases, hinting and over-reliance on informal chats is a component of troubled projects. The sponsor will not be happy about the choices, but in all likelihood, will not be that surprised.

One of the principles that I have found to be important for managing projects in dynamically changing environments in, if you have to go off-road and fast-track a project, you must make a roadmap to follow, even if you have to navigate by the stars instead of highway signs (okay today there is GPS for drivers, but not for projects).

It also requires a fulltime project manager to manage the roadmap, stakeholders and project interfaces. I have learned to my cost that however talented one believes oneself to be, one cannot manage work at different system levels simultaneously, nor can one be in two places at once (even with a blackberry).

This factor may explain the trend of using large consulting firms on big transformational projects, not only can they provide a pool of additional resources, but they have senior staff positions who can, and do, insist on renegotiating resources immediately as soon as the scope changes. An in-house or individually contracted resource, may hesitate to tell their sponsor news they know will be unwelcome.

Unless of course, they have what one grizzled PM once told me was the prerequisite for a big project PM role, “battle scars from troubled projects”, he said. In other words, if you go off-road, you must know how terrible it will feel being lost in the wilderness without a roadmap.

Previous post:

Next post: