There was a time when I billed myself as a turnaround specialist. Doing turnarounds was often a fast-track to good long-term relationships for an interim or consultant.
I’m not going to bore you with the usual list of coded answers about why they fail, but rather to say that most failures have not actually failed at all and those that have are often nothing like as big a disaster as they seem.
The majority of scenarios I have looked at or taken over have been simply the victims of poor billing and often this was a result of clever manipulation for political reasons.
A great many had simply promised too much and after the lightest of investigation it was clear that elder statesmen had caused the problem by bullying inexperienced project managers and their teams into promising things that should never have been promised. The other frequent cause was simply lacking the experience and underestimating the size and complexity through simply not knowing. Most of the remainder were victims of poor supplier performance and often this was a result of poor negotiation and lack of unity within the project team.
The unfair advantage of the consultant
Many times, I have treated the incumbent PM to lunch and sympathised entirely when he explained that what I was doing now would simply not have ben accepted had he attempted that a year or six months ago when this was being set up. I understand his position totally and even as a Consultant, the same problem arises regularly. Many of my colleagues give in to it having transitioned from employment to a form of temporary employment and I can’t contradict them for this. I came into this line of work from a consulting background where I was trained to work on these client relationships to gain the best outcome and I am prepared to walk away rather than being walked into a big risk or landed with somebody else’s turkey.
This is why I was especially keen on picking up troubled projects, here was a situation where the client was motivated to listen and cooperate.
So what might a PM do differently to avoid these problems?
First-of-all, let me say in defence of the many hard working and intelligent PMs who find their project in this sort of trouble through no fault of their own, only a very special person can work against an unyielding corporate culture and succeed and before a substantial disaster draws attention to the problem it is virtually unheard of to do this successfully. Yet another example of the consultant advantage.
The kind of problems I am referring to include: discounting key parts of the project management framework as; “pointless, we don’t do it here”, stakeholders trying to impose their budget or timeframe regardless of the size, complexity, or risk profile of the project, often they truly believe they are engaging in good management practice. Interfering and undermining PMs. A blame-culture. Lack of training and lack of encouragement to act professionally. Clandestine communications or even relationships with key suppliers outside of the project framework. These are just a handful of the worst failings I find in organisations that undermine every effort of in-house PMs to get the job done.
- The most powerful tool in the hands of every PM is the risk log. For scrum teams this falls o the Product Owner. Few stakeholders, regardless how confident they may seem, will demand that a legitimate risk be removed or downplayed because the potential for a disaster is just too great.
- Raising all the things that have potential to not go as well as possible as project risks is a powerful way to allocate those risk either directly or by inference to the people responsible. This can be a very powerful indeed. It will almost never land the timid PM in trouble.
- The key is to simply raise the risks and then use a risk management session with stakeholders to explore the risks, discuss options agree steps and allocate responsibilities in a democratic forum.
- Managing risks regularly and adequately provides regular opportunities to highlight when these problems look more likely and give people an opportunity to take the right steps. This of itself can provide a tremendous learning opportunity and help to gradually alter unhelpful behaviours and belief mechanisms.
- Lessons learned sessions attended by the right people at the end of projects or phases provide a wonderful opportunity to discuss and drive home these key lessons you have learned in the course of the project. By following these steps you can make significant improvements without ruffling too many feathers. As in all things change requires crossing certain tipping points and doing so without creating a crisis. This is a very useful approach to changing project management thinking and behaviour.
- The key to smooth projects and learning from experience is to keep stakeholders engaged. That means not boring them and not wasting their time. Plan carefully, demonstrate respect for their schedule, provide concise well-written and well-delivered documents, messages and presentations.
- Finally, it is important to realise that once you accept the title of manager, you take responsibility to learn about gaining and using influence and sometimes to stand your ground. The key to avoiding bad relationships is rarely about avoiding conflict, but planning for it and meeting it in your time on your territory and knowing when to shake and forget.
- Modern frameworks are not necessary in order to deliver successful projects and they certainly will not make up for lack of skill, but they do provide proven ways to get the job done which are widely understood and therefore easier to execute in groups.