Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':
Danger! Projects May Be Harmful to Mammals!

I haven't quite put my finger on it, but something I've noticed about the human condition that retards our ability to be successful project managers. When we see someone else fail we assume that they're just stupid, but when we ourselves fail it's simply an honest mistake or bad luck. "They" should have seen it coming, but "we" were understandably taken by surprise. It's relatively easy to see where another project is about to hit the skids or should have avoided the long, slow slide into project hell, but we can be blind-sided as our own projects creep inexorably toward Dante's Inferno. Consider a couple of well-publicized project failures from the 1970's.


Scientists wishing to track the migratory behavior of moose engaged engineers to build a satellite receiver/transmitter that could be fitted around the neck of a moose. When it was ready the researchers crept out of their camouflaged den, tranquilized and tagged the object of their scientific desires, then scurried back to their observation post. They patiently waited and watched, but the blip on the radar screen showed no movement. Moose were known to be highly territorial, but the researchers were still a bit surprised at how very small their territory seemed to be. They finally went to check on their reclusive hoofed mammal only to find him dead. Apparently the transmitter weighed so much that the animal was unable to stand while wearing it. Aghast, the scientists went to the engineers exclaiming, "You killed our moose!" To which the engineers replied "What moose?" They were oblivious to the fact that their product was going on a moose's neck. (Yes, this really happened . . . Ref: March 15, 1972, San Jose Mercury News)


That same week a whale wandered into the San Francisco Bay. With much media hoopla, different, but no less ill-fated, scientists laid their plans to track the whale, affectionately named Humphrey, as he was escorted from the Bay and encouraged to resume his oceanic travels. Cameras clicked and reporters vied for position on the dock as the tracking device was affixed to the whale's back. The crowd cheered as Humphrey submerged . . . and immediately disappeared from the radar screen. The transmitter wasn't waterproof. The indignant scientists accosted the engineers and proclaimed, "You lost our whale!" To which, of course, the engineers retorted, "What whale?" (Sorry to say, I am not making this stuff up! . . . Ref: March 14, 1972, San Francisco Chronicle)

You see how these things go. The most astonishing things can and do happen. What are we supposed to think about a project team that fails to mention that the product they want their engineers to design is going on a hoofed mammal with a pendulous muzzle and enormous antlers? Or one that fails to mention that the product will be riding the back of a sodden oceanic vertebrate, destined to go far below the H2O? Assumption is the mother of all project management calamity. Some people have absolutely no imagination for disaster.


Is this the stuff of the "Bad Project Management Olympics," only showing it's ugly face every 4 years or so, or a more frequent occurrence? In my own lamentable experiences on one project, we made so many inconceivable blunders that one day some of us actually turned to one another and asked, "Is this just a string of bad luck, or are we truly incompetent?" We sent a drawing for a sheet metal part to a shop to be prototyped and they called to ask, "Which Rev. A do you want us to make? We have 2 different ones." We sent the gold master to our hard disk duplicator to have hundreds of hard disk drives duplicated with the operating system for a critical production run—only to find out that old bugs resurfaced because we'd sent an outdated version of the code. We flew to Asia to find out why we could never get the same color of paint twice on our plastic panels and found a bunch of open cans of our "custom" paint colors evaporating back in the storage room. We spent hours trying to nail down the requirements for the packaging with our Fortune 500 partner when, out of frustration, they finally asked us why we didn't just look at the sample they'd provided us 2 months ago. The wayward sample had been given to our VP of Engineering and was stored tidily under his desk. He'd never thought to give it to the team working on this project! Considering that this was a "bet the company" project, we'd all hoped for better performance from ourselves and others. Unfortunately when we are overworked and stressed—two common occurrences in project teams—the brain misses a nerve impulse or two, and performance can be negatively impacted.

In this particular case, the story had a happy ending. In spite of all of these set backs, we managed to pull success from the jaws of defeat. One day the entire team sat in our meeting room and swore a blood oath that we were going to make this project successful no matter what! We created a high risk schedule that the team worked to, pulling out all of the stops and thinking well outside of the box in order to stick to that (impossible) schedule. We made a second schedule that was much less risky, and we promised that later finish date to the outside world. But we kept working to the more challenging schedule, knowing that surprises would occur that would eat away at the margin we had between our aggressive schedule and the one we promised our customer. Through a combination of relentless hard work and an occasional miracle we managed to deliver a day or two earlier than we had promised. It was a tremendous triumph for the team. The entire company was saved from what could have been a terminal failure, and I personally feel very fortunate to have been able to work with such an extraordinary team in pulling this off.


Sometimes the speed of mistakes exceeds the speed of progress. I think about projects gone haywire as being similar to what happens when multiple people end up drowning in rip tides. One person is being pulled under by a strong current, so another person wades in to save them, also becoming ensnared by the violent tide. Seeing two victims struggling, yet another brave soul tosses himself into the fray. The news reports inevitably report multiple drowning victims. Instead of one tragic loss of life, a whole heap of people meet a watery death.

Sometimes projects are like this, with everyone thrashing about instead of keeping a cool head, thinking, then acting with the common sense required to break free of the unproductive adrenaline-fueled struggle. One by one or en masse, each person finds themselves drowning in an overwhelming tide of tasks and demands. Mistakes mount as they struggle valiantly to do what needs to be done. If only one person would say, "Hey guys, let's step back and think about why we're here and what we're doing," the team might be able to regain their perspective and take a more productive approach. Instead, they panic. They work longer hours, work harder, but they most assuredly don't work smarter. In the grip of the adrenaline rush so familiar to those of us who work in fast-paced project environments, they put in more effort, but get less done. Fixing mistakes takes more precious time that was desperately needed for other tasks. Even if no one notices yet, the project has started to unravel. Eventually, a critical deadline is missed or a damaging mistake brings the team and curious on-lookers up short, at which time someone finally decides that "Something must be done!"


The worst possible thing that can happen at this point is for the project manager to be replaced by someone who throws fuel on the fire. I personally witnessed this on one unhappy project. Given the thumbs up to kick butt and take no prisoners in order to turn around a flailing project, this new PM only added insult to injury, berating an already over-burdened team and spreading blame with a broad brush. Personal heroics endeared this new PM's leadership style to the executive team, but not to the team—who now had to spend even more of their dwindling time protecting themselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous finger-pointing. Things that could have made a real difference to productivity—like identifying and filling gaps in resources, clarifying roles, simplifying the team organizational structure, streamlining status reporting meetings, and brainstorming creative ways to overcome roadblocks—were scoffed at as wastes of time. Meanwhile dozens of hours were wasted in executive-approval-seeking behaviors of the most despicable kind. Some people were made scapegoats and fired. The most irritating incident I recall on this highly schedule-driven project was watching 40 people sit in a review meeting while one executive spent an hour asking the project manager question after question. That's 40 precious hours of work lost being spectators to a conversation that could have been handily taken off-line. When this was suggested, the PM laughed it off as ridiculous given the title and status of the exec. I remember thinking that the exec in question would be horrified to realize that he might have caused another schedule slip. But, if the PM isn't willing to put the interests of the project above their approval rating, well . . . might as well just toss another gallon of petrol onto the project bonfire!


Moose and whales aren't the only mammals endangered by projects out of control. The most amazingly hideous things can and do happen on projects, and many of them can be avoided or mitigated relatively painlessly. When a team is in chaos and people are starting to wander into the tidal zone, what they need more than anything is a little time to think. Planning isn't the first thing that comes to mind when alligators are nipping at your naughty bits. As a project leader we can best serve a team fighting to avoid the grip of the mobocracy by insisting that they do 3 things:

Then, and ONLY then, ACT!

Believe me, people with adrenal glands working overtime are NOT going to think of this option, but they need to spend time individually and collectively thinking and planning before tackling the next pile of work waiting for them. The best way to do this is to have a set of guiding principles and stick to them.

I know a pilot who has flown 7000 hours. I asked him the other day, "Chuck, the next time you fly are you going to use your pre-flight checklist?" "You bet!," he replied. Now why would an experienced jet pilot with that much experience use a checklist? Because that's what professionals do. Professionals know that in the heat of battle much of our blood rushes to our arms and legs, where it's useful for the flight or fight response, leaving little to nourish the one major advantage we have over monkeys—our frontal lobes. Professionals do what needs to be done regardless of whether they have time to do it (there's never enough) and regardless of whether they think other people will like it! (People rarely think that they have time to pause and plan.) A checklist, or in this case a set of operating guidelines, is one way to instill this kind of discipline. It's a rock is a sea of flotsam and jetsam. It's the next best thing to being lucky.

Here's a list of operating principles that I have been using for years to guide me through treacherous waters. It helps me remember what's important when stress has driven all of the blood from my head and I'm not thinking straight. I don't follow it precisely, of course, but at least when I depart from it I do so thoughtfully, not by accidentally forgetting some important part of the project management process. Don't use mine, for Pete's sake! Make one that's your very own that suits you.

Scrappy Project Management Operating Principles

  • Prioritize - Focus ruthlessly on the critical few in the important many.
  • Be obsessed with the "Customer".
  • Provide clear, measurable, challenging, yet achievable, goals and objectives.
  • Create a decision priority list that drives behavior.
  • Facilitate the creation of viable, actionable plans and schedules that enjoy the commitment of the people who must carry them out.
  • Assure that project risks and accelerators are explicitly identified and appropriately act upon.
  • Assure roles and responsibilities are clear and understood.
  • Challenge assumptions.
  • Manage expectations.
  • Plan for, and accommodate, change.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate!
  • Celebrate successes.
The next time you're looking down the barrel of another killer project, pause and reflect before diving into the fray. In the middle of the madness, surface for a look around before diving into the pile of work that awaits you. And cling to what you know works. A set of operating principles like those above can be a useful reminder of key areas that are important to the success of your team. Follow the principles or depart from them thoughtfully, no matter how you feel at the moment. Professional project leaders do what needs to be done whether or not they feel like it. Not everyone will like this kind of disciplined approach. But your team deserves a shot at success and it's up to you to keep your head, stay on solid ground, and guide anyone mucking about in the rip tides safely to shore.

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