Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tight deadline killing the project

“Dear CEO,
Project x is in jeopardy! While you may have been led to believe that the project is near completion that is as far from the truth as it can get, not only is the project nowhere near completion but if things continue the way they are it will never be complete…”

I can only guess that hundreds of commanders on the ground in Iraq have in their mind probably written a similar letter addressed to the Commander In Chief when he declared “Mission Accomplished” at a time when the mission had just started. Tenths of engineers and workers at Boeing subcontractors have probably done the same as Boeing suffered one embarrassing delay after the other on its Dreamliner.

At one capacity or another we have all, especially those of us in the IT field, likely been actors in similar “plays” at some point in our careers and we know how those usually unfold. The question I wish to discuss is: what are the factors that create the conditions for such “doomed from the start” projects and how can an organization reduce or eliminate the likelihood of such conditions forming?

Before we get to the answer of that question let’s clarify something that has the potential to confuse the analysis / discussion. There are “do or die times” when a critical business need dictates what would normally be considered unrealistic deadline – in such cases everyone from the very top to the very bottom is aware of the situation – if the people involved are able to pull it off they will be considered, deservedly so, heroes – if they fail everyone understands. Such scenario is not subject of this article – what I wish to analyze and discuss here is unreasonably tight deadlines that are not unequivocally dictated by a true business need but are brought about by other factors.

Here are what I believe to be some of the main contributing factors:
  • ignorant management that has no idea of the effort required coupled with an autocratic style (one may argue that ignorance of management often leads to autocracy);
  • lack of trust on the commitment of the team coupled with lack of productivity measuring tools and techniques;
  • overambitious and cowardly managers trying to please their bosses at any cost;
  • failure of the management to recognize that team members are humans and have lives beyond work;
  • insecure team members choosing to deal with failure later rather than facing the management now;
  • inexperienced team ready to “bite” any size project oblivious of its “chewing” capability;

An occasional project failure may be an indication that one or more of those factors came into play when that project was defined and approved but the organizations self-correcting mechanisms that are derived from that organization’s culture are working properly. A frequent occurrence of project failure on the other hand would be an indication of a much deeper problem related to the culture of the organization in question which is hard to change.

How can an organization cultivate the right culture – the one that produces success rather than failure?

There are two ways to cultivate a certain culture amongst a social grouping:

  • the “bible way” – that is, if you do or don’t do something you are going to hell / heaven; In this case the motivation of the individuals to do or not do something is their natural desire to secure a better future for their next life.
  • The “reason way” – that is if you do or don’t do something those are the direct consequences and this is how those consequences ultimately affect you. As a reasoning being you are of course expected to choose to do / not do what benefits you the most or hurts you the least in this life.

For the purpose of this discussion I would classify the “if you do/don’t do this you will be fired” under the “bible way”.

While the “bible way” has been extremely effective in cultivating a culture where stealing, cheating, hurting others etc. are unacceptable I believe that it wouldn’t be very effective in cultivating the right culture in an organization. An organization must rely on the “reason way”. You could put a big banner in the main entrance of your headquarters building stating: “Autocracy is not the remedy for ignorance, education is!” but is that going to create a culture where autocracy is not acceptable – no, it is not going to accomplish anything. A long and persistent educational campaign dissecting the autocratic style and identifying the advantages and disadvantages of it and how it affects all involved is needed.

The same is true for any and all aspects of an organizations culture – slogans don’t produce culture, reason does.

This just scratches the surface of this deep and very interesting subject but it makes the point I wanted to make, namely that when a project fails the organizations culture should be scrutinized and furthermore it should be recognized that adjusting the organization’s culture can not be mandated – it can only be accomplished through a long and persistent educational process.

Feel free to leave your comments here – I can’t promise to respond but I will definitely read them all.

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