Sun Tzu reminds us: "Every battle is won or lost before it's ever fought." The same is true with projects. So what should one look for to see if the battle will be won or lost? Here are nine questions to ask:
- Are we trying to put stretch pants on a rhino?
- Am I working for a lone wolf?
- Is there a silent assassin?
- Has a "can't fail" mentality developed around the project?
- Is there a let's just get started and plan later attitude?
- Is there a threshold to determine if we go on?
- Are processes followed?
- Is there a focus on deliverables and budget, but no thought about technology?
- Has the company ever done a project like this before?
I'm serious about this. There are many times that in order to sell a project in a company, managers promise everything to everybody. They will do whatever pet idea is necessary to get someone to approve the project. They try and stretch the project to appease everyone. Have you seen this?
The problem is, like stretch pants on a rhino, it will work for awhile, but as soon as the rhino sits down, or runs or engages in some type of bodily relief, it's going to get ugly. The fabric will rip and mending it could be temporary and painful. Especially if the needle pokes the rhino, it could get ugly.
Be wary of stretch the project to cover the rhino.
Am I working for a lone wolf?
Are you working for one person? Do they say, "Ask me any questions." or "Don't bother other's with what we're doing." or "We need to get this working before we involve too many other people."
This can be a good approach if the project has a short enough duration, but if the project exists entirely at the whim of one person, watch out if that persons focus or status changes.
Beware if you're working for a lone wolf.
Is there a silent assassin?
Often times there will be people who don't want the project to succeed. There may be many reasons for this and you should try to discover them, but the first thing to find out is: "Who wants this to succeed and who doesn't?"
Silent assassins are particularly dangerous because you don't know who they are and so you can't know how to deal with them. If you're lucky, they're public about their opposition. Then you know what you're up against.
Rather than agonizing yourself about silent assassins' motivations, take a different approach. While it might seem counter intuitive, announcing a threshold or gate level that the project must exceed to continue gives the silent assassin a way to kill a project if they are strong enough. If they are not strong enough to keep the project from meeting this threshold, getting over the threshold or through the gate will build more public support.
The point is, if the assassin knows how to kill the project, they have to decide if they are strong enough and determined enough to do so. What you want to be careful of is letting someone nick and cut you to death without your knowing where it's coming from.
Has a "can't fail" mentality developed around the project?
The problem is that, if a project takes on a "can't fail" approach, it almost guarantees failure. It puts too much pressure on the project team and prevents clear thinking and communications.
Set up gates and threshold points where a project is objectively reviewed and there is a real possibility that the project can be killed. This focuses people and prevents a "can't fail" mentality from developing.
Is there a let's just get started and plan later attitude?
It's been said a thousand times: "If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail." Unfortunately, too often, one spends immense amounts of time and energy "selling" a project inside a company. When the project eventually gets approved, people are so quick to want to show progress and justify the project, that planning gets lost.
Don't give into temptation and remember to plan the project, work the plan and evaluate the plan as you're going along.
Is there a threshold to determine if we go on?
Thresholds are your friend. How do you know if something is successful? You know if it meets the goals that enable it to cross the threshold.
How do you prevent people adding every dream and wish they ever had into your project? Having a threshold defines what you have to do to continue the project AND it defines what you cannot spend time on. Thresholds focus attention, giving people on the project something to shoot for and a reason to celebrate when its achieved.
One of the biggest mistakes a project manager can make is never celebrating success. Thresholds provide the target, the yard marker and the reason to pat people on the back and celebrate success. Use them, they are your friend.
Are processes followed?
Have you ever been in a company where there are no processes? It's like trying to push a river upstream. Have you been in a company that has processes, but they're not followed? Or even worse, they're used as method to kill something that got approved but no one wants to do. Put it into an endless process.
Look around and see if there are processes by which things get done at a company compared to if things get accomplished through heroic effort. Whether it's ordering supplies, doing employee reviews or executing projects; a company either follows processes or it doesn't follow processes.
If it doesn't follow processes, know what you're getting into. Before you start the project, you'll have to define the processes necessary for the project to succeed, train people on them and then make them work. It can be very rewarding, but know what you're getting yourself into.
Is there a focus on deliverables and budget, but no thought about technology?
Many times businesses will know what the deliverables are that they want and they'll think about the time it will take, but they won't know about what it will take technically to get there. Even worse, they'll listen to a salesman from a software or consulting company sweet talk them into thinking that it'll be so easy with their technology or methodology.
But it's still work and it adds another layer of complexity which is rarely accounted for. When looking at a project, think about how much of the technology that is being used is new to the organization. Having consultants and contractors who know the stuff is nice, having employees who know how something works is even better.
Ignorance with new technologies is not bliss, it's a devil you know nothing about that is waiting to torture your life.
Has the company ever done a project like this before?
Actually, the question could be better thought of as, has anyone working on the project ever done anything like this before? If the company has experience doing these types of projects, then they know what to expect. If people on the project, working for the company have experience, then they are battle tested and know where many of the snakes are lurking in the grass.
You wouldn't feel comfortable having your house built by people who had never built a house before. Be just as concerned about executing a project with people who have never done a project like this before.
These are some of the warning signs to look for when you're considering going onto a project. Are there other signs you've seen?
Inquiring minds want to know...