Managing the dark side
by Gary M. Schollnick, PMP
ASK ANY SEASONED manager who has been thrown into an initiative that was near disaster or, indeed, has crashed and burned, and I suspect he or she will tell you that the first step to recovery involves asking, “Where are we?” Please understand that if you don’t know where you are, it really doesn’t matter where you’re going.
Basic tenets suggest that the “A” team gets assembled or reenergized, an assessment is performed, a road map is drawn up defining a desired end and a schedule and course of action to get there. But getting the job done is more than that, more than a plan, more than a schedule. It’s a holistic approach that encompasses a wide range of contingencies.
The seasoned leader and team know to go beyond the textbook definitions and formulas, to recognize and deal with real-life scenarios, elements, and risks. I am truly amazed at how many efforts fail because of a lack of attention to dark-side factors. Dark-side factors are defined here as real-life threats to work activities, not anticipated, that could negatively impact the outcome of those activities. Here are some examples:
“You Never Asked Us for That”
Imagine, if you will, that you built the world’s most luxurious ocean liner, say, around 1912. This ship had everything! Special entrances cut out of bulkheads so stewards could pamper the guests. Large spiraling staircases open at every level and, my favorite, reducing the number of lifeboats to accommodate more deck space. Needless to say, the ship sank, people died who could have been saved, and the course of history was changed forever. The moral of the story? The requirements were wrong! There wasn’t a lifeboat seat for every passenger, and the ship’s bulkheads were compromised by extravagances. Requirements should be dictated by the effort’s sponsors but should also include input from a thorough risk assessment.
“That Wasn’t My Job”
I remember a proposal my team submitted many years back to lay fiber cable across a major university campus in upstate New York. The document had everything—pictures, tables, cross-reference guides, actual fiber samples glued to the pages, the works! Except it was missing the price, and the page numbering was all mixed up. “How could this happen?” I yelled. “This is a $4 million proposal, and we can’t even get this document right?” The answer was that nobody owned the proposal. Everyone had specific input, but no one had the task of pulling it all together. An almost fatal mistake. Lesson learned? Roles and responsibilities should be assigned and agreed upon at the onset of an effort, with checkpoints and adjustments along the way.
Gary Schollnick, PMP, is a regional program manager for Sun Microsystems Inc. He specializes in complex integrated solutions and has over 21 years of consulting experience in the computer industry.
“Just Us Chickens”
I saw a memo a few years back requiring that anyone traveling on company business had to stay in an approved hotel—no exceptions! The accommodations were clean but not top tier. We had the opportunity to travel with a prospective customer to a client/server conference and, we hoped, close a big deal. They stayed at one hotel and we, by company dictate, stayed at another. We were separated from the customer. At our hotel, there was “Nobody here but us chickens.”
At best the arrangement was awkward and I believe contributed to losing the deal. The customer later told me that they questioned our commitment. Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. As it relates to projects and initiatives, do it right the first time, even if it means spending a little more to get it done.
“They Said What?”
If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist. How many times have you wished that conversations or verbal directions had been captured on paper? Not documenting status items or getting incorrect information into the wrong hands is a very high-risk item that will smack an effort broadside every time. Even getting correct information into the wrong hands can be a killer, causing unnecessary hardships.
Let me give you an example. An internal status report criticized management for not deploying enough resources to handle the customer’s situation. The writer included the customer on the distribution because he owed the customer a status report on the same subject. Bad idea. The report launched the customer through the roof, which prompted an executive call between our companies’ vice presidents. Come to find out, resources had been scheduled and were in the process of being deployed. Because of poor communication, we spent months working to regain the customer’s confidence.
Establish a communications plan up front, establish the owner or owners, set up the ground rules, and stick to them. Get frequent feedback, and don’t be afraid to change the plan if it’s not working.
Reader Service Number 074
“Yeah, Yeah, I’ll Get to It”
I have found over the years that the longer the project or effort duration, the more likely that vast amounts of time will be wasted or spent on other activities. Having a “day job” is one of my favorite ways to describe a block that prevents a team member from devoting time to the effort. It very often is hidden from the schedule. Because the end date is so far out, it’s not flagged until the time left to complete gets critically short. Even if there is no other day job, human nature has taught me that the longer the effort time is, the harder it is for team members to rapidly engage in relevant work. Symptoms of this include excessive nonwork-related e-mails, science projects that feel good but are loosely related to the effort, frequent coffee breaks, and long lunches.
The answer is not to increase the frequency and duration of meetings but rather to break the effort into smaller activities that have measurable deliverables. In so doing you can capitalize on available cycles and maintain a sense of urgency with the team. Be careful, though; you don’t want to burn them out or take away from the fun and challenge of the effort. Maintain a balance between obligation and motivation.
“Quick Before It Changes”
The customer asked for a document management system that incorporated the latest technology and applications. The good news was that the customer was willing to spend a large sum for this system. The bad news was that technology wasn’t quite there to make the system seamless and robust.
Huge amounts of dollars were spent over an 18-month period to put the system together. In that time technology changed dramatically and the customer’s business and requirements also changed. The prime contractor on the deal wrapped up the contract so tight that it was literally impossible for the customer to change the deliverable.
The bottom line was a system with obsolete technology and inadequate features. The customer sued the prime, the prime countersued the customer, and the document management system was scrapped, never used.
One of the biggest challenges in any initiative is maintaining or confining the scope of the effort. Accordingly, two common mistakes that are made are to blindly accommodate new requests without understanding/adjusting for the ramifications or ignoring new requests and blindly sticking to the original plan. Both situations are recipes for disaster. Change is a part of every effort and should be accommodated in formal change management procedures that are established at the planning stages of the effort.
“What Do You Mean You’re Leaving?”
Does this sound familiar? “What if Harry gets hit by a beer truck?” Or, “You can’t leave, it will throw off this project by months!”
We plan for redundancy and failover in our hardware and software solutions. We do backups of data and build entire disaster recovery sites. But what about the people? How many people are trained to do the same job or are able to fill in with no or little advance notice. What is the contingency plan? Is cross-pollination occurring?
There are no silver bullets here other than to raise the awareness and need for a people plan when engaging in an effort. This is a high-risk factor that is often overlooked and rarely addressed.
“The Customer Is So Weird”
I was sitting in the conference room, hands folded, fresh pen and paper on the table, waiting for the meeting to start. It was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and it was now 9:27 a.m., and I was the only one there. I could hear the tick of the wall clock as each minute passed, and I was panicking that I had the wrong time or wrong room. At precisely 9:30 a.m. everyone streamed in and the meeting promptly started. I remember thinking, “This is so weird.” I must say that more happened in that one-hour meeting than in most meetings I had ever attended.
Reader Service Number 043
The point here is that every customer has a unique culture and way of doing things. If we are not sensitive to this, we run the risk of lost credibility, lower productivity, and missed opportunities for synergy and teaming.
WHILE NOT A PRIMER on project management or a guidebook to risk management, this article is a risk awareness exercise intended to raise the reader’s sensitivity to dark-side factors and hence increase the chances for project success. ■
November 2000 PM Network