Project struggle #1

the "project hero" syndrome


With this column, PM Network welcomes a new contributor, Dr. Will B. Struggles, PMP to its pages. In a series of articles, Dr. Struggles will be sharing his thoughts on the obstacles, challenges, and barriers to successful project management in these “nano-second nineties.” He'll offer, too, some possible solutions toward avoiding, managing, and overcoming these project-related struggles.

Dr. Struggles claims to have a Ph.D. in “Projectology” (not to be confused with Proctology!) from the University of Kann (better known as “UKann”), where he studied under Prof. Shirlie Eugeste, the authority in the area of dealing with demanding customers on projects. He has over 25 years experience with Dewey, Pleezem and Howe, where he obtained virtually all of his experience in Total Quality and Project Management. He describes himself as a “full-time PMP,” too.

“Will B.” (as he prefers to be called) says he never met a project manager he didn't like, but admits he has met a number of them who he thought “were their own worst enemies ‘cause they were afraid to take a stand in defense of the project's integrity!” He's been described as “a cross between Eric Jenett, Will Rogers, and Robin Williams, all rapped up in one zany package.” We hope our readers will agree.

Follow-up letters on these columns or suggestions of issues to be “mulled over” by Dr. Struggles in future columns should be addressed to Will B. Struggles, in care of Editor-in-Chief, PMI Communications.

Jim Pennypacker

Howdy! I guess I've worked on a whole lot of projects in my lifetime and I figure it's high time I started sharing my insights with some of you younger folk. I'm talking to you—both men and women alike—who want to become better project managers, project leaders, and project coordinators! Whatever role you play on projects—even you highfalutin' types in upper management who serve as project sponsors—you have a key contribution to make toward project success. My intention is to provide you with some creative ideas for avoiding struggles on projects and increasing your chances for project success.

I've always tried to approach projects the same way my mentor would: “Gotta build a diverse, cross-functional team based on trust and commitment!” she used to say. You see, any project manager worth his salt knows he can't get the job done all by hisself. It takes teamwork! Other folks, well, they don't seem to understand that and, quite frankly, that's why, on a lot of projects, there will be struggles. Hey, that's funny—that sounds like my name: Will B. Struggles!

Even when you've got a synergistic, cross-functional project team, it isn't always enough, ‘cause some of you young folk who are new to the profession don't know the difference between a “project” and a “pipe dream”! Unfortunately, I've seen more than a few well-meaning rookies assigned as a project manager who started out with all kinds of enthusiasm and good intentions only to find themselves going through the five phases of the “pipe dream” life cycle—Excitement, Disappointment, Panic, Finger-Pointing, and Deep Regret—that are inevitable when they try to be a “Project Hero.”

Only too late do they realize how foolhardy they were to have accepted such a short-term assignment in the first place. They're usually so eager to impress someone that they make themselves vulnerable to being “set up” by accepting a virtual “mission impossible.” It may be called a “project” but it's actually a “pipe dream”!

In simple terms, the client or customer says, “I'm not asking for much—I just want the deliverable Good, Fast, and Cheap”; as if to say: “Consider yourself lucky I'm not asking for it Perfect, Now, and Free!” However, the product's four key expectations: Scope and Quality (Good), Time (Fast), and Cost (Cheap) are not defined in a way that establishes an initial state of “equilibrium” between the four components, where the Risks (Satisfaction vs. Dissatisfaction) can be managed responsibly. Allowance must be made for a meeting-of-the-minds, where both the customer and the supplier can negotiate tradeoffs that are acceptable to both parties! All too often, the customer is allowed to dictate all four, much to the chagrin of our Project Hero. Is that you, dear reader?

So, this naive Project Hero (let's call him “Ike Anduitt”) accepts the pipe dream assignment which has, as its overriding priority, a ridiculous, must-have end date. Left unchallenged, this “magic date” would make the project life cycle a quarter to a third shorter than that type of product had ever been built before. In situations where this is the first time Ike is attempting to build a given product, he doesn't face up to the high levels of uncertainty and pretends he knows what it takes. In either case, Ike decides not to challenge it (all he has to rely on are his intuitive “SWAG” or “FGF” estimates, anyway!) and the rest is all uphill from there! [For those readers not up on the jargon: SWAG is Scientific Wild Anatomy Guess, and FGF is Famous Gut Feel.] In his case “excitement” soon changes to “disappointment,” then “panic,” and the remainder of our five phases! Should it surprise us?

Ike wants to look good and sees this as a chance to demonstrate his personal competence and his commitment to the firm (appropriately named something like Duck, Dodge and Hyde, Inc., a subsidiary of Hardlee Able Group, LLP). So, he brings together a team of three or four people with whom he used to work (like Howie Gonnadoit, Eileen Bach, Cliff Hanger, and Sheeza Nass), all of whom owe him favors from previous projects when he helped them out.

When the customer wants it Good, Fast and Cheap, convince them to pick two out of three.

Together, they completely ignore Murphy's Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible time!”) and O'Toole's Corollary (“Murphy was an optimist!”). They also fail to seek the sage advise and involvement of people like Justin Case, Seymour Trubble, Bea Kerrphul, and Claire Voyant, who've “been there, done that” many times over. These experienced pros know how to handle these types of assignments: Take it head-on and run it through what I like to call the “Due Diligence Gauntlet.” No way it'd survive careful project planning and risk analysis techniques! But, in about 80 percent of the cases well-meaning people like Ike don't perform “due diligence” and fail miserably, in spite of their heroic intentions.

Even in the 20 percent of the cases that I have seen these “mission impossible” type project assignments completed successfully by folks like Ike, it's usually accomplished by pulling out all the stops, calling in all the favors owed, and working lots of overtime to get things done. The resulting fallout when it's over is enough to give you a heart attack, though: the customer or their management usually “rewards” you for uour heroic achievement by making the compressed life cycle the new standard interval for all future such product development projects! “Congratulations for shooting yourselves in the collective foot!” How's that for gratitude?

The prudent project manager's bottom-line realization must eventually be this: When the customer says he or she wants the deliverable Good, Fast, and Cheap—you've gotta convince them that they can only pick two out of three. You can give it to them Good and Fast but they'll have to pay premium for it; you can develop it Fast and Cheap but it'll likely be “buggier than the state of Maine in the month of June!”; or, they can have it Good and Cheap, but they'll have to wait ‘til you run into a slowdown period ‘cause there's not much in it for you. It's as simple as that!

Bill Kern's article “The Buck Stops Where You're Sitting” (November 1995 PM Network, pp. 42–44) is a superb condensation of the kinds of proactive strategies for managing project struggles I'm talkin' about here. Read it and reread it as many times as it takes to avoid getting caught in Project Struggle #1: The “Project Hero” Syndrome. It'll come in handy for avoiding a lot of your other project struggles, too!

Don't Give Up!

If you're one of these poor folks who've experienced struggles like the one described above, if you're finding it difficult to put together a diverse cross-functional team, and you can't juggle your customer's Good, Fast, and Cheap project expectations via due diligence efforts, don't give up or get down on yourself! Just look for ole Will B. and my columns in future issues of PM Network, and consider me a “virtual” member of your project team. I'll always be there to give you the hope you'll need to overcome those project-related struggles because TEAM stands for “Together Everyone Achieves More!”

That's project management, the way I seez it! ■

PM Network • February 1996



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