Can personal shortcomings undermine recovery? (Mini Case Part 1)

I concede that projects can recover — at least for a time — without sustainable personal and professional behaviors in place. Heroic measures to catch up on accumulated technical debt, more testers to ensure all tests are completed, new resources that specialize in turnarounds can and do work… again, for a time.

But what happens when the “hero” team needs to take a week or three of down time? What happens when those additional testers go back to their “real” jobs? What happens when the turnaround team leaves? What happens is that the project risks a slide back into the abyss.

Even one gap can be problematic. For example, I was on a troubled transformation program that needed to use all three of these approaches: extraordinary effort, additional testers, and experienced recovery resources. And indeed, the heroic measures did create deliverables that were fit for use , the technical debt had been repaid, and the development team was staffed up to support the remainder of the program. The turnaround specialists put a set of program governance practices in place; even better, the program office continued to execute them effectively.  Quality assurance and testing were other matters entirely….

3P/T — Personal, Professional, and Project Recovery over Time

This perspective on business recovery means we must respect the relationship among personal, professional, and project behaviors.  The three dimensions of recovery behavior take place over time and are highly interdependent: functional or project recovery cannot exist without a foundation of appropriate personal and professional behaviors.

In particular, I maintain that project, operation, or business recovery will not be effective unless one’s personal and professional recovery leads the way. In other words, one must have changed one’s personal and professional behaviors — that is, moved them from “before” to “during” recovery — before one can effectively fix a project or business.

I hope this conclusion makes intuitive sense. After all, who can effectively facilitate a contentious scope prioritization session when one has been on short sleep for three weeks? Or how does one find the right expert to untangle a technical knot when one’s network was ignored once the new job started?

Quote of the Day — Max DePree

Be wary of setting out to win prizes. Truly creative people flourish in the process of solving problems. Good work is the goal; recognition is the consequence.

— Max DePree, Leadership Jazz 

Before, During, and After Trouble

Like projects themselves, recovery from project challenges follows a definite lifecycle. Todd Williams (@BackFromRed), in his Rescue the Problem Project, identifies one prerequisite and four steps in the recovery process.

  1. Realization. Before recovering a project, the project sponsor, executive management, or steering committee must realize that the project has a problem and needs new direction. After accepting that the project has problems, recovery proceeds in four steps:
  2. Audit the project
  3. Analyze the data
  4. Negotiate the solution
  5. Execute the new plan.

A few years ago I put together a project de-escalation outline on Crossderry Blog based on my experience recovering projects and consulting engagements. My approach had a slightly different twist — largely driven by its emphasis on engagement management — but there are definite parallels.

  1. Discovery: How well do you know your project?
  2. Decision: To escalate, or not to escalate?
  3. Definition: What must be done?
  4. Dialogue: How to explain?
  5. Delivery: Into action.

I’m not sure there’s much value in reconciling project recovery lifecycles; in fact, I’m afraid it will distract from my focus on personal and professional factors in project failure and recovery. Therefore, this series of posts will use a simplified lifecycle of “Before, During, and After” project trouble.

Quote of the Day — Chinua Achebe

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man.  But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness….  It was the fear of himself…”  — from Things Fall Apart

Did you see this WSJ review of “Wait”?

I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more comment on this WSJ review of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay” by Frank Partnoy. 

With all the emphasis on being “first”, it is good to hear someone praise “the gift of hesitation.”  Goodness knows that I could have used this advice more than once!   Of course, Partnoy’s book could be dangerous in my hands.  Now I’ll have art and science in hand to rationalize away my next procrastinations.

By the way, the review itself is sharp.   Christopher Chabris alludes to his own experience and insight in a way that qualifies him, but doesn’t make the review all about the reviewer.

Bad Choices Underpin Most Problem Projects

In my last post I asserted that failed projects often have at their roots “neglect or damage in [the leaders’] personal and professional lives”, not ignorance of project management principles. Rather than let that question begging stand, we should look at that claim. If the claim is true, then shouldn’t we find evidence in problem projects of “good thought, bad action?”  Bad projects don’t just happen, we make them happen.

Indeed we do.  At Crossderry Blog I’ve blogged about project failure and success many times, including the work we did at SAP on project escalations. The most glaring examples are around stakeholder and communications management.

While these stakeholder and communications management techniques appear simple, we’ve found that many project managers can’t muster the motivation or confidence to execute against them consistently. These “symptoms” are great non-obvious indicators for project health:

  • Projects that consistently linked stakeholder analysis, communications planning, and plan execution stayed out of trouble.
  • Project managers who did not fit into, or could not adapt to, customer cultures, mission-critical projects, etc. were reluctant to escalate projects quickly enough.
  • The most frequent communications mistake was failure to execute planned executive-level messaging, which eroded the project manager’s position in the eyes of sponsors and other leaders.

These stakeholder management findings correspond with recent external studies noting that communication breakdowns – especially “keeping quiet” about known risks or issues – are a primary driver of project failures. To my main point, isn’t “keeping quiet” about project-threatening issues and risks a sign that there’s something amiss with one’s mind, body, spirit, or professional life?  More soon…

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