Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The CHAOS Report (Managing Impossible Projects, Part 3)

Photo: Baggage system, Denver International Airport

The following series is adapted from a keynote I delivered at the Washington, DC, chapter of the Project Management Institute back in August. Parts also come from my book Creative Project Management (with Ted Leemann), published by McGraw-Hill. 

The annual Standish Group’s CHAOS Report, which tracks software project performance reported these abysmal numbers for 2009:

  • 32% on time, on budget, to spec
  • 44% finished late, over budget, or partially completed
  • 24% failed, cancelled, or abandoned

Why do so many projects fail, either in part or in whole?

Certainly, there are badly managed projects — even some headed by PMPs. But it’s hard to blame a 68% defect rate on poor practitioners alone.

Sometimes the problem is the definition of success. By the logic of project management, the Leaning Tower of Pisa was an abysmal failure: late, over budget, and…well, aren’t buildings supposed to be straight? The Standish Group would clearly label the tower as a failed project, yet if the tower didn’t lean, who today would bother to visit?

The third reason, of course, is that the project was problematic to begin with — arguably or actually impossible. This can happen for a variety of reasons. In the case of Apollo 13, the constraints of time, resources, and performance were established by the situation, not by the will or desire of the project managers or owners. They were what they were — whether they were achievable was a separate issue.

In the Battle of the Bulge, the German Ardennes offensive had already begun. We would be able to get troops to the front to relieve the pressure on beleaguered First Army units, or we wouldn’t. Neither project managers nor project owners necessarily control the constraints that drive their projects.

Sometimes we’re just making a guess when we establish a project’s constraints. The original budget for Denver International Airport was $1.2 billion, and the original deadline was October 1993. The final price came in at $4.8 billion and the actual opening date was February 1995. (The infamous automated baggage system, budgeted at $186 million, wasn’t cancelled until 2005, by which time its construction costs were increasing at a staggering $1 million a day!)

Denver wasn’t an example of engineering or technical failure — no, not even the baggage system. The failure was driven by political considerations, including a nonstop war among several key stakeholders. When customer conflict generates mutually exclusive requirements, “impossible” becomes just another word for nothing left to lose.

In any event, we project managers are hired hands. Sometimes we may do double duty as customers or sponsors of our own projects, but when we put on our PMP hats, we’re here not to decide, but to execute. We are bound by the decisions and choices of others, and sometimes we start the project on the precipice of failure. After all, how many of you get to decide your own timelines, set your own budgets, and establish your own performance requirement?

I didn’t think so.

Still, you don’t want to be too quick to pull the trigger. Let’s imagine that you have a project and your experience tells you it can’t be done. Isn’t delaying the inevitable bad news just going to make the problem worse?

That depends on what you do in between receiving the assignment and giving the answer. Even if your project’s impossible, or at least compromised, there’s still a customer problem needing to be solved. Telling people what they can do and what they can have tends to get a better reception than telling people what they can’t do and what they can’t have.

That’s why the first step in managing a potentially impossible project is analysis. When you analyze an apparently impossible or potentially impossible project, you may learn different things.

  1. You confirm that the project is in fact impossible, and can provide evidence to the customer. You and the customer can begin to figure out what alternatives may exist or how to deal with the consequences of an unsuccessful project.
  2. You confirm that the project as originally proposed is in fact impossible, but are able to find potential changes that will make the project possible, which you can present to the customer.
  3. You confirm that the project as stated is in fact impossible, but are able to offer alternatives and compromises that might satisfy at least some of the customer’s requirements and needs, or close part of the gap.
  4. You can’t confirm that the project is in fact impossible, but you can identify at least some of the risks and challenges you face, which you and the customer can then assess.
  5. You find a creative way around the barrier that made the project impossible, and achieve the original goal.

Even if your analysis leads to the first outcome (it’s just flat impossible), however, your situation is still improved by your ability to give a thoughtful reply with supporting evidence, and your attitude in making a good-faith attempt to solve the problem.

Partial successes (outcomes two, three, and four) are a marked improvement. Even if the project is impossible — or highly risky — as stated, the customer may be able to get a significant portion of what he or she wants. Plus, it’s well known that the first approximation of available constraints may not be the final word. There may be more to draw on. And again, people tend to react better to hearing what they can have, and less well to hearing what they can’t have.

We renovated our house last summer, and the project was on time, exceeded our expectations — and cost about twice as much as we’d planned. We still call it a rousing success, because we never really expected to meet the budget anyway. It was a hope, not a realistic assessment. The Standish Group would call it a failure, but we don’t — and the customer is always right.

The fifth outcome (solve the problem with creativity) is ideal, but often challenging and not always successful.  The best direction to find the creative answer is, paradoxically, to focus on the barriers in the first place.

Next Week: The Power of Negative Thinking!

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