Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Getting Around the Constraints (Managing Impossible Projects, Part 5)

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. (Art by Baker and Hill Graphic Design.)

Managing Constraints

Constraints, operationally, are what stand between you and the completion of a successful project. If you think a given project may be impossible, it’s a function of the constraints you perceive. If the constraints (defined as the borders of the perceived box) can be modified, or if parts of it are optical illusions, then you may have new options available. The game has changed.

How can we change the envelope defined by our constraints?  Logic suggests two possibilities. If the constraints are real and have flexibility, you can modify them. If the constraints are imaginary, or have elements in them that are not real, you can get around them.  Multiple strategies exist for attacking each area, but they basically boil down to two: change the constraints or get around them.

(There is no "try.")

Change the Constraints
Analysis. Why is it your preferred option best (or sometimes least worst) for the organization? Does your preferred option cause collateral damage elsewhere in the project’s environment?  How much of this is political? How do other people view this concern? You have to understand the complete picture to see all the options, and just as importantly, to see all the dangers. 
Negotiation. Some constraints are subject to negotiation. If you’re bidding on a contract, there’s a price at which you can’t afford the business. On the other hand, sometimes our organization makes the choice on our behalf. “We’ve already got the contract, this is the scope of work, and this is how much we can spend to get it done.” Probe the constraints to see which are negotiable and which are fixed by circumstances.  
Internally, negotiation is the process of making the business case. If you have force majeure to settle the argument, it’s not really negotiation. In negotiation, forcing is not an option. You can only win if you are able to help other people recognize and accept a victory of their own. 
Problem solving. Sometimes constraints are decided, other times they simply are. When an organization prepares a budget, they necessarily make decisions among desirable objectives. They could give you more (or less) money; they choose not to. But sometimes the money isn’t there. They would choose to give you more money; they can’t. You can argue with decisions; you can’t argue (though many try) with facts. That’s a problem. Some problems can be solved. In the Apollo 13 case we discussed earlier, they needed a particular resource (a filter cover), but there was nothing at hand to do the job. Then someone remembered the astronauts wore socks. 
Requirements management.  There is an unfortunate sense in which written requirements too easily turn into holy writ. The purpose of requirements is to define operationally and specifically what the customer wants and wishes to pay for.  There’s always a delicate balance between imposing the detail necessary for control and allowing the flexibility necessary for exceptional achievement. 
Watch out for requirements that have outlived their usefulness, or had even become unproductive to the mission. A small change in a requirement may be of little consequence to the project’s quality, and still spell the difference between success and failure.
Get Around the Constraints
Creativity.  Here is where positive brainstorming rejoins the flow. Systematic creativity – inspiration on time, on budget, and on spec – seems like a contradiction in terms, but professionals in many areas do it as a matter of course. The secret goes back to Thomas Edison’s famous ratio of one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration: creativity is something you can work at. Artists do rough sketches; writers do rough drafts; lightbulb inventors test filament after filament. It’s a process of discovery. As the old joke goes, Michelangelo created David by taking a big block of marble and chipping away all the pieces that didn’t look like David. 
Exploiting holes.  One of the tricks of structured creativity is understanding that some places are more likely to contain insights than others, and look there first. The flexibility of the weak constraint is one good source of insight. So is available slack or float on non-critical tasks. Weaknesses and cracks in the structure of constraints may be exploitable. 
Different approaches. Insanity, Ross Perot famously observed, is doing the same thing over and over again and keep expecting different results. Is there a way around your current obstacle if you switch approaches? 
Rethink assumptions.  Assumptions can err on the side of optimism or pessimism. Conduct a sensitivity analysis of your assumptions: if it turns out to be true or false, how much impact will it have on your project? Investigate the assumptions with the most potential.

But sometimes a project really needs to die, and the project manager is often the one dispatched to do the dirty deed. There’s a skill to this, as well.

Next Week: The Ol' Yeller Maneuver

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