This unit will address these aspects of project management and key lessons to be drawn.
All projects must come to an end
That's a truism by definition, almost trite.
|Jaws -- the famous movie poster|
Did the project succeed?
Did it fail in part or on the whole, after fair trial?
Did it die prematurely of congenital defects?
Did it eat up its resources fruitlessly?
Did someone kill its budget? (Why?)
Did it fall off the cliff through a mini march of folly?
Did it fall into hopeless quarrels and confusions, ending in a messy "divorce"?
Was it pushed off the cliff by its enemies -- including those that pretended to be friends? (As in, who is floating away under a golden parachute -- leaving others to their fate? [Who is it that has the reputation of a cat -- always able to land on his/her feet by hook or by crook?] )
Did the critical mass coalition the project needed dry up? Did a critical implementer, champion, sponsor or Godfather walk away? (Why?)
Why? (Always, why -- and, how?)
And, such questions need to be pondered from the outset of a project, as: projects are temporary but careers for good or ill must go on -- and there is a taint that accompanies being part of a real, perceived or engineered failure.
If a suggested project is widely seen as likely to fail -- regardless of its actual merits, it may not be able to attract adequate support to get it moving or keep it moving upwind through tacking towards its goals.
Thus, some project failures are self-fulfilling prophecies -- those who believe act in ways that make their beliefs come true; never mind that the project in question may well have been a viable alternative to a patent march of folly:
Proverbially, "if it succeed, none dare call it treason."
That is, in a sufficiently polarised situation dominated by ruthless, manipulative, vindictive power brokers, the very relevance of the above questions will strongly tend to suppress them into being whispers in a safe corner.
The decapitated head of a Cudjoe hanging from the Cotton Tree by the main road to the North (and menacingly near to the execution grounds . . . ) is usually enough of a warning to anyone else who would get "notions" of a better way or make the fatal error of expecting justice or soundness. Likewise, if you hang "Tom" publicly -- and however "justified" you may think this is (whatever he may have done) -- only to see his wife and children rush over the cliff's edge in despair, that is a message about the community's failure and need to reach out with compassion and mercy, too.
We are back to Lemmings and Cliffs.
And yes, Lemmings don't normally act like that -- Disney apparently pushed them over the cliff; but as for bureaucrats, managers, agit-prop manipulators and politicians . . . :
It is precisely to counter that problem that we began this workshop by advocating for broad-based, empowering stakeholder consultations and for setting up governance systems that will foster transparency, accountability and responsibility. But that will not always prevail and it is vital for us to know the truth of how a project ended, if its end was an unhappy one.
Learning lessons to build capacity and to do better through sound and fair evaluation joined to quality assurance through financial and performance audit is after all a key part of the project life cycle:
Of course, in enough cases to matter, projects are successful.
(If there is no chance of success, there is no justification for the project.)
Why and how a success came to be is also quite important to learn from.
So, let us turn to:
The successful project
Happily, some projects are successful. (And while many others are not 100% successes, they have done enough good to earn their keep.)
The successful project has much to teach us, and we need to learn the lessons of the hows and whys of success. Likewise, the key valuable players need to be earmarked for onward initiatives. Good work and good initiative should be recognised and rewarded.
(And unjustly punishing or tainting the reputations of those who do the right thing and commit the crime of succeeding at it in the teeth of the wishes of powerful interests is a sure road to organisational ruin.)
How can we best learn the lessons of success?
Let us list some ways:
- keep a good project log and keep personal diaries
- document the life cycle of the project, day by day [it helps to use self-documenting processes as much as possible]
- the initial, exploratory phases should be documented, through concept notes, proposals, feasibility evaluation reports, etc.
- good meeting minutes, meeting summaries and the like help
- financial records and bookkeeping must be in order
- development of the project timeline must be recorded, so we can track projected vs actual timeline performance (and spot what are good predictors)
- project documentation should be properly and securely kept under control of a project secretary, part of the executive
- inception, interim and completion reports are pivotal, and should make good use of documentation developed day by day
- quality assurance should be part of the day to day life of the project
- there needs to be a post project audit on financial, technical, managerial and strategic performance
- such an audit should emphasise lessons learned, but should not shy away from dealing with errors, gaps and evidence of misbehaviour
- the covering programme needs to draw capacity-building lessons
- and so forth
There is, however, a lurking problem: strategic over-stretch or "victory disease." That is, when a victory is "easily" won, there is a temptation to overconfidently keep going beyond what can be sustained. Down that road, predictably, lies disaster.
There is wisdom in knowing where to stop, and when to make a good and fair peace from strength as a good winner.
The partially successful project
A great many projects have points of success and other points where things have not gone so swimmingly.
The critical judgement, here, is the match between successes and the needs of the organisation, in light of the now rather familiar MoSCoW priority list:
- MUST have this requirement to meet the business needs.
- SHOULD have this requirement if at all possible,
- (but the project success does not rely on this).
- COULD have this requirement
- (if it does not affect the fitness of business needs of the project).
- WON'T represents a requirement that stakeholders have postponed
- (due to the timeliness requirement)
In some cases, however, the problem is a failure-point on what is credibly a must-have.
Diagnosis of why things failed at that point (or worse, those points) may be instructive. In particular, perhaps there was a decision to do in-house what was in the end beyond capacity. If so, can something be bought or could bringing in fresh blood make a key difference?
If so, consider making the investment.
If that is not possible or if that too fails, then this suggests a state of the art problem or a seriously flawed innovation climate. In either case, the business strategy and capabilities need to be revised and upgraded to better fit the environment.
Otherwise, the business or organisation may well fail.
If that is on the cards, a serious revision may be necessary.
If that is unlikely to succeed, it may well be time to cut losses and wind up gracefully then head for the exits, before things collapse uncontrollably. Draw lessons for the future and go.
In short, a partial failure on a critical success factor can kill a business or organisation.
A project that reaches such a point has become a case of:
The troubled project
The troubled project is an extension of the case of partial success. Early promise is not paying off, and the question now on the table is whether the project is strategically pivotal and/or potentially of such value for money that it is worth taking the risk to try to go on.
It is generally not wise to "throw good money after bad," and in this situation, those who proposed, championed, implemented and sponsored the project are clearly batting on the back-foot in the face of aggressive bowling.
This is a classic point for a Godfather to step in with a well-judged intervention.
Accurate and fair evaluation is even more necessary now than for projects that have obviously done well.
Not only because there is a temptation to walk away from a genuine opportunity, but also because loyalty is a two-way street. Organisations and communities that build a reputation for knifing people in the back, or for picking, pouncing on and crucifying scapegoats will drive away the kind of good, loyal-hearted, dedicated and brave people it takes to create new things and to stand firm in the face of grave peril.
Long run, such will fail because there will be no one willing to fight for them with the heart of a lion in the face of "fearful odds."
Perhaps, it may be necessary to reframe a project and put it into the exploratory category. Such a project's goal is to see what is there, what is possible, what is a promising opportunity, what is a sobering danger. To find this out is important, and valuable. A different kind of success.
Another approach, again, is to shift to "buy" rather than "make."
That is, perhaps the project can be turned into an acquisition project, having done internal explorations that allow understanding of opportunities and threats, as well as strengths and weaknesses. From this viewpoint, perhaps an invitation to bid can be issued, and from the contest a winning bid can carry forward. Sometimes, no one bid wins and there may need to be a blending of bids to form a composite framework for moving forward. Then, a turnaround may well save the day.
All of this assumes that the point of trouble is in the must-haves category.
(If something is not vital, and good progress is not to be had cost effectively, it is time to cut losses.)
However, if after reasonable trial has failed for something that is credibly vital, there are stark choices: refactor the organisation to live without what cannot be had [and build capacity for another day], or if that is not feasible, it may be time to wind things up and head for the exits in a controlled way.
Yes, a failed critical project can kill a business.
The project that was "nipped in the bud"
There is yet another case: a project may not be in trouble because of its inherent problems. Its enemies may be trying to kill it because they see its potential success as a threat.
This, again, usually calls for Godfather-level intervention, and may require mobilising project marshals to go after the destructive hit-men to counter them and -- in cases that are extreme -- investigate and discipline them. For safety, such a serious move as an investigation should be led by a special oversight committee involving a champion, a responsible critic and a qualified human resources counsellor or auditor. In cases where there is probable cause, the auditor should lead and the other members should be expediters of what is now an audit process.
We are now in very serious territory, so:
WARNING: When strong actions with potentially serious consequences are being contemplated (much less carried out) appropriate -- and confidential -- legal, auditing, human resources etc advice MUST be consulted, as well as relevant law, regulations and guidelines. For instance, the law of tort and that of defamation may be highly relevant. In cases where Parliamentary privileges and immunities are abused to shield attackers, the law, practices and precedents of parliament may need to be consulted. If fraud, theft, embezzlement etc are indicated, the police may need to be called in. It should be noted that desperate or despairing people can resort to violence against others, or themselves (suicide), so security services and counsellors may both be necessary; especially if a dismissal has to be by "changing the locks" and/or "changing access codes" and/or stopping the dismissed party from entering the premises or building . . . yes, that happens, especially with those who have access to highly secure facilities and/or computer systems and networks. And, more: seek sound professional, legal and ethical advice before taking drastic actions.
Now, destructive idea and implementer hit-men are seldom lone wolf operators acting out of some sick psychology.
As a rule, instead, they are there on implicit or explicit contract, sent or invited by backers. Backers who may wish to target individuals or may think they can get their way in decision-making circles (or with the public) by ruthlessly discrediting and killing off alternatives they do not like. But, when a project is in fact credibly addressing vital strategic necessities after fair examination of alternatives, it is there because it was seen as the best option. So, playing agit-prop character assassination games and/or harassing, abusing and oppressing employees and/or gaming the system to make something good unjustifiably seem to be a failure -- as opposed to being responsible, fair minded critics -- is in reality a betrayal. A betrayal of their duty of care to neighbours (and to the families of those neighbours), of duty to the organisation, to truth and fairness, perhaps even of duty to the community or nation.
In defence of vital strategic interests, therefore, one needs to identify, expose, correct and discipline hit-men, then capture enough evidence to uncover the backers. Perhaps, one or more of the exposed hit-men will be willing to talk; but likely there will be a code of silence backed by credible threats of retaliation. In that case, perhaps the offer of witness protection and a fresh start elsewhere -- common in real world Mafia cases -- may open some mouths. Though, such witnesses are inherently of low credibility (and one is doubtless going after a highly positioned target) so their testimony cannot stand on its own. Thus, whether they are silent or willing to talk, corroborating evidence should be sought, that pins down the circumstances tightly enough that serious, responsible action can be taken.
It needs to be understood that betrayal of a critical strategic initiative on a vital point, is a betrayal of the organisation, its staff, families and perhaps the wider community. Severe disciplinary action is therefore warranted, and the yardstick for such is the old Hebraic standard of justice: those who willfully sought -- or carried out -- an ill fate for others merit the same fate.
And, there must be sufficient likelihood of exposure and sufficient severity of consequences that highly Machiavellian manipulators -- who are almost always present in an organisation of any significant size (e.g. Judas sat among the twelve) -- will be curbed. Mercy is one thing, merely saying an ineffectual "nay my sons," while allowing evils to grow unchecked is another. It is a principle of good governance, that there must be highly credible and deterring consequences for evil behaviour that are sufficiently likely to happen and that are sufficiently severe, to deter and check the calculating evil-doer.
Yes, dirty, destructive office politics -- starting with betrayal- by- spy- and- report, gossip and slander tactics -- can have serious consequences for organisations and communities that tolerate such.
(Where, yes, this is utterly distinct from and not to be confused with ethical whistle-blowing, disclosure in the manifest public interest to a responsible party who can and is duty-bound to act: a species of responsible criticism in a situation where normal superiors are deaf to reason. [This is why I believe that Auditors should have explicitly acknowledged Ombudsman powers.] But of course, if the evil prevail in an organisation, they will want to use the rules for dealing with misbehaviour to retaliate against and taint whistleblowers. That is one reason that any resignation or withdrawal by a key person involved with a strategic project should be followed up by the auditors, preferably at once. Especially, if it is manifestly a resignation in protest, whether open protest or veiled as withdrawal for whatever socially acceptable reasons. It is a very bad sign for an organisation when such resignations are not taken seriously. Suicides -- and yes, they can happen -- are an even more dangerous sign.)
So far, we have looked at projects "nipped" while already underway.
Sometimes, vital projects are unjustifiably killed at an even earlier stage by those whose agendas are threatened.
That is a very grave sign indeed for an organisation, and that is one reason why it is so important to place a portfolio of strategic change projects in the hands of a programme unit. For, then, programme audits and/or project audits can turn up case of good projects unjustifiably nipped in the bud.
Also, we here see the vital importance of creating, documenting and implementing a proper and objective project cycle management process at programme level. As, this makes it much harder for good projects to be "nipped" by threatened interests.
Strategic change projects are a serious business for an organisation that intends to be here for the long haul, and so the creation and implementation of a strategic change programme is a major test of the quality of governance in an organisation. With, "nipping" good projects a key test of the quality of such governance.
This sobering thought brings us to:
Let us again highlight the strategic change portfolio test -- putting on the auditor's green eye-shades for a moment:
Let us ask a few pointed questions:
- What is there in the list of attempted projects across the span of strategic goals in support of the transformational vision?
- What is/was their potential impact?
- What is their actual impact so far?
- Are there crucial gaps?
- Have these gaps been un-addressed for a long time? (How long?)
- What are the "nipped" projects that could have addressed them and what was their fate, why?
What should be done, how, why, by whom, where, when?
(And yes, that is a framework for a transformational programme of projects!)