Unrealistic Expectations

October 30, 2011

Unrealistic expectations are highly unlikely to be fulfilled. But, when a project fails to achieve the impossible it is branded a failure!

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s recent report ‘Proactive Response – How financial services firms deal with troubled projects’ highlights unrealistic goals as the most common cause of project failure in financial service firms, other causes of failure include poor alignment between project and organisational goals, the failure of the organisation to provide adequate resources and the project sponsor failing to get involved in the project sufficiently early, if at all.

15% of firms had no processes for dealing with troubled projects and 47% wait until the project has officially missed time and budget targets before taking any action despite 61% of the executives surveyed believing early action on troubled projects enables organisations to better use limited resources.

This survey reinforces many others over many years that clearly highlight executive governance failures as the primary cause of project failures. And this seems particularly true of large IT projects where a recent survey of 1500 large IT projects by the University of Oxford found one in six projects went over budget by an average of 200% or time by almost 70%. The Oxford conclusion was that many managers in charge of the projects did not have enough understanding of how to implement the technology, presumably leading to unrealistic expectations……

These findings support two conclusions; firstly, the program and portfolio management maturity levels in organisations are seriously deficient. A series of Portfolio, Program and Project Management Maturity Model (P3M3) audits of Australian government agencies with IT budgets of more than $20 million, showed scores averaging around 2 out of 5 with many lower and a trend towards portfolio management being the least effective area. These findings are similar to outcomes from OPM3 assessment I have undertaken in other types of organisation.

The second conclusion is that knowledge, insights and valuable information derived from project expertise is not being effectively communicated ‘up the ladder’ in a way that executives can understand and appreciate.

Projects are successful when the organisation realises the benefits it expected from undertaking the project. For more on the value chain see ‘Value is in the eye of the stakeholder’. To close this loop effectively, skilled project personnel including PMO staff, need to be able to communicate effectively with their organisations executives. The art of ‘advising upwards’ effectively requires skill and understanding (this is the focus of my latest book ‘Advising Upwards’), but it is also important for the whole project industry, at the association, organisation and individual levels to recognise that knowing what represents ‘good’ PPP management is only the beginning, the end game is most organisations, most of the time doing good PPP management; and this won’t happen unless the senior executive and ‘middle management’ levels of organisations understand both the processes and the benefits.

The surveys canvassed at the start of this blog suggest we still have a long way to go!

What came first the project, the project manager or PMI?

October 16, 2011

Our friend and colleague Dr. Jon Whitty’s latest paper builds on his thoughts on the evolution of project management based on the survival of the most popular or widely distributed ideas (memes) to embrace the existential concept that that meaning flows from existence (which may answer the question above).

The existential approach considers the creation of meaning and describes how meanings are derived, selected and then utilized by power entities such as governments, corporations, professional institutions, etc, to manipulate the behaviours of individuals for their own political advantage.

The evolutionary approach (discussed in Jon’s earlier work) considers how various concepts change under selection pressures driven by the preferences expressed by people in the social, cultural, and physical environment so that those that have a selection advantage, usually features that appear to provide benefits, prevail.

However, does treating or seeing projects as real things that have defined meaning help us understand what is involved in managing work as a project? To find out see Jon’s presentation at the recent IPMA congress in Brisbane on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/DrJonathanWhitty

Jon is also a Chapter Author in my latest book, Advising Upwards; as always Jon’s approach is thought provoking and challenges conventional assumptions.

Defining Complex Projects

October 8, 2011

There has been a lot written about ‘complex project management’ over the last few years much of which as confused projects with programs, complexity with big and complexity with complicated technology. For an overview of complexity theory see: A Simple View of ‘Complexity’ in Project Management.

A sentence in the paper ‘Translation and Convergence in Projects: An Organisational Perspective on Project Success’ (Project Management Journal, Sept.2011) triggered this post and sums up project complexity nicely: “The key difficulty with complex projects is that those managing them will often be ‘feeling their way’ towards a solution rather then following a reliable blueprint or project plan”.

Our view has consistently been that complexity is a function of complexity theory and it is a dimension of every project and program. This means every project has a degree of complexity in the same way that it has a defined size, a degree of technical difficulty and a degree of uncertainty, and all 4 dimensions interact and affect each other.  These four dimensions are discussed in the White Paper at: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1072_Project_Size.pdf.

What the thought from the paper above highlighted is the very close linkage between complexity which we see as being primarily a function of the project’s stakeholder community and the degree of uncertainty associated with the project outcome. The blog post, Projects aren’t projects – Typology outlines one way of measuring uncertainty based on a model by Eddie Obeng.

I’m not sure how to measure this empirically yet, but I do have a feeling there is a need to define a measurement system that incorporates the type of uncertainty within the overall matrix of stakeholder engagement and supportiveness already embedded in the Stakeholder Circle® methodology  – any thoughts will be appreciated.

The rise of Stakeholders

October 2, 2011

Google have released a fascinating tool to analyse the data in some 5 million books scanned as part of their ‘Google Books’ project.

There have been some 129 million books published since the invention of printing, so-far Google have scanned 15 million of these and the researchers have selected 5 million books that have a sufficient level of quality to be useful. The information in these books has been digitised and the contents made accessible as data through the Google Ngram Viewer (see: http://books.google.com/ngrams/). The tool effectively maps the rise of social phenomena by plotting the number of times a work or phrase is used in books published in any particular year. To compensate for the growth in the number of books published year-on-year, the data is normalised. For more on this see: http://www.ted.com/talks/what_we_learned_from_5_million_books.html

Using the Ngram Viewer, the rise of ‘Stakeholders’ from a pure legal/gambling term (the neutral party who holds the ‘stakes’ during a game of chance or similar) to its current status is amazing. Pre 1970 there is a continual low-level reference primarily in legal books dealing with disputes over various ‘stakes’. Through the 1980s the focus shifted to corporate stakeholders (ie, shareholders and others). From the 1990s on the term has had an increasingly wider use.

The Stakeholder Ngram Plot

It is fascinating to see this data supporting the analysis of the history of stakeholders contained in my first book Stakeholder Relationship Management: A Maturity Model for Organisational Implementation (soon to be in its 2nd Edition – see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Book_Sales.html#Book_Bourne)

I have a feeling the Google Ngram Viewer will become an increasingly useful research tool, particularly as the raw data can be downloaded for independent analysis.


October 1, 2011

Experience is that marvellous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it for the second time and fortunately we all have a wonderful capability for accruing experience! It is almost impossible to do anything new without the probability of mistakes occurring.

A mistake is an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by insufficient knowledge, poor reasoning, carelessness or a misunderstanding or misconception. Examples include forgetting our passwords; eating more food because it is served in a bigger bowl and overpaying for gym memberships and phone plans.

We all tend to:

    • Look but not always see: when we look at something we think we see all there is to see, but we don’t. The eye’s area of clear vision is a cone of about 2 degrees – the size of a 5 cent coin (or quarter) at normal viewing distances.
    • We connect dots we don’t know we’re connecting, the sub-conscious mind does this for us based on preconceptions and stereotypes!
    • We wear rose-colored glasses and/or think the grass looks greener – our innate biases drive us to these errors (for more on ‘bias’ see: WP 1069 – The innate effect of Bias).
    • We are really terrible at really appreciating probability, perspective, size and shape – if you don’t believe these two table tops are the same size go to: http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/sze_shepardTables/index.html.

Shepard's Parallelogram Illusion

    From a stakeholder management perspective, the challenge is not eliminating mistakes – this is impossible, rather designing systems and processes in a way that will minimise unnecessary mistakes and accepting there will always be others that will require managing.

We can minimise mistakes by being aware we make them and avoiding the known traps and pitfalls. Joseph T. Hallinan’s book, Why We Make Mistakes is a good starting point.

Another impossible image by Roger Shepard

Dealing with the mistakes that occur requires acknowledgement of the error and appropriate actions to rectify the mistake. This applies equally to you, your team members and other stakeholders. The biggest mistake is expecting perfection (ie, the absence of mistakes)! The second biggest is failing to acknowledge a mistake once it has happened; as Confucius said “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.”

So the next time the wheels fall off your project because someone made a mistake, rather than blaming the person, recognise mistakes are normal and be prepared to deal with ‘normality’.