This Project Management Joke Is Often Reality

iStock_000025870318XSmallThere’s a joke that’s made its way around the interwebs over the years that outlines what many consider to be the “real” phases of project management, and it goes like this:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic and hysteria
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honor for the nonparticipants

Unfortunately, while formal professional project managers would certainly hope to avoid projects that go like this, many project do take this calamitous route.  Here, I’m going to explain the thinking that results in these kinds of issues and provide some tips for avoiding certain project doom.

Enthusiasm

Many new initiatives begin life as just a spark of an idea and then grow to become full-fledged projects inside the organization.  From there, these projects are attacked with aplomb as the organization strives to capitalize on the project’s intended outcomes.  It’s here that the critical groundwork must be laid in order for a project to actually come to fruition rather than join the pile of failures.

First and foremost, projects must be exhaustingly vetted against the organization’s goals to make sure that the outcomes truly align with strategic goals.  Good ideas can always arise, but if they don’t match the mission, they can become a distraction.

Second, the organization must ensure that the resources necessary to accomplish the project’s goals are available and affordable.  This requires a comprehensive return on investment study for the project.  It also means that those departments holding members of the project team must be prepared to allow those individuals to participate in the execution of the project.  I’ve, unfortunately, personally been in situations in which people’s participation was promised, but when it came time to execute, those individuals were not released.  Such circumstances make it extremely difficult to meet key deadlines.  As such, the executives in charge of each source department must be held accountable for their department’s involvement in the project.

Finally, there needs to be a real plan.  It’s easy to sit down and start working on something, but in a team environment, that work needs to be coordinated by a project manager that has overarching responsibility for hitting project deadlines and meeting deliverable dates.  This project manager must take everyone’s feedback and concerns into account in planning.

Now, with the need identified, resources allocated, executives’ feet held to the fire, and a real plan, the project can commence.  If the project is well planned and everyone meets their commitments and has the necessary skills to succeed, then they remainder of these phases can be avoided.

Disillusionment

At the beginning of a project, there is a lot of excitement as people dream of the outcomes that can be achieved.  As time goes on, though, and people start to get into the thick of actually delivering on the promises made, positive outcomes can sometimes begin to look a bit less possible.  Even in the most well-managed projects, this can happen and it’s a pretty natural thing, particularly for long and complex projects.

At this point, it’s really easy to see people start to slack off as their become skeptical about the project’s outcomes.  This might take the form of increased levels of stress, more absenteeism, a reluctance to work on project work as opposed to normal work, etc.

For projects, this is the first of three places where the project can simply fail.  If enough people begin to wonder about whether or not the project can succeed, support for the project may wane and it could be simply cancelled.  It’s here where strong project managers are needed to keep people on task and it’s vital that project milestones be met.  In addition, project managers and project sponsors need to step up the level of communication in this phase to demonstrate that activity continues and that goals are being met.  Of course, if goals are being missed…

Panic and hysteria

…then panic and hysteria may set in.  This is especially true if a project is going very poorly.  This phase often comes after massive resources have been sunk into the project and it’s here where some facts may come to light:

  • People haven’t followed through on resource or time commitments.  This is more common than many may believe.
  • The skill sets for the people involved may not be sufficient to complete the full project.
  • The project schedule was poorly planned from the beginning.

Now, the organization has to make a choice.  Does the project continue or doesn’t it?  If the original goals are still attainable and desired, the project should move ahead.  However, if, after reviewing project status and comparing against any additional resources that may be needed to bring the project back n track, the organization decides it’s not worth it, the project may simply be cancelled here.

Search for the guilty

Whether or not the project moves ahead, someone may be asked to pay the price.  If the project was exceptionally poorly planned or managed, the project manager may be the guilty one.  If the project couldn’t move forward because other teams refused to release their people – who were project participants – leaders of those teams may be blamed.

Here, though, expect a whole lot of finger pointing and don’t expect that there will be any easy answers.  Often, while it may look as if a single individual dropped the ball, there is more than enough blame to go around.

If the project is going forward, it’s here where project leaders and members will probably be replaced, though doing so may not always be in the organization’s best interests.  After all, the original project team members are probably best equipped to answer project questions, so be careful about who you decide to replace.

Punishment of the innocent

If the identified guilty parties enjoy enough status in the organization, expect “trickle down” blame to occur, even for those that had no part in a project failing.  Further, anyone associated with the project will retain the “taint” of that project going off the rails.  It can be difficult to overcome.

I recommend that project participants maintain excellent notes for their involvement in projects, particularly if they are on multiple projects at the same time.  If they were simply asked to do too much too soon and had raised appropriate concerns about being spread too thin, it could help in the long run.

Praise and honor for the nonparticipants

After a long slog, the project is finally finished, even though it hit some speed bumps along the way or might have even taken a completely wrong route once or twice.  With the project now in place and enhancing the organization, the original project sponsor will receive praise for his forward thinking idea, even if the entirety of his actual contribution was authorizing the project.  Yes, this happens a lot and it’s really quite unfortunate.

In a good organization, everyone that contributed to a project’s ultimate success will be recognized for the achievement and the project sponsor will make sure that this happens.  After all, these are the people that will be asked to step up and work on the next big thing, so their morale is important.  And, it’s the right thing to do.

Summary

Of course, no one wants projects to go poorly.  However, so many have gone poorly that this project joke was created and makes the rounds on a regular basis.  It is, unfortunately, standard operating procedures for organizations without formal project management skills or those that choose to under-resource critical projects.

  • Eliot Axelrod

    That joke dates back to at least the 1970′s (which I guess means I do as well), long before there was a web of any kind.

  • The Spark

    But isn’t it so true?

  • The Spark

    The only projects that I have been on that weren’t like this were Agile.

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