Recently, I chaired an event run by Warwick Business School at the Shard where we had three excellent speakers address an audience of about 90 from the management consultancy sector, on the subject of why projects fail.
Earlier this month, IndigoBlue hosted one of our series of breakfast briefings for the not-for-profit (NFP) sector, and the subject was also 'Why Projects Fail', where we looked at the contributing factors that lead to technology projects underperforming. In November, I will be speaking at the 2015 Memberwise Harnessing the Web conference. The topic is similar, though focused not on why things fail or underperform but rather on how to avoid ending up in an unsatisfactory position. So, there is clearly a theme emerging!
When I speak at the Memberwise conference, I propose to reflect on the things that I and IndigoBlue have observed and experienced across in excess of 100 such projects in and beyond the NFP sector. This approach is preferred as opposed to taking an evangelical position on factors such as methodology, technology and other such things.
I thought one of the interesting examples presented at the Warwick Business School event came via a former US Marine, who now works for a leading Lean Consultancy. He was tasked with managing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by a deadline set by the US President. This is of course not your typical project and whilst all projects have degrees of risk and uncertainty, this one in particular is on a grand scale and of course both public and controversial.
All the usual processes and artefacts associated with a logistical project of this type were in place and progressing, when an unexpected event occurred: the volcanic eruption over Iceland. This had the effect of closing the airspace through which the majority of troops were to be flown back to the US. Apparently, going back to the project sponsor (President Obama) to request a revised delivery date was not an option.
What transpired involved a face-saving "redefinition of done" – the brief was to get the troops out of Iraq, the assumption up until the volcanic eruption was that that meant get them back to the US. As this was clearly not possible, they replanned to delivery and drove the majority of the troops over the border and into Kuwait.
I think the message the speaker conveyed was, planning is good, but things will happen and you must be ready to deal with the change. I would describe this as managing uncertainty and responding to change over following a plan.
The question then needs to be asked, just how much planning is necessary – comprehensive "no stone left unturned" sort of stuff, or adequate. The very real fact that unknown things will happen leads me to conclude that there is no point whatsoever trying to define and know everything before you start, it is in fact dangerous (and costly) as unknowns are assigned solutions via assumptions, and often over the passage of time, assumptions are ignored and not tested or managed.
Therefore the level of planning necessary to start a project should be adequate to allow one to start with a reasonable degree of confidence that progress will be made, alongside a robust and well understood process to deal with change and manage uncertainty.
Get in touch if you would like to discuss with us how best to manage uncertainty on your projects and programmes.