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‘One weird trick’ to bring project success

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Think counter-intuitively if you want a real shot at winning.

I recently saw a tweet that said: “Get your software development [project] back on track with this one weird trick. What would your weird trick be?” It got me thinking about the Netflix series Losers, which features stories about athletes who have failed to win. In sport, failure is the norm. In a 100m sprint there are seven losers and only one winner; two losers are given consolation prizes. Full success runs at only 12.5 per cent, which is comparable to the success rate of projects.

Losers showcases people who turned what looked like inevitable success into deepest failure. It made me think about failing projects, and what it takes to turn them around. In sport, progress is usually obvious and measurable. You can see who’s ahead of you, watch the skill of a competitor or look at the scoreboard. You can see if you are turning winning into losing. Project progress is more obscure because it requires winning in two different ways at the same time.

First, the project leader needs to win on the less obvious parameters defined by the various project stakeholders. Success might be measured by how engaged they feel with your project, whether they are given a chance to be creative or if your project is keeping them safe from internal politics. Soft measures of progress such as these are subjective and can change overnight. Just a single word from you in a phone call can swing a stakeholder one way or another.

Second, the project leader needs to win on the hard measures. These relate to the project itself and not the people. Is the project moving as fast as it needs to? Is it as good as its deliverables demand? And is it cheap enough to justify the results? Each project requires a different balance of these three elements. In a project with a drop-dead date, such as an Olympics opening ceremony, being fast matters most. For a compliance project, such as avoiding massive GDPR fines, ensuring output is good dominates.

When people talk about a project being off track, they are usually referring to these three hard measures. But unlike a race, where you can glance at your opponents or keep an eye on the scoreboard, it can be difficult to know how well your project is doing against these measures.

In a large project, financial status reports are difficult to publish in real time. By the time you know you are not as cheap as you had hoped, it is too late. When it comes to deliverables, there is an opportunity to descope or rescope a project, and some agile methodologies mean the deliverables are subjective and moveable. This means there are many confusing ways to produce and measure good outputs.

Getting back on track
So, what most people mean by a project being off track is that it’s late. If you’re late, everyone else can tell that you’re losing.

In this situation, getting a project back on track is difficult because you need to think and act counter-intuitively. In your early schooling, you’d have answered a question like: if it takes one person one day to dig a hole, how long will it take three people? You answered: a third of a day. Your teacher congratulated you. Unfortunately, if you received a lesson like this, your brain is now programmed incorrectly.

Let me explain. I often see project leaders prioritising and adding extra people or resources to the immediate off-track activities in an attempt to speed things up. Yet when they discover that things have slowed down even more, they are bewildered and add even more resource to the project. What has gone wrong? In real life, things are more complex than your arithmetic homework.

The real considerations are: how big is the hole? Can all three people work on it at the same time? Does one of them have to teach the skills or explain the project to the others? Adding resource rarely works well, as your most productive people have to be taken offline to onboard the newcomers. And if you don’t take them offline, newcomers create all sorts of quality issues and errors.

Imagine you are running late for a management presentation and a colleague offers help. Do you share your laptop with them and finish off the last few slides together? No. You send them to set up the conference room and get the coffee sorted.

My ‘weird trick’
Here’s the ‘weird trick’ I teach to get a project that looks like it might be losing to becoming a winning one again (though it won’t get you back on the track you originally started on):

  • Make a shortlist of the current late tasks or activities.
  • List the downstream activities or tasks which follow from these but have not yet been started.
  • Identify which of the downstream activities can be sped up with more resources or a different approach.
  • Rank the downstream activities which can be sped up on how easy they will be.
  • Check that accelerating the future will not disrupt your key people’s current work, then plan and act immediately.

See TimeRevers here. Let me know if it works for you.

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This article originally appeared in the spring 2020 issue of Project journal, free for APM members.


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