The fine art to make impossible what is possible. (Or why many projects fail)


The fine art to make impossible what is possible.

(Or why many projects fail)

 

I know, there is always a great distance between reality and management, Sometimes it happen to me to bump into real good manager, but it is mostly an exception to the general rule, than the norm.

I would say that my personal opinion is that because nowadays management mostly is all but dealing with reality, with the prevalent culture that has moved from production to finance, we moved from the real economy to a virtual representation that does not take into account many factors because focused only on few parameters. The result is quite interesting since from one side finance make wide use of mathematics and “science” to determine the erratic behavior of usersconsumers, and at the same time in terms of management tend to consider the users (employeesconsumerspartners, human beings in general) statistic anomalies to get rid of somehow.

But somehow we have to face it every day and therefore I am still wondering how to survive this dichotomy.

I don’t want to say this is a personal problem, related to bad behavior of one specific person, is more a culturalcorporate issue, the distance between what “it is” and what we think “it is every day greater.

I experienced myself how even in front of a reality check, there is little chance to change manager’s vision of reality (they sometimes live in a sort of Diminished Reality?); like evidences slip out of sight in front of very solid, and mandatory (opportunistic? cultural?) corporate internal believes.

Alas this distorted vision of what is actually the environment is at the basic of many company activities: from setting user personal goals to transformational projects or even business projections.

This shorten sight can spread across a lot of different goals; that are set up to be reasonable in the mind of the designer and absolutely foolish in the hands of the ones called to accomplish them.

And when the reality check comes to show this is not possible (usually at the end of the goal, beside any claim done during the path), the classical answer from the goal designer (i.e. the enlighten manager) is generally that you should listen to amenities like:

  • try harder (you can’t pretend everything is set up for you, some personal, yours, sacrifice are inevitable)
  • push more (just to justify when they do not care about you until it is too late),
  • is up to you to find a solution (a variant of the genial statement: I want solutions not problems)
  • you should have told us before (a variant of the push more, where it is not even recognized you told it)

Of course nothing as reminding that if there are no resources in place the things can’t be done, if there are not figure to push (or systematically denied the access to those resources) is not possible to push, if the proposed solutions are rejected as not viable because it would state a lack of resources that is not acceptable, could make you gain the terms of eternal compliant guy (nemo propheta in patria).

 

“If all complain like you do and do nothing, at this time the company where will be?”

 

Well I would object that sometimes what you call complain is just the description of the resources needed to perform what has been required, but this is obviously not the vision of most of the managers winch have their own interpretation of resource and how to use them.

“There are problems, but is up to you to overcome that, a little sacrifice have to be done”

Well let me say something unpleasant, some tasks cannot be done even if you put them in the PBC, KPI, Business Plan or whatever, and most of the time the reason is the company itself.

How can I say this? well I can summon just 30 years of experience in the IT world just to name an example, lol :)

But there are solid reason behind all this, and those reason are the link to fail to accomplish tasks or goes down to a project.

So let me try to remind myself how a task can be fulfilled with some basic project management knowledge that (hopefully) even high level managers (take the irony here) should have.

A task (o goal) is something that should bring us from the status A to the status B

Project management - 001

This path can be performed through actions that transform things from A to B. does not actually matter if we are talking about how to make one billion dollar from scratch or to fulfill a KPI task, things goes more or less always the same here,

Those actions are usually what you put in a Gantt chart,

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The aim of the chart is to design a temporal line with owners and resources  and the relationships (at least from a temporal point of view) between all that.

The Gantt is a great tool (although not the only one) to understand if what you are thinking make sense. and should be useful not only for the ones who deals with “normal” projects, but would be in hand also to the gu designing the company strategy to lead it to rise incomes or market penetration. This is as well a transformation and therefore can be resolved in project that shape the process.

Here comes the pain

To be able to do this path we should know the initial status A, the final status B, the resources, time and steps involved in the process at the best of our knowledge.

Now the first problems come from the definition of the initial status A.

If you do not have a clear understanding (or are in open denial, as i seen so many times) of the initial status every effort could be vain, because it will be reflected on the possibility to actually perform the steps required. A fail to design the status A will Impact the complete process making harder, if not possible, to reach the required status B.

Now the problem in designing the situation in A is intrinsically related on how many information you can gather, your experience and the nature itself of A. This information gathering require to be able to design a real environment, and not the virtual usually presented.

Who is in charge of what, how to reach himherit, what is the level of commitment, what is the relationships, what are the political constrains are just a few of the thousands of questions that should be clarified, political issues are way more important if the task involve a process from A to B inside a company cross different unit.

Alas that level of information provided is, usually, is the least valid since what is presented seldom is what you actually have in place but it is a composition of the managers and stakeholders want you to know, what they believe is the truth, what it is their interest at that moment.

Let’s take, as an example, the first named:

Who is in charge?

Seems easy but this is one of the most difficult question inside a company. There are real and virtual owners of a task, most of the time who have to deal with the task itself is not the owner but work on instructions given by someone who, possibly, is the owner.

Now the problem to understand who is in charge of something is dealing with a subtle political issue: power. Identify the owner can sometimes drive “political” problem in terms of balance of powers inside the company and, as a result, this information is blurry and not easy to obtain.

The underline alternative is to look for a friendly answer from someone who knows; this not means reaching the owner but at least to have some info; the problem is how much that info adheres to reality.

Commitment

If it is difficult to find an owner for a task, it is even more difficult to evaluate its commitment. To ask someone to commit to a project require being able to be influential.

This is not always possible for several reasons: hierarchy, different groups, political issues….

We can either ask for collaboration or order for collaboration, but in both case we are not sure we will have the collaboration needed. Commitment comes from the understanding of the need, but when it is not possible to reach out the stakeholders, it is clear this commitment is hard to obtain.

In specific corporate environment it can even be a problem the communication channel; informal communication channel sometimes has to be overlapped to formal, and the kind of info can be passed through those channels are not always the same.

Just to be clear, has ever happen to you that to a formal request you received two answer one official that state “ X” and a second, by talking as a friend that inform you that actually situation is “Y”?

All that makes really hard to make a clear design of situation A for, at least, two reasons:

  • You do not have a clear vision of the situation of A because of the information gathering constrains
  • You can not report the actual status of A because it would not be accepted since it is different from the virtual status presented.

So at the moment my task is starting to become interesting, I can’t have an exact design of the status of A.

Well let’s go to the second step, defining the status B

Status B is somehow tie to the same constrains related to status A, moreover often its definition is blurry because any transformation, per se, is highly slowed by the company infrastructure for thousand of reason.

Usually B comes out from a bad compromise between what should be actually done, what it is allowed to be done without hurting any political stakeholder inside the company (be it the CEO, CFO, President, BU leader or whatever).

Again defining B becomes hard because of the same difficult reason that makes hard to define A plus the uncertain that future brings.

So is for this reason, just to make an example, that Budgets for the new years are designed to fulfill requests from stakeholders (investors, managers or whatever) and seldom based on real market status. This is not a problem when the economy is in expansion, but when we are in time of crisis….. but how many times I’ve heard:

we have to do at least x% increase this year no matter what

Of course with the same resources, and process in place.

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In literature usually all those aspect are not present, and a quite naïve way of deal with this is to say that the company and its managers are focused on the superior wellness of the company itself acting in a semi-perfect way.

Alas this is just theoretical, the truth is always different, and all players in a company are moved by different leverages due to different cultural, historical, material interests.

But turn back to my problem

I have to move from A to B and I have not a clear vision of what the starting A point and the arriving B point are.

Now comes the interesting part: to design the process I would need to determine the resource in need.

Dealing with resources is not always so easy. The resources can be present or not be present, and even if present the resources should be available, wich is another aspect.

Dealing with resources will affect time and cost of the operation. Any project, as a matter of fact depends on 3 main dimensions once determined the goals: time, resources and costs.

Those 3 dimensions that determine the project are not unrelated but are connected one to another and tied to the transformation we have to do.

project management 00

Those links are, usually, well depicted in a triangle that ties all together, where the area of each triangle give the indication of “quantity” each dimension require.

Now since we haven’t been able to exactly define the goals (due to the indeterminate status of  of A and B) we have now to face a serious problem to define the relevant dimensions.

Resources to be used in a project should be available for a certain amount (quantity and time). Some fully dedicated some partially. If those resources come from external group the utilization is subject to negotiations between the sponsors of the project and the owners of the resources in a clear measurable manner.

But due to the blurry environment previously depicted this is not always the case. The result is in some resources that are only virtually present and we should rely on their goodwill or the all to be confirmed theory that all works for the greater good…

Costs brings us a new level of uncertainty, since are related to a multitude of facts: there are costs tied to a specific task, other can be related to the necessity to use external resources, sometimes those costs are hidden and not of easy evaluation (as for the determination of the status of point A and B and the available resources).

Clearly the interdependence between the various dimensions show us that modifying one dimension impact the other two, but some levels can’t be freely modified because depends on specific needs that are external to the control of the project, this involves all, resources, timelines and the costs.

As an example, typically the real resources available are less than the virtual offered so the real situation evolve in:

project management 0

This means an increase of time and costs.

For the previously mentioned reasons that makes all blurry, this situation requires accepting higher costs or longer time-frame. Usually this is denied because it would be like admitting there has been some problems in the information gathering phase.

And of course stakeholders, sponsors and real external constrain can say this is not feasible.

So the result is even with less resource the timeline can’t be changed. Alas lowering the timeline would increase the costs but here comes the manager trick….

projectmanagement

 

It’s a kind of magic

This situation would indicate a dramatic increase of costs, but the blurry situation we depicted before just make possible to consider some of those costs as “virtual” demanding them to other instance or not controllable items.

As in the use of marketing funds to cover some activities and so on, of course without approval or consensus of Marketing and in front of historical examples that tell this is not a viable solution.

So basically the result is a situation that depicts a “hole” in the costs area to cover the reality of the situation.

Immagine2

This case the best solution would be cancels the project or redefines the goals, but this is not a politically acceptable viable solution (the blame would be on the higher level), so the result is to design a project with not enough resources, commitment and economic coverage.

We can design analogous situations on Internal resources and costs, where Virtual entity are usually well known guests.

Doomed to fail

Of course this will result in a failure, but this is not the point, the failure is on the task owner, while the manager typically will blame him for not having worked enough.

There is a great difference, from a political point of view between not making start a project or make it fail on the way. In the first case the responsibility is tied to the stakeholders and sponsors, in the second the blame will be given to the project team who has not be able to perform. so it is understandable why the second solution is the preferred ones.

The nice part is that even knowing all this often it is not possible nor to object nor to decline to work, lead, take in charge of the taskproject , and sometimes this will be used as

“you accepted it, and told was possible to do”

In this case better to comply, smile, nod and politely ask sorry, LoL

 

 

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The fine art to make impossible what is possible. (Or why many projects fail) was originally published on The Puchi Herald Magazine

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