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A Musing on Project Progress: Killing False Confidence
By Thomas Cutting

You leave for your flight well ahead of schedule. Traffic is light and you arrive, unhurried, at the airport. Strolling up to the counter you secretly laugh at the frantic people running toward the crowded ticket line or scanning the flickering departure screens in panic. Being the saint that you are, you even let a mother with a screaming child ahead of you in line, silently praying they are not on your flight.

The kiosk attendant signals you forward and you confidently hand him your ticket. Reading his tag you smile and say, “Good morning, William.” He glances at the ticket and looks quizzically at you then rechecks the document before calling over a manager. As she scans the paper you catch William staring at you with a smirk on his face but he quickly turns away.

“Sir,” the manager says, “were you aware that this ticket was for yesterday?” Your sense of confidence is proven false…and your day was going so well. Fortunately, William is to busy helping the next customer to notice the dumb look on your face.

Call it paranoia, but every time I get a strong surge of confidence I get nervous. It seems that no matter how many times I verify project progress something ugly always rears its head to ruin my day, like when:

  • The vendor promised a strong replacement project manager for a very client intensive project. During the turnover meeting the clueless look on his face caused a bit of doubt. Upon questioning, he admitted to never having managed a project before; never receiving project management training; and wasn’t told that his new role would include project management.
  • The team developing the backend interface has been “on schedule” for testing for weeks. At every status meeting they re-state that they will be ready by 6/28. On 6/28 they proudly announce that they have completed the interface…design.
  • The support team has confirmed that backups are being performed nightly. They have even told the project manager to stop repeatedly asking such a stupid question. After all, they are professionals and know what they are doing. A month after going live the system fails. No problem. The tapes are recalled to perform a restore only to discover that the backups never completed successfully.

How do you keep from being lulled into a false sense of confidence? I suggest you K.I.L.L. it:

Keep changing the questions. The project manager dealing with the “professional” support team asked to the point of irritation if the backups were being performed. She needed other questions that may have produced a different answer. “Who is performing the backups?” “When do they complete?” “How many tapes are involved?” “How long is it taking?”

For the interface problem, a simple “What will be ready by 6/28?” may have uncovered a serious problem.

Even though it was a fixed bid project, asking for the replacement project manager’s resume would have saved time and effort.

Insist on evidence. To ensure the project stays on schedule you need facts, not promises. One of those facts is actual time spent and estimates to complete from the people performing the work. Minimally this can be collected at the activity level but preferably by task. This exposes trends before they become trouble.

Have the support team show run times and completion codes of successful executions. Check with end users to ensure successful processing. Go check the online system yourself to verify that the changes were implemented.

Listen to what is not said. As you begin changing your questions and insisting on evidence there may be long pauses or blurted out excuses. Usually what is left out is as important as what is said. Begin by saying “So, what I am hearing is…” and restate what they said. Then follow up with “Can you confirm then that you…” to clarify what you didn’t hear them say.

“We will replace the current PM with another one” should have solicited “Can you confirm that the PM will have equal or more experience?”

For the errant development manager, reiterate that he said, “The code will be unit tested and turned over to the development environment by 6/28.”

Learn from previous mistakes. The saying “once bitten, twice shy” applies to both your mistakes and other project managers’ lessons learned. Review the results from similar projects and ask other project managers about the team members you inherit.

Informed optimism is far more reliable than false confidence. Keep checking the details and you won’t miss your flight.

Thomas Cutting, PMP is the owner of Cutting’s Edge (http://www.cuttingsedge.com/) and is a speaker, writer, trainer and mentor. He offers nearly random Project Management insights from a very diverse background that covers entertainment, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and automotive verticals. He delivers real world, practical lessons learned with a twist of humor. Thomas has spoken at PMI and PSQT Conferences and is a regular contributor to several Project Management sites. He has a blog at (http://cuttingsedgepm.blogspot.com).

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