A few years ago, a senior manager called me. “We have a project in trouble. We started off hopeful, but now it looks impossible.” I asked a few questions, and discovered they had never done a project like this before. It was bigger, in a different language, on a new platform, with a shorter schedule. No, they hadn’t arranged for any training (for anyone), but they were hoping they could complete the project. After all the entire fortunes of the company were riding on it.
I wish I could tell you this was an isolated circumstance. But all over the world, there are projects right now where “We hope we can” is the mantra of the day.
I’m a pragmatic realist. I do understand that many times organizations and people undertake projects where they really don’t know enough to know how to pull off this project. In that case, the PM has some obligations:
- Recognize and write down where you have risks. You may have technical risks (new language, new platform), schedule risks (shorter schedule), or most likely, both.
- Choose any lifecycle other than waterfall. If you’ve never done anything technical like this before, iterate on some prototypes, or iterate on a few features, to see where your work takes you.
- Consider a Hudson Bay start” to see if you can make anything. A Hudson Bay Start will show you what you’re hoping for (those unknown risks that get up and bite you in the leg).
- Make sure people have the technical functional skills and solution-space domain expertise. If necessary, train people. It’s cheaper to train everyone on the project in a new language than waste time.
- Plan to iterate on everything, especially your planning and scheduling.
- Ask for help from the project staff on making status visible and easily updated.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from other people. You’ve never done this before, don’t think you can somehow know everything you need to in time to do the project enough good.
- Even if management or your sponsors don’t want management reviews, you hold them. I like developing lots of milestone criteria, as well as release criteria.
I hope for lots of things, and most of the time nothing happens, unless I work to make it happen. Same thing with projects. Hoping for a good outcome is not enough. Planning, seeing where you are, and updating the plan — that’s what makes project success possible.
Johanna Rothman consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. Johanna is the author of Manage It!’Your Guide to Modern Pragmatic Project Management’. She is the coauthor of the pragmatic Behind Closed Doors, Secrets of Great Management, and author of the highly acclaimed Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People. And, Johanna is a host and session leader at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) conference (http://www.ayeconference.com). You can see Johanna’s other writings at http://www.jrothman.com.