High Cost of Success

March 26, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Project management, Quality 

In all kinds of projects, despite all the theory behind project management best-practices or ‘branded’ methodologies or lifecycles, I would say that the majority of projects get done with more than a little ‘seat-of-the-pants’ effort. In construction circles you will see ‘as built’ notations on the drawings, in many projects you will see a lot of scurrying, sprinkled with some long hours, and a dash or so of frayed nerves. The project gets done, we declare success, but at what cost?

That old Iron Triangle is now commonly recognized to be incomplete. I knew decades ago that it was incomplete in technology projects, seeing first-hand the concessions made that degrade the quality of the system, as well as the cost of human capital when the team is run too hard. Even in the times of the Pony Express, they understood that it made sense to change horses every 10 miles or so.

Almost every project is in danger of delivering late right out of the gate. Schedule and budget constraints are easily the most visible and tangible issues on most projects, so their focus is front-and-centre. In even the most advanced project management training programs, because of the emphasis on planning techniques that are based on schedule and resources and budget, success is primarily measured as on-time and on-budget. One of the more enlightened things to come out of agility is the concept of success based on value delivered, but even that gets overwhelmed by other noise much of the time.

Schedule and budget! Schedule and budget! That’s the bottom line, even if our original intent is other stuff. That’s what we need to update our project schedules, so that’s what we ask for with updates.

As we are often tightly constrained in both of these areas, with some exceptions, we start the dysfunction dance of taking the stuff we know we have to do, and subdividing it to fit into our constraints. If we have x things to do in y time, we’ll arbitrarily allocate y/x time for each one, even if history tells us that we’ve never managed to do these things that fast. Then we run like hell, ’cause we know we’re missing some things.

Getting handed targets does nothing to engender buy-in, so the people doing the work will do their best under the circumstances. Those targets will rarely be achieved, and it is the doer that gets into trouble for not meeting the goals, as there is rarely a discussion of alternative approaches, and rarely the understanding for the need for trying to come up with an achievable approach that people have bought into.

People push hard (and are pushed hard), tempers flare, accusations fly (just like in past projects), and something is going to have to give, even of the project somehow gets done on time. Is it the quality of the product? Is it the relationships and sustainability in the team?

Many organizations follow this same dance project after project. Project ‘soft costs’ become organizational costs. A lot of this pressure will drive people to look elsewhere, and staff turnover will go up. Product quality will suffer, though this might not be visible, as the organization will probably have a long-standing bow-wave of historical quality problems. There will be issues from customers, and sometimes more enlightened competitors will start eating away at market share.

And in most of these places, the blame falls on the team members that are trying to get the job done despite all the pressures that are put on them. Turnover will be rationalized as an opportunity to get better people into the organization, and they may even be better for a while, until those pressures start to wear them down as well. Customers are seen as being difficult to work with. Fingers point down in the org-chart and outside the organization, rarely where they should be.

As leaders, it is critical to think of where the real costs lie on projects, and what your contribution to those costs might be. Is it worth pushing so hard to get projects done to these timelines? Does pushing hard really help get more done? Are you getting the quality you need, and are the people doing the work happy and productive? More importantly, what is that you can do, as the owner/sponsor/project manager, differently to mitigate these costs.

These issues are not risks that might occur on projects that are run in this way. They are the high costs of apparent success. – JB


One Response to “High Cost of Success”

  1. Linda Webster on March 28th, 2010 2:12 pm

    Great post, Jim. It’s shocking the number of project managers who think the appearance of authority and application of bullying techniques are good substitutes for real Leadership. It’s also shocking how many people will hire the contractor based solely on price, only to find out that the project is more expensive in the end than if they’d gone with a higher-priced but more effective contractor.

    I get that the pressure is on to meet time and budget constraints, but a good experienced contractor has a good feel for how much a typical project exceeds initial estimates and builds that in. A reputable contractor who delivers a quality product within reasonable range of the time and budget quoted will win in the longer term, regardless of pricing. The key is in knowing what projects can be handled given the resources available, not seeking to exceed those capabilities, and then treating the team members with professionalism and respect.

    Ultimately, the buck stops at the team leader. As a client, I would be very nervous if I saw a team with high turnover, because either it means the leader doesn’t know how to find good people, or doesn’t know how to keep them. Either way, I’d question the leader’s judgement and ability to deliver a quality product. But if I knew a contractor had team members who had been there a long time, I’d know they had a good process and rapport in place, and would likely work faster and better, like a well-oiled machine.

    As a project manager, I believe strongly in working with my team members as the people they are, not just assets to be utilized to achieve a goal. They are my peers (and, more often, my betters), and I know it’s a mistake to think I can “master” them. So my job is to find how best to motivate them to get their buy-in without engendering resentment. It’s not easy, but pays off in the long-run, I believe.

    But I’m still new at this, so only time will tell if I’m right! 😉

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