Our projects would end better if we accepted the fundamental fuzziness in their beginnings.
Projects often end badly. They go out with a skyful of fireworks, finger-pointing and blame. Why doesn’t the site perform adequately? Where’s all the functionality we expected? Where has all the time, and budget, gone?
Some people say this is because we start projects so poorly.
Product and service development is all about risk. We take on a range of market, design and technical risks in order to gain rewards – new products, better conversion rates, increased market share, improved margins, etc.
Sometimes, however, the risks win. Projects fail for a whole host of reasons: our aspirations run ahead of the technology; we fail to find a commercially feasible solution to design challenges; our competition beats us to the punch. The list is almost endless.
And too many items on that list are entirely manageable. Poor internal communication. Ill-defined scope. Failure to engage key stakeholders. Unrealistic estimates. The project management literature has been calling out such risks for decades.
We know how to solve these problems. We just don’t do it.
That’s the real failure on many of our projects: we fail to see and manage the basic stuff.
Project 'failure' is political. It’s about power. People with power get to define budgets and deadlines, to approve specifications, to assign teams. Thus they define the boundary between success and failure. Go outside the boundary, and your project fails.
The problem with politics is that it fuzzes our vision. We tend to see what we want to see rather than what’s really going on. That means we miss the early signs of failure.
And that, of course, increases the risk of catastrophic failure. If you spot the early warning signs, you have time to fix things before they become critical, before problems propagate. Miss those signs, and you sail blithely across the boundary of failure, never to return.
So it’d be nice to have some clear indicators that my project is heading into trouble. I can’t give you a magic formula, but here are some of the signs that make me nervous:
Insurance premiums are a source of information: they tell us a lot about the real risk level attached to an activity.
What’s the difference between a project and a bungee jump?
They’re both a leap into the unknown. But at least you can get insurance for the bungee jump.