By Craig Covello, PMP

I think it’s fair to say that most project participants are interested in doing a good job. Money is certainly a motivational factor, but many of us also value the concepts of personal integrity, commitment and reputation. We want to do the right things and we want the project to be successful. Recognition for a job well done is also its own reward.

So sometimes project participants adopt an unrealistic and overly optimistic view of reality when circumstances suggest otherwise. The term “whatever it takes” comes to mind. It’s a cliché that continues to be embraced by some in the corporate culture despite the fact that this attitude has the power to sink projects, damage reputations and waste money. And you don’t have to accept it.

Here’s a case in point: I have the privilege of managing several health care innovation projects for my employer. Most are pilot efforts with budgets under $100,000 and project time lines between six and nine months. As such, they’re not terribly complicated, but admittedly they do have a tremendous amount of visibility across the organization. Some might interpret that visibility as a reason to do “whatever it takes”. NASA’s retired Apollo flight director Gene Kranz reinforced that philosophy with his famous statement “failure is not an option”. While that is certainly true when bringing astronauts back from the moon, it doesn’t necessarily apply to pilot projects. The point of a pilot is to spend a minimal amount of money in order to validate a concept or idea.

Not everyone may agree with this thinking. Recently I was working with a “pilot innovator” who developed an original idea. He was given funding in exchange for defining implementation details, general time lines and success criteria. Unfortunately, his vision did not reflect reality. All the warning signs were there.

  • Unrealistic time lines.
  • Scope that went above and beyond the definitions used to fund this project.
  • No alternate plan to mitigate problems that manifest themselves in virtually every project.

As project manager, I had the responsibility of addressing all these issues during the planning phase. We came up with reasonable compromises before moving forward. But again, more warning signs began to appear during project execution.

  • The innovator continued to work on activities which reflected the original and unrealistic scope.
  • He avoided reporting problems encountered, preferring instead to work extended hours without asking myself or the other 8 members for assistance.
  • He begin missing scheduled team meetings, which further impeded the project’s progress and assessments.

So it was time for some “tough love”. I had a one-on-one meeting with this individual and presented my concerns rather candidly in order to realign expectations. And it worked. Several additional issues were uncovered and I was able to offer solutions which took a tremendous amount of stress off his shoulders. As a result, he was very appreciative of my direct approach. The project sponsors also expressed their gratitude.

Here’s the point. There is a natural tendency for us to avoid conflict, but as a project manager, conflict should be addressed and resolved as early as possible. These are some guidelines I’ve adopted:

  • Preface all concerns or criticisms with the understanding that they are related to the project, not the individual. Don’t make it personal.
  • Be honest with your assessments. This should not be difficult if expressed in the context of the project, not the person.
  • Always offer a solution to mitigate your criticism or concern. There is always a plan B.
  • As Ronald Reagan once said, “trust but verify”. Don’t be passive when collecting status information. Ask questions and get details in order to understand the true situation.
  • Try to meet with the entire team face-to-face once or twice during the project. Virtual “WebEx” meetings are sometimes more efficient, but meeting face-to-face may help to establish comfort, trust and honesty between project participants. This is one of the lessons learned in Bruce Beer’s article, Virtual Teams and PMOs – The European Experience.
  • Recommend terminating the project as early as possible if it appears that there is little chance of success due to circumstances beyond your control. If plan B, or even plan C cannot be executed, this is no point in wasting additional money and resources hoping things will get better.

The bottom line? Failure is sometimes an option, unless of course, you’re bringing astronauts back from the moon.

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