The project management conundrum

The project management conundrum

The Magic Boomerang Returns

When I was in short pants, there was a great TV show called The Magic Boomerang. The sizzle for this show was that there was a boomerang from the Dreamtime which, when thrown, would stop time except for the person throwing it. The premise was then blatantly stolen for the film Clockstoppers, where once again teens could stop time via ‘hypertime’ watches and get up to all sorts of cheeky hi-jinks.

The Magic Boomerang has often loomed large in my mind during project post-implementation reviews, where people would invariably express disappointment with the project because of various unmet expectations.

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Certainly, you may well say that if I stopped reminiscing about 60’s television shows during meetings that I may have better results with my projects. We will take that as given. The reason these thoughts loom large in my mind, however, is because I wish I could stop time for the business people while I went off and delivered the project, releasing them from their stasis once finished, and revealing, to their astounded delight, that the project is finished and all of their expectations have been met.

Therein lies the conundrum:If only I could deal with the same people at the end of the project as I did at the start. Of course, I am still dealing with the same individuals. However, they are not the same ‘people’, in that they have had their horizons expanded by being involved with a project. How often have we heard from non-IT people who have worked on a project “I wish I knew at the start of the project what I know now”? Apart from seeing IT people in a completely different light, they have now had their horizons broadened about what is possible and what can be done. This, of course, opens the mind up to other possibilities.

The ‘war story’ I always tell project managers I work with (to the point of teary boredom) is how I managed a project where we had to put together an on-line financial calculator on a website in the space of six weeks - back in the day when this was a major undertaking and it did take this long. We shipped on time and on budget and marched in to the post-Implementation Review, well pleased with our gumption. We were almost instantly crestfallen when our project sponsor expressed his disappointment with the project - he regarded the whole thing as an abject failure.

As members of the project team sat there agog, I returned to our original project plan, with the ten success criteria we had documented. I then ticked off these success criteria with the sponsor and it was agreed that we had achieved eight of them, and one had been impossible due to technical limitations. To his credit, he realised that the project had been successful and repositioned his views. The telling comment he made was that he had made the mistake of reviewing the project with his new set of expectations; during the project he had been exposed to both the skill of the team and potential of the technology and thus had already begun to think forward and unconsciously create new expectations.

Thus we have our challenge – our industry is based around locking down specifications and pinning down changes with sometimes maniacal fierceness, yet we have still not dealt with one of the most fantastic of human capabilities: The ability to perceive possibilities.

Is there a way to effectively manage expectations? Once again, I think we can look at the entertainment industry for our answer. Basically, we start promoting the concept of a ‘sequel’. As people come up with good ideas and their expectations change, we should firstly grab hold of them, and say that they are great ideas, so let’s record them to put into the next release. This means that IT is then viewed as being open to ideas and wants to implement them, but due to a multitude of factors, they have to go into the 'project sequel'. Seeing the 'James Bond will return' at the end of the film has always filled me with anticipation – I’m sure we can do the same thing in projects.

Of course, we still have to stay grounded in our current success criteria, and focus on achieving them. With the concept of a subsequent release in mind, we can improve our ability to focus expectations, as the sequel will be dependent upon the success of the initial release. Thus we have people who are enthused, with potential ideas for the future, who are now being engaged to make the current project successful, to guarantee the next release.

I know, in the perfect world, that the business would like to get it right in just one project. However, I think in today’s environment, where software is upgraded so regularly, the business world needs to tap into the thinking that just one release won’t meet the expectations of both IT and the business. Of course, make sure that your subsequent deliveries are as good or better than the first. You want to be delivering The Wrath of Khan, not The Phantom Menace'. (Please locate your nearest nerd for a full explanation if you don’t understand this).

Chris Yates is the former CIO of Tennis Australia, where he oversaw the IT strategy for organisation and led the IT team for tournaments such as the Australian Open and Davis Cup. He has worked across various industries, including financial services, marketing and advertising.

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