Failing to fear is more important than fearing to fail

The popular TV show Fear Factor has nothing on Corporate America. Forget plunging your face into bins of slime, snacking on bugs and jumping off speeding trucks. If you want to experience real fear, try saying “no” to a room full of executives, department heads, impatient users or snarling developers. Better yet, try challenging the assumptions underlying the CEO’s pet project for transforming aspects of the company’s business.

A daunting exercise under the best of circumstances, these actions rank among the most powerful tools in a project manager’s arsenal. It might come as a surprise to those who equate project managers with highly extroverted cheerleaders, but among the most critical skills lacking in project management today are the ability to say “no,” and the willingness to be a naysayer.

No, this isn’t about spreading negativity or being difficult. And if done in an appropriate manner in a supportive setting, it won’t lead to political suicide.

All the hallmarks of project management planning and oversight still apply, but according to Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management (CPM) in San Ramon, Calif., the starting point for any successful project is doubt and interrogation, not gung-ho or even blind enthusiasm. Indeed, many failed projects can be traced back to half-baked ideas posited by C-level managers that become bonifide undertakings due to what Kapur calls 'unintelligent obedience.'

'Because big ideas come from big people, no one questions the viability and the risk,' Kapur explains. Alternatively, projects can be torpedoed by 'malicious compliance,' which occurs when line staff know the idea is unworkable, but go along with it to save their own skins. To get around this, Kapur urges team members to practice 'intelligent disobedience,' a practice taught to guide dogs for the blind. This is where team members resist bad ideas and are encouraged to ask negative questions to unearth problems to come. For this to happen, the corporate culture has to be open to critique. And this has to come from the top down.

This support is vital because the best project plans kick off by questioning the very need for the project under discussion. Few companies take this step, as evidenced by the results of a survey of 198 attendees conducted by CPM at Comdex 2003 a year ago. Only 5% of those surveyed said they routinely attempt to separate half-baked ideas from viable projects.

Once the project has faced the reality test, it has to keep passing it at stages throughout the life of the project. This is especially critical with long-term projects, given the changes that can occur internally and externally in a project over a several-year timeframe. Ford’s Everest, for example, was conceived during the height of the dot-com hype under the leadership of then-CEO Jacques Nasser, a man determined to exploit the Web for competitive gain. However, as the dot-com bubble burst, technology advanced, Nasser was ousted and Ford’s leadership realigned, it was important for the Everest project managers to continually question and reassess the assumptions and strategy behind the project.

This process works hand-in-hand with, and is made easier by, determining the parameters for failure up front. The CPM found that 53% of sponsors rarely define and communicate to their managers the shutdown conditions for projects. Another 31% reported that they “sometimes” did this. Yet knowing where the lines have been drawn in the sand can help project managers to create the proper alerts, provide guidance if the project starts to slip, and even a process by which the project can be responsibly and safely shut down.

Among the questions team members need to ask at this point: At what point will we shut this project down? When it’s more than six months late? More than $5 million over budget? If the pilot returns less than X amount of ROI? If sponsorship changes? Under what conditions does this project become a luxury or even obsolete? What happens if industry support tilts toward a competing standard or approach? It is critical to answer these questions first and to keep referring to the answers with each status report, project update and changing of the guard at any level.

Having established the test for failure, planners can now focus on the strategy for success. Here, too, are some surprises, and a heads up in particular for IT folks charged with project management.

Larry Sisemore, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based management consultant at PM Solutions, divides project management into two parts: science (technical and planning skills) and art (people skills, communication and negotiation). The bigger the project, “the more skills required on the art side,” he says.

Sisemore believes good project managers are born. 'It’s rare for tech people to be good project managers -- people who are analytical or who are introverts tend not to have the social skills the art side needs to lead a group of people on a project,' he explains.

Margo Visitacion, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, offers a slightly different view. 'A decent project team will understand the technology, but a smart project manager looks to remove restraints and let the team do what it needs to do,' she said. Often, what happens in IT is that after successfully handling two-, three- or four-month projects, it is suddenly handed a multiyear program with the responsibility for execution, but not the authority to make it happen.

Few analysts seem to hold out much hope for IT types excelling at the art side. Although IT can succeed on the science issues, the overall project management in large projects has to come from the business and art side, agree PM Solution’s Sisemore and CPM’s Kapur.

Please see the following related stories:
Oops! Ford and Oracle mega-software project crumblesby Patricia Keefe
Planning for success by planning for failure by Patricia Keefe

About the Author

Patricia Keefe is a veteran journalist who has covered IT for more than 20 years.