Project Management: From Red Lights to Green Lights

How many books have been published and classes taught on project management? Yet, we have too many projects that are “Red”, “Pink”, or “Yellow” rather than the “Green Light” projects and products we celebrate.

 

  • A city in Michigan switches from one water supply to another and experiences elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. If crimes were committed, they weren’t the root cause of the mess, and an exclusive focus on legal remedies won’t prevent messes like this from occurring again.
  • On a high profile facility project where the designers/constructors were capable organizations with good reputations, the cost escalates to where the project has to be suspended and a political tsunami occurs.
  • Many projects, like the California rail project, using early-stage estimates to set budgets, with many unknowns and important decisions still to be made, end up costing 50% more than originally estimated, or 2-3 times as much.

 

Reading and listening to the news, these aren’t rare occurrences. Must we accept such outcomes now and then—bad luck, bad karma, once in a lifetime “asteroid strikes”?

 

Some would like to reduce project management to a mechanical exercise, good software, the right reports, but good PM is also an art, especially in relation to communications, and it requires virtue: prudence, humility, and perseverance. Focusing exclusively on reports and software may make you a better PM, but not a great one. My experience managing many projects, conducting hundreds of pre, mid, and post-project face to face customer interviews, conducting hundreds of project audits with project managers, and hearing plenty from project team members who have experienced too many troubled projects, suggests measures that can significantly reduce the number of “Red Light” projects.

 

ISO certification and Ford Q1 taught us that some ISO procedures produce little if any practical benefit, many produce some benefit some of the time, and a few are high impact. These highest impact processes are where we applied most of our energy, where I focused on my own projects, and when training, coaching, and auditing project managers. Yes, these high impact processes take effort, but organizations find the time to clean up “Red Light” projects, so why not invest a fraction of the time to prevent these messes? I’m convinced a one-day What Could Go Wrong session with the right water expert could have prevented the Flint heartbreak and subsequent remediation/legal costs.

 

Excellent project management is a differentiator, just as a great quarterback is a differentiator. I’ve conducted project completion interviews with satisfied customers on projects I knew had experienced problems. Conversely, I’ve interviewed customers who were less than satisfied than I’d expected on projects with very few technical/delivery problems—project management was the difference.

 

What is necessary to get to “Green Light” projects and products (consistently superior outcomes) rather than “Yellow Light” (superior outcomes mixed with mediocre outcomes), “Pink Light” (consistently mediocre outcomes), and “Red Light” (too many bad outcomes)?

 

  • Work Definition that is as clear to all parties as possible, including identifying Work Not Included. This means thinking expansively about the project/product, asking What Could Go Wrong, what aren’t we considering. In our rush to get the work underway, we often shortchange the probing questions that can make a big difference. Without clear definition, the project manager is vulnerable to all kinds of project twists and turns and the customer won’t know, or will misunderstand, what to expect.
  • A documented face to face pre-project Customer Interview to confirm expectations, as well as outcomes the customer cannot accept, to resolve discrepancies between expectations and the contracted work before the project proceeds, with mid-project interviews on longer duration projects to identify essential adjustments, and a project completion interview to measure performance and identify systemic issues. I have done hundreds of these interviews and every one has produced something we hadn’t expected or considered.
  • A concise Project Work Plan (Roadmap) that includes more than just the contracted work definition, addressing risk (What Could Go Wrong—see Michigan lead mess), measures to eliminate or mitigate risks, project communications, team budgets that may be different than anticipated in the proposal, when quality reviews will occur and by whom. 2-4 pages rather than a thesis. For early-stage cost estimates, risk can be mitigated by providing a cost range with a best estimate within this range rather than one number packed with assumptions and contingencies. This approach frames the degree of risk and allows the customer to participate in establishing risk tolerance. An organic Roadmap that changes when the project changes so the project manager and team have a common understanding of responsibilities and accountability. In this era of emails and texting, with big generational differences in job/life priorities, project managers must take time for face-to-face conversations when important commitments are being sought. Clarity with delivery dates and times, product content, level of effort, obstacles to the commitment, with repetition as necessary.
  • Status Reports to the customer that address work performed, including requested or perceived changes in the work that may affect budget, schedule, and risk (the high profile facility project that progressed so far without official change/cost authorization). This requires the project manager to be knowledgeable about the true status of the project, probing risk as the project/product development proceeds, and puts the customer on notice if they have essential responsibilities to fulfill or decisions to make.
  • A means to regularly assess Work Actually Completed in relation to the hours/dollars spent. More than a few project managers have asked how their project could be 90% complete a month earlier, with 50% of the budget being spent since that time. The answer? The PM’s estimate of work actually completed was flawed, or the project team didn’t want to bear bad news, or the PM/team succumbed to the inclination to be overly optimistic about completion, or a combination of the above. Best if the project manager comes at this estimate from more than one angle—task by task completion, deliverables completed, drawing status, QC feedback. Strive for your best estimate of percent complete, then reduce this percentage by 10-30%. If you estimate 70% complete, actual completion is probably closer to 40-60%. What harsh experience has taught me.

 

An article could be written about each of these high impact processes identifying things that can make them more effective (useful) but the most important thing is to do them with prudence, humility, and perseverance. All can be adapted to PM programs and customer requirements already in place. These high impact processes presuppose a competent project team. Good project management can’t make up for incompetent planners, designers, QC, or builders.

 

My “Red Light” hell: poorly defined work, no pre or post project customer interviews, no project work plan, no project status reports, pro forma/superficial quality reviews, a belief that what’s spent equals work actually completed.

 

Meeting project budgets is essential, but the best project managers know project/product success is more than dollars and cents. Satisfied customers, companies that meet their profit goals to stay healthy, project teams that take satisfaction in their work, communities and companies and environments enhanced. More than just mess avoidance; the bigger picture, the things we remember when the dust has settled. Getting from “Red Lights” to “Green Lights” makes life better.

Free Markets, Human Liberty and The Environment

Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century promoter of responsible human liberty, opposed the French version of Liberté and consequently suffered many insults and rebukes. In England, the French version of liberty was also popular and to many Burke was more reactionary than libertarian. Likewise, George Washington sought to prevent French Liberté from invading America, and was chastised by many “democrats”. Burke and Washington opposed the ideology of the French Revolution because they understood it would merely replace one form of tyranny with another, one ruling oligarchy with another.

 

We are well into the twenty-first century and if there is a predominant ideology in the West it is an environmental socialism that is skeptical of free markets, skeptical of local decision-making, skeptical of human liberties and enterprise that conflict with the “rights” of snails, mad as hell about human assaults on the environment, a twenty-first century Liberté where opposing perspectives are ridiculed and put down rather than investigated with reason and evidence.

 

Much good has been accomplished and promoted by people with strong ecological sensibilities, but the greatest good has been achieved when evidence, reason, and civil debate were the guideposts, not ideological dogma: early 20thcentury water filtration and disinfection to prevent drinking water-borne diseases; mid and later 20thcentury programs to advance wastewater treatment and management of the residuals they produce; utility, industry, and home technologies to get soot and smog out of urban areas. Programs that made a big difference in people’s lives, not virtue-signaling “crises” with marginal impacts that cost a fortune and eliminate jobs.

 

Evidence and reason reveal that representative democracies that value human liberty, personal responsibility, and freer markets, societies that still esteem time-tested virtues, are far better environmental stewards than top down oligarchies like Russia and China, and better environmental stewards than oligarchies posing as democracies (in the Industrial Age and today). We know that none of the world’s representative democracies are perfect—not even close, but those with legislative, judicial, and societal brakes on oligarchs, bureaucracies that answer to no one, and criminal opportunists best serve their citizens andthe environment. Look it up.

 

Why are so many well-educated people skeptical of free markets, individual liberty informed by personal responsibility, the classical virtues? Because for all the information at our fingertips the ability to distinguish between evidence and speculation, or ideology, has atrophied; because mainstream and social media reward those who hold “enlightened” views while punishing those who challenge the “virtuous” consensus; because, for many, environmental talking points and funding streams are more important than evidence.  Reasoning itself is suspect as a weapon of imperialistic, racist, or sexist societies, despite paragons of reasoning abiding in every culture. So many problems—global, local, economic, health related—are blamed on climate change because the claims are never challenged, because we are unable to distinguish between carefully reasoned and superficial arguments. Sadly, much more practical good could be accomplished on the climate front if we separated speculation from evidence-based conclusions.

 

In the 1960s, flower children inscribed “Frodo lives” on subway and building walls, and while they were muddled in many things they were on to something, esteeming the democratic society, individual liberties, free trade, personal virtue, and care for the natural world that predominated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. Of all the fads of the 60s that have faded, too bad it was the one closest to the truth.

The Lord of The Rings as Realism

Imagine proposing Monet or Picasso as art realists—the reaction one expects when asserting that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings”, notwithstanding elves, goblins, wizards, dragons, is radically realistic.

 

Don’t be fooled by Tolkien’s archaic forms of speech, jaw breaking names for people and places, or dense song-making, as this story is more realistic than storytelling deeply rooted in the modern world or rife with modern angst. Starting with the consequences of self-sacrifice, when such sacrifice is likely to end in failure and destruction. Frodo and Sam take on the mission of conveying the Ring of Power to Mordor so as to destroy it, but the likelihood of success is close to zero and the probability that the Ring will destroy them—destruction in a sense worse than death—is all but certain. Not because there is glory in this mission, because it is necessary. Where else have the stakes been portrayed so graphically as in the person of Gollum, who is both Frodo’s guide and fallen self? Even Frodo’s grand “success” leaves him in a world in which the damage he sustained cannot be healed, as often occurs with those who make heroic sacrifices. If final healing can be obtained, Tolkien suggests it must occur beyond the confines of this world.

 

The Voice of Saruman the traitorous wizard is depicted as having the power to sway the minds of the great and small alike. Though we are loath to admit that we can be so swayed, how often do we make decisions based on what compelling voices, laden with appeals to our emotions and predispositions, tell us to do? How hard it is, especially for the educated and strong-minded, to admit they can be twisted, yet history repeatedly demonstrates that human beings can be convinced of anything when “Voices” appeal to their self-interests or kindle strong fears.

 

The Palantir is a kind of crystal ball in which other places and events can be viewed, a seeing stone that ostensibly bestows power on the viewer. In fact, it is employed to make Denethor, the steward/ruler of Gondor, see what the Enemy wants him to see, to twist and ultimately break his mind with rage and despondency. Don’t our modern Palantirs—Internet, phones, virtual reality games, social media, TV—promise knowledge, entertainment, or power while manipulating our emotions and beliefs? Aren’t we often enfeebled rather than empowered by such things?

 

Most of us would have endless life if we could, but the immortal elves in Middle Earth, for all their creativity and wisdom, are restless with the impermanence of the world around them, a restlessness that days without end cannot ameliorate; the reason the elves are slowly embarking from a Middle Earth to which they are still strongly attached. Tolkien well understood Augustine’s admonition that nothing in this world can ultimately satisfy.

 

Lastly, the Ring of Power; rather, the Ring of Slavery, its effects depicted in the Ringwraiths and Gollum: an endlessly horrible existence, the eradication of freedom, power to destroy but not create anything with a sliver of beauty, utter slavery to the Maker of the Ring. When tormented by a “Voice” or “Palantir” or “Ring”, haven’t we had internal conversations eerily similar to Gollum’s terrifying soliloquies? Is the Ring in the story so different from the effects of drug addictions, sexual obsessions, the relentless accumulation of things and power, all-consuming hatred of the “other”, that plague humankind? Every one of us must make choices, sometimes daily, as to whether to put on the Ring that promises what our fallen self desires, or to put it away.

 

Contrast the realism depicted in modern literature with Tolkien’s realism. For the moderns: our perspective defined by psychology, culture, education, victimhood, chance; our purpose self-defined; a materialistic universe and the finality of death. For Tolkien: the insidious lure of sin, the call to “irrational” self-donation, hope beyond our human frailty and the grave. One might say mutually exclusive realities. I’ve read “The Lord of The Rings” many times, first as fantasy and adventure—a heroic saga, as myth come to life—but in the twilight of my life as a relentlessly realistic portrayal of the human condition that we’d do well to heed.

 

The human heart

Those who live only for pleasure become cynical in middle age. A cynic has been defined as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. You blame things, rather than self. If you are married, you say: “If I had another husband, or another wife, I could be happy.” Or you say, “If I had another job…” or, “If I were in another city, I would be happy”…

 

Once you realize that God is your end…you begin to see that friendship, the joys of marriage, the thrill of possession, the sunset and the evening star, masterpieces of art and music, the gold and silver of earth, the industries and the comfort of life, are all the gifts of God. He dropped them on the roadway of life to remind you that if these are so beautiful then what must be BEAUTY? He intended them to be bridges to cross over to him…

 

Unfortunately, many become so enamored of the gifts the great Giver of Life has dropped on the roadway of life that they build their cities around the gift, and forget the Giver, and when the gifts, out of loyalty to their Maker, fail to give them perfect happiness, they rebel against God and become cynical and disillusioned…

 

Look at your heart! It tells the story of why you were made. It is not perfect in shape and contour, like a Valentine heart. There seems to be a small piece missing out of the side of every human heart. That may be to symbolize a piece that was torn out of the heart of Christ, which embraced all humanity on the cross…

 

When God made your human heart, he found it so good and so lovable that he kept a small sample of it in heaven. He sent the rest of it into this world to enjoy his gifts and to use them as steppingstones back to him.   (Fulton Sheen)

 

 

The Audience, A Christmas story

THE NIGHT BEFORE MY AUDIENCE WITH THE KING I WENT THROUGH MY BAG to make sure everything was there. Considering what was at stake, I couldn’t be too careful.

One by one, I took them out and replaced them: the ode I’d composed in the King’s honor, the proclamation for the King’s monument I’d commissioned, the ledger of revenue I’d collected for the King: the evidence that demonstrated my worthiness for knighthood.

I’d been traveling a long road to the royal capital and had been sleeping poorly, but the next morning I was eager to make for the castle. As I traversed the long corridor to the throne room, the order in which I should present my evidence was first and foremost in my mind.

The throne room wasn’t what I’d expected, rather small and humble by my standards. When I was presented to the King, he greeted me by name—a good sign that—and asked that I make myself comfortable, serving me a sumptuous breakfast at a table facing the throne, though I was too preoccupied to do more than sample the fare.

Before he could say another word, I told him about the things I desired to place before him.

“That’s not necessary,” he said.

“But it is, Your Highness,” I insisted.

When I went for my bag, I found it wasn’t at hand. Had I left it at the door, or in the corridor?

“I must find my bag, Sir,” I told him.

“You need not,” he said, but how could I represent myself properly without the evidence of all I’d been doing on his behalf?

I bowed and made for the door, and there in a shadowy corner was my bag. I clutched it tightly to my breast and hurried back to the table, pushing the feast aside and setting it before him.

“What do you have for me?” he said.

I reached into the bag. I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t resist removing each and every item: a judgment where I’d favored a rich man over his poor cousin, the work order to expand my private granaries, the green cap belonging to the beggar woman I’d insulted at the door of my manor, a bottle of the best wine in the world I’d acquired at great cost.

As he looked down on these tokens, all I could think to say was, “An enemy has done this, Your Highness.”

A profound sadness clouded his features, and I anticipated a terrible verdict, but when he spoke, he said, “I know about these things, but they won’t change my decision, because I judge you regret all of them.”

“I do, Your Highness…but I must find the tokens that were taken from my bag, so I can place them before you in evidence of my worthiness. Will you give me leave to seek for them?”

“That isn’t necessary, my son.”

“Please, Sir!”

He nodded gravely. I was already shoveling all those shameful things back into my bag. Someone had removed the true tokens to embarrass me, but I would find them out, retrieve the tokens, and place them before the King as I’d intended.

I suspect someone in my own province is responsible for this evil deed, so I will return home and take as long as necessary to put things back in order. Next time, I will guard my tokens with greater vigilance. The next audience will be different.