Posts Tagged With: management failure

Does your company recognize “Here, there be (project) dragons”?

Over time companies tend to take on projects with increasing levels of complexity. This happens either as a side benefit of a boost in organizational project management maturity, reactively when responding to regulatory or competitive pressures or organically as an outcome of strategic planning.

Unlike many of my previous posts, the WHY behind this increase is not my focus but rather the HOW.

Do governance bodies within most companies recognize when a proposed project or program is beyond its current capabilities and if so, how do they do this?

Project uncertainty and complexity are continuums and the sweet spot along those continuums will vary by company. There are three company-specific zones within this continuum – low uncertainty/complexity, high uncertainty/complexity and the chaos zone.

The boundary between the first and the second zones tends to become clearer over time, and as a company matures, they will use that boundary to dictate staff assignments as well as the required level of governance. For example, lower complexity projects might require minimal oversight and can be managed by a junior or intermediate project manager whereas those in the higher complexity zone will benefit from steering committees, highly seasoned project directors and regular delivery assurance checks.

But what about the chaos zone – what defines its boundaries?

In the past, when travelling the world’s oceans, ships’ captains used maps with notations indicating where the edges of the known world were as well as that wonderful warning “Here, there be dragons”. Unfortunately, such cartographic aids are not available to portfolio governance teams! Without having the boundaries for the chaos zone defined, it would be easy for a company to invest in a project whose failure could result in catastrophic organizational consequences.

One approach might be to use the same set of criteria which are used to distinguish low and high complexity projects. A radar chart such as the one below provides one way of presenting this. Complexity inputs such as the number of distinct stakeholders involved/impacted, total number of unique delivery partners or the extent of external influence could be assessed using a simple questionnaire.

Assessing and presenting this information is a good start, but it might still not be enough to prevent a sponsor or line of business from undertaking a “bet the firm” project. This is where the checks and balances of effective governance are crucial.

A common misbelief is that Sir Edmund stated the reason “Because it’s there” when asked about climbing Mount Everest. In fact, George Mallory is believed to have said it almost thirty years earlier. Unfortunately, George perished on the way to the summit.

Start a chaos zone project and your company could face a similar fate.






Categories: Project Portfolio Management | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

How comical is your project?

Frequent readers of my blog will know how much I respect Scott Adams’s unique insights into the dysfunctions of corporate life. Let’s analyze the case study provided in today’s comic strip!

Risk (mis)management

The pointy-haired boss who serves as a constant reminder of the validity of the Peter Principle expresses surprise about the bumpiness of their white-water team-building project.

A modicum of effective risk management might have caused him to utilize an avoid risk response by picking a slightly less adventurous event although with that group it is hard to envision what would be a perfectly safe one!

If there was still a desire to take the group white-water rafting, then perhaps investing in life vests for those who couldn’t swim would have been a reasonable risk mitigation response, although as the boss indicates in the last frame of the strip, there would likely have been a corresponding higher cost for implementing this response.

While the boss uses ignorance as his rationale, there is no excuse for not practicing risk management commensurate to the level of complexity and uncertainty of a given project.

Avoiding assumptions analysis

An assumption is stated in the sixth frame by the pointy-haired boss about Ted’s ability to swim. That assumption germinated a key risk – if Ted was NOT able to swim and fell in, he’d require more assistance than a competent swimmer and hence the team’s decision to not look for him was unwise. Had the boss conducted a quick elicitation of assumptions and had the team challenge those assumptions which could have been proactively validated, Ted might not be missing.

Project managers have a responsibility to ask their team members and key stakeholders what assumptions are being made as plans are defined, incorporate those assumptions as inputs into risk identification, and schedule reminders to validate those assumptions as the project progresses.

The glamour of groupthink

The fourth and seventh frames of the comic strip confirm that the team members are complicit in the project’s failure. While team consensus was achieved with the decision to not look for Ted after he fell in and then again later by pretending that he never participated, it is quite likely that Asok or Dilbert, who are two characters who usually act as the conscience of the narrative, would not have agreed with these decisions but were likely concerned about rocking the boat (or white-water raft!).

While project managers are expected to recognize the symptoms of groupthink so that it can be nipped in the bud, a more effective countermeasure is to encourage healthy conflict as one the team’s ground rules so that individual team members don’t shy away from speaking up if they believe the wrong decision is being made.

Oscar Wilde – Life imitates art far more than art imitates life


Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Who is the Cassandra on YOUR project?

I’m currently reading Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy’s book Warnings which analyzes a number of cases where a credible subject matter expert raised concerns proactively about a looming catastrophe but was ignored until it was too late to take preventative action.

The authors refer to these unfortunate prognosticators as “Cassandras” in reference to the Greek mythology tale of the princess of Troy, Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo to see into the future but to be ridiculed by those she tried to warn of impending disaster. Through the analysis of past tragedies the authors have developed a four part assessment to identify potential Cassandras including the nature of their warnings, the characteristics of the decision makers who have the power to act on the warnings, attributes of the Cassandras themselves and those of their critics.

So while this might make for an interesting read, what relevance does this have to project management?

Donald Rumsfeld brought the phrase “unknown unknowns” into the mainstream with his February 2002 response to a question about the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “…We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

But are such risks really “unknown unknowns”? On any project involving a reasonable number of stakeholders, surely there was someone with the imagination and creativity to have been able to surface issues which were not identified through project risk management practices.

The failure to do so might be because of one of the following factors listed in the book:

  • Initial occurrence syndrome: if a given risk has never been realized within the collective awareness of the stakeholders participating in risk identification, the tendency is to believe that it will never occur.
  • Erroneous consensus: if the culture of the team is to value harmony over healthy dissent, while one team member might have the foresight to identify a radical risk, if the consensus of the remaining team members is that this is not a concern, the Cassandra will be unwilling to push their point.
  • Invisible obvious: a lack of diversity within a team can increase the potential for groupthink. If we think of individual experience and knowledge as sets in a Venn diagram, we would ideally want to cover as much area as possible while still having some areas of commonality. The lower the diversity in a team, the greater the alignment of the collective sets and hence the greater the area of no knowledge.

In last week’s article I provided one possible glimpse into the future of our profession. A benefit of computer assisted project management might be a vast reduction in unknown unknowns if we choose to follow our AI’s guidance. Until then it is our responsibility as project managers to build diverse teams and to actively listen for the Cassandras within them.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: