Making a movie
In these projects the tools and techniques are well known but the final outcome is uncertain. Only after the project is complete can the results be measured and the success or failure of the project determined. Most culture change projects and marketing projects (and making movies) are in this category. The tools to be used including: training, communicating, advertising, etc are well known and the traditional if not optimal mix of techniques understood for most situations. What no one can predict is if the ‘public’ will acclaim the final result, merely accept the final result or dump the final result.
Traditional project management is not enough in these projects; there is a continual need to measure results, feedback information and adapt the mix of activities to optimise the likelihood of success. The key value measurement is attempting to answer the question is it worth spending more or should we cut and run? Efficient stakeholder communication and relationship management is crucial. While there will be some outstanding successes—blockbusters—and some total flops, most projects in this category finish somewhere in the middle. The art is spending just enough effort to achieve an acceptable outcome and dealing with shades of grey.
Lost in the fog
I actually prefer Professor Rodney Turner’s version: ‘a walk in the fog’. This type project is a journey towards a desired new state, usually in response to a recently identified problem; for example, “we are losing market share and profits are down in xxx”. We know the problem, potential solutions range from closing the business unit to re-pricing, to changing the offering or possibly increasing market presence.
No one is sure of the optimum outcome, or how best to achieve it. The only option is to proceed carefully, stop at regular intervals to check exactly where you are and re-plan the way forward. Exactly the way you navigate through a thick fog. Both ambiguity and uncertainty are high.
Project management is about making sure at each ‘stop point’ the value achieved to date is locked in and then refocus on the next increment. Agile software development is ideal for this type of project. Each iteration builds new capability and value and the learning provides a platform for the next iteration of development.
Management is both easy and difficult. It is easy because there is no point in setting fixed plans if you have no idea what to plan. It is difficult because decisions on value and whether to stop or continue are subjective and need to be made in a collaborative environment of trust.
Traditional measures of success such as on-time and on-budget are largely meaningless; typically there are no statistics to base this type of measure on. Consequently these projects are the realm of cost reimbursable contracts and partnerships; stakeholder relationship management, and a clear understanding of value are the only effective tools for building to a successful outcome.
Two final thoughts
1. Both the client/sponsor and the project team need an understanding of the type of project and agree to configure the project management processes appropriately. The more uncertainty and ambiguity, the more important the project’s client is to achieving project success! If expectations are not aligned, disaster awaits.
2. The skills required of a project manager change from largely technical if the project is ‘painting by numbers’ to almost completely relational to manage a ‘walk in the fog’. Selecting the right person to lead the project and relate to the client and stakeholders is crucial.
So next time you think about setting up a project team, remember projects aren’t just projects, every one is different but there are frameworks for understanding the capabilities required.