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Extreme Project Management

~ By Brad Egeland

The running back dives for the first down with the defender on his back

I'd like to write today about a concept I think is critical to project success in some select cases and probably some of us have tried to do - often, unfortunately, with little success to show for it. It's the idea of extreme project management. Managing a project under extreme pressure with everything on the line, millions of dollars at stake, jobs at stake, fines at stake, and company reputations at stake.

What type of project manager finds themselves in this type of situation? Often - almost always, actually - it's not the project manager who brought them to the dance. To be in this situation means someone screwed up or something's was overlooked or mismanaged. And just like the NFL head coach or the major league baseball manager…the project manager is likely to take the fall for it. So that project manager is long gone. Now you're the one called in to fix it…or at least drag it up from the sewer and help the project limp along to some sort of acceptable rollout or deployment so that your organisation - and quite possibly the customer's organisation - can save face and get something out of all this money that has been and will still be spent.

Yes, it's project management at its worst and best all at once. And often you find yourself not really following any best practices - you're mainly doing what has to be done now…like the two minute offence you see at the end of a close football game. Sometimes it works very well and you wonder why they didn't do this for the entire game. Sometimes it fails miserably and you see the obvious reasons why this is extreme football strategy…not the normal stuff.

So, what do we do to try to bring life back to the dead project or save the engagement that is on the brink of disaster? Usually, it's a mix of these war room strategies…

Throw Bodies at It

This usually has to happen…in fact I've rarely been involved in an extreme situation like this where we didn't end up having to add basically as many individuals as possible in order to just get it done. Or to at least get it to the point of a customer acceptance and sign-off with a few remaining issues. The end result is a budget that is completely out of bounds. But for that extra effort you may have retained a long-term customer and at the very least you likely secured a final go-live payment on the project which was probably substantial if your management was ok with adding so many costs just to get it done.

Fight Through the Issues

I've been asked to come on board and manage this type of extreme project situation on two occasions…one also involved the practice described above of throwing more bodies at it. Rather than following much of a project schedule at this point, you find yourself mapping all remaining issues out - likely in an Excel spreadsheet or similar tool - and working through them one by one…completely ignoring the project schedule. This sometimes happens in a remote situation though I've also taken teams onsite to the customer (and the customer has come to us on two occasions) to work in a war room type setting. It's a bit unnerving, but it can sure make things interesting. Often you find two new issues when you fix one, but the end result of this focused team attention is usually a signed off deployment…though not necessarily with everything 100% fixed. It's more often the case of "acceptable" and tired of the stress.

More Funding or More Time

The third common scenario sees executive management on both sides negotiate for more funding and more time. If the project is critical enough - and it usually is if it hasn't been cancelled by now - then both sides are often interested in working something out to keep the teams going and the project moving forward toward completion. Yes, I had a $1.3 million project cancelled in a situation like this, but more often than not something gets worked out to add funding from both sides (the customer ads funds AND the delivery organisation gives away many labour hours for free) as well as an extension of the deployment deadline in order to save face, deploy a workable solution and not have to face the embarrassment of walking away from so much money that has already been spent on a very large undertaking.

Summary

The bottom line is this…if a project is big enough, one or both sides will want to do what they can to save it. You usually won't end up using typical best practices project management to finish out this type of engagement. You'll find yourself doing whatever is necessary - that two minute offence possibly even ending with a "Hail Mary" pass to try to gain an 11th hour success story. But when you are entering into this type of extreme project management situation you focus on what's important now, fix it, then move on to the next biggest issue. Hopefully, you'll soon see the light at the end of the tunnel.


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