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A Million Wrong Answers

~ By James Barlow

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The human mind loves a dichotomy - a simple division into halves or pairs. We respond easily to questions with yes or no answers; our courts deliver guilty or not guilty verdicts; we start sporting matches with a heads or tails coin toss; and in most countries politics is a choice of red or blue.

In project management, we strive to find the best approach, the right plan and the right budget. But circumstances do not offer a simply dichotomy - a right way or a wrong way. Logically there is one optimal approach, and beyond that are a plethora of less optimal alternatives. Being pessimistic, for each right answer there are a million wrong answers.

If you're the manager responsible for a significant change programme, then here is an unpleasant fact: you're probably managing it the wrong way. The probability that you picked the one right answer rather than one of the million wrong answers is almost zero. But - it doesn't matter! So relax, and listen to a more optimistic appraisal.

As project managers we are surrounded by policy, procedures and received wisdom. Much of this will be packaged up as "best practice." In Europe the dominant certification is PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments), whereas the Americas and parts of East Asia favour the Project Management Institute's Project Management Professional (PMP) mark.

These certifications are a starting point for managing projects. They provide us with a common vocabulary for discussing abstract concepts, and a model for structuring teams and communicating between different stakeholders.

But they are not strait-jackets to be adopted without thought or reason. Great managers recognise that their success lies in finding the strengths of each unique team, responding to events and adapting to local circumstances. In fact, the greatest success comes in accepting that your plan will be wrong - or if you prefer non-optimal - and recognising that you will need to be flexible and change your approach as you proceed.

Before you let yourself be forced down the path of best practice, ask yourself "says who?" Why is this best practice? Has this approach worked before in this industry, in this country, or even in this organisation?

The unpleasant consequences of an obsessive search for the right answer (the optimal solution) become extremely important when we are creating plans. The search blinds us to the truth that by remaining flexible, and being pragmatic about the team, the tools and the tasks with which we are equipped, we can find an approach that is wrong, but…not that wrong. And as we review our progress we can adapt and find a new approach that is still wrong, but is nevertheless closer to being right.

It is often overlooked that the planning process draws from the same budget as the rest of the project, and sits on the critical path leading to final delivery. Spending too long at this early stage seeking the optimal solution is a path to frustration and doubt, particularly as the data available for analysis is likely to be forecasts and conjecture.

In fact the obsession with being right from day one of a project is as damaging as doing no planning at all. Consider that projects do not exist in isolation. Much as we would like to think that a project team can take the end user's requirements, lock themselves away and produce the results, experience has shown that what users ask for is not necessarily what they want, let alone what they need. And for larger endeavours, it is almost guaranteed that users will change their requirements before they receive the final deliverables.

In projects with a heavy information technology component, one also faces the march of obsolescence - the moment a piece of hardware is purchased it is out of date. The moment a new software version is released a support and maintenance burden is created. These liabilities are only made more onerous if the capability they deliver to the user is lacking. It is a horrible experience for a project team to realise that they have put their heart and soul into an effort to deliver what the customer used to want.

Remind yourself of the martial philosophy that the plan is the first casualty of battle, and think about the approach of a typical army general staff: strategy is broken down into tactical objectives and handed out to local commanders for implementation as they see fit, intelligence is sought on the effectiveness of each action, exploiting success where it is found. And the prudent general always keeps a reserve force for unexpected contingencies.

Success in project management, then, is built on flexibility and pragmatism. Plans are invariably wrong, but proceeding with a less-optimal plan is a better approach than an exhaustive search for the right answer. Adapt to circumstances and exploit your successes and you are on the path to a successful project.


James M. Barlow is an IT Consultant based in the UK, with a successful career spanning two decades in the private and public sectors.


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