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Running in Chaos

~ By Hemini Mehta, PhD

Yellow two-way direction sign with the words chaos and order on a blue background

All projects of a certain size go through bad patches; however some projects, not all, at least not the ones that are well planned, run in chaos methodology throughout their lives. It does not matter that they are meant to be running in agile, or waterfall, or PRINCE2, they are running in chaos. Some readers will be shocked by this (they probably will assume they are not well managed projects and are not following the methodology correctly, and their assumptions are justified) and others will be nodding their heads in unison.

How do good project managers fall into the trap of running in chaos or survival mode? There are many reasons and in majority of the cases there are combinations of reasons. Some of the main reasons are highlighted below, and this is by no means the full list.

Tight Deadlines

Everyone working in projects complains of tight timelines but, in some cases, the time pressure is extremely high. Living in the world of instant, this has filtered into business. Working in an organised manner and following methodologies takes time to embed into day to day routine. If there is no time for this, then process suffers. In order to maintain project plans, boards and various web tools administration time is needed. If this time is not allowed, then process cannot be followed and it is side-lined. As soon as process stops, the routine no longer exists and people are working haphazardly or in chaos.

A Fake Plan

Many people are asked to produce a fake plan. It starts with the good intention of creating a realistic plan but then senior management/stakeholders do not like it. The plan is then squeezed into unrealistic timelines. In some cases it is brought to the attention of senior management that the plan is no longer realistic but this falls on deaf ears. It becomes obvious when the project is in progress and then usually the scope is reduced or the deadline extended. However, instead of going through this stressful ritual, it would make sense to use a realistic plan in the first instance.

Pressure From Stakeholders

The tight timelines along with micro management can create a sense of pressure within project teams. The flurry to please and achieve swift resolution creates an unstructured method of working. The set procedures are no longer adhered to. The team work like headless chickens to complete all the work demanded by senior stakeholders. The reason for this mode of working is to please the stakeholders and then, at a certain point, to get it finished so that the stakeholder will go back to their office and leave the team alone.

Moving Goal Posts

When a project starts, the features are all planned and the plan looks fine. When the project is in progress the stakeholder(s) start to change planned features or scope (usually wanting to squeeze in new functionality). As more of this occurs, it becomes unmanageable for the team and the project manager to keep any control. It can spiral out of control without an audit trail to the point where no one knows what is correct and what is not. The lack of tracking and working haphazardly leads to chaos.

Massive Number of Issues Arise Near the End of Projects

Typically at the "go live" stage of the project a huge number of issues crop up, or rather they finally get visibility and are worked on. There is a commotion of activity to resolve them. In some cases this is a mixture of moving goal posts (suddenly something that was not important before but is now), an unrealistic plan and pressure from above.

Moving Onto the Next Phase

As one phase nears its end, stakeholders start to focus on the next stage. However, the previous stage is not live/finished as yet and resources are pulled out to look forward. Therefore, the team is not focused on completing the current phase. This causes delays not only in the current phase but also has a knock on effect on the next phase. Senior management should allow some transfer time between the stages. It is rarely worthwhile in the long run to rush ahead.

All of the above reasons are closely related and in most situations there will be a combination of them that lead to working in chaos. In order to stop working in that format, it takes more than the project manager to voice their opinion, it rests on the shoulders of senior management. The senior management are the people who have authority to make the decisions. It is up to senior management to make sure that the deadlines are not overly tight. Having ridiculous timelines not only leads to chaos, but also bad practice, more chance of errors and burnout of staff. In addition it does not create a good work ethic or culture. All of the above reasons stem from senior management, and it is their responsibility to manage and protect all their staff, and projects/programmes with good practices and ethics.


Author: Hemini Mehta - edited by Dr Steve Smithson from the London School of Economics.


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