Project Management Monsters Around Us
Monsters aren’t just for Halloween. The undead walk among us all year round. Only on Halloween do they show their true faces. If you know what to look for, you can recognize vampires, ghosts, zombies, and Frankenstein’s creation (he’s not really a monster, just misunderstood).
In this article, I will teach you not only how to spot these undead creatures, but also how to vanquish those who haunt your nights and bring life back to those who suffered an untimely demise.
This doesn’t take the skills of a slayer, just a disciplined product development process.
Zombies are the most common undead creature you’ll see walking the halls of your office. (We’re talking about the slow George A. Romero style zombies, not the fast variety of 28 Days Later or World War Z.)
They continue moving and sucking up resources, but they have no life in them and they never will. They produce nothing, and all they want to do is eat your brain. They need a shotgun blast in the face to put them out of your misery.
I once worked in an R&D group of about a dozen engineers, with about 20 active projects. On average, these projects would have required a couple of engineers to move forward at a reasonable pace. There were no clear priorities, so everyone worked on whatever they felt like or responded to the most recent request. The team’s effort was so diffuse that practically no projects were ever completed.
The way to deal with zombies is having a product development process that includes stage gates. As a project moves from one stage to the next, a review with the stakeholders is held. If the project isn’t on a path to success, this is the time to either rescope to something that can be successful or kill the project.
If a project just wanders around aimlessly without progressing to the next stage, you need to put it out of its misery and apply your resources to projects that can be successful. No project moves on to the next stage unless the resources needed are available.
Vampires and Ghosts
Vampires are projects that suck the lifeblood (i.e. resources) from other projects, preventing them from staying on schedule. Unlike zombies, vampires are worthy projects capable of being successful; they are just consuming more resources than they should.
Ghosts are the opposite, just a whisper of a project, starved of the resources they need to live. With sufficient resources, the ghosts can be resurrected.
I once worked for a company leading a critical project redesigning the flagship product. When I checked in with the engineers, I often found out they’d been redirected to work on a pet project (i.e. a vampire) of the CEO. I was unable to stay on schedule, and my project became a ghost.
Both of these monsters can be slain by agreeing to priorities and assigning your team based on these priorities. If resources are to be reassigned, the leader of the project losing the resource needs to be engaged and the impact discussed.
Does it make sense to move the resource and delay a critical project? Leadership must understand the implication and make the tradeoffs based on the best-available information.
You’ve probably seen these creations: an arm left over from one project, a leg from another. These appendages don’t go together as part of any design. The result reminds you of what you wanted when you launched the project, just like Adam (the name of Frankenstein’s creation) reminds you of a human being.
When you’re trying to solve a problem similar to one you’ve solved before, it may seem like a good idea to reuse your early work. And sometimes it is. Other times, shoehorning an old solution into a new problem creates more problems than it solves.
To tame the creation, one needs only a solid design process with requirements. Start with the problem you’re solving and build up requirements from there.
If an existing solution meets the requirements, then by all means use it. If it doesn’t, can it be modified to meet the requirements? Whatever solution you use, it must meet the requirements.
Polyphemus, the Blind Cyclops
In Homer’s “The Odyssey”, Odysseus stabs the cyclops Polyphemus in the eye, blinding him. When Polyphemus lets his sheep out of the cave to graze, Odysseus and his men are then able to escape by hiding under them.
Similarly, we are often blind to what’s happening under the surface of our projects. We often don’t ask the right questions because we’re moving too quickly to take the time to pause and ask them. Or we don’t want to hear the answers, like “the customers want something different than what the product manager thinks they want”.
I once worked on a project where the laws of physics suggested that we would likely fail FCC certification testing due to high levels of emissions of radio frequency noise. So the experts in the team did a detailed analysis, which confirmed our initial fear, and they recommended putting the electronics in a Faraday cage, which would dampen the emissions.
Management didn’t want to slow down the project to allow a cage to be designed until we had actual measurements to prove that we needed a cage. Six months later, we were able to build a prototype that proved we needed a Faraday cage, but by this point the design was locked.
The resulting mitigation needed to fit within the space available, increasing cost and putting the schedule at risk. None of that would have been needed if management had looked carefully at the situation when the issue was first raised.
Once again, the weapon of choice is a solid product development process:
- Risk assessments that force you to sit down and ask, “How can this project fail?”
- Stage gate reviews, where the stakeholders come in and ask the tough questions before the project moves forward
Many Monsters, One Weapon
We are often in such a rush that we waste energy on a feeding vampires or zombies that are unworthy. We overlook that which is just beneath the surface. We settle for something that’s handy, rather than a solution that solves our problem.
A disciplined product development process can give sight to the blind, strength to the ghosts, and oblivion to zombies.