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Views from the Prairie

March 10

Projects Fail

Projects often fail. They either never get done or wind up over budget and way late. Often, there are specific issues that are blamed for the project failure. In a Business Week article, Joseph Grenny points out that it is rare that the true cause of the failure are those specific issues. Instead, it is how we react to those issues that cause the project to fail.

One of the most common blames for project failure is a schedule that was too optimistic. The development of computer systems is notorious for not meeting deadlines. Many times a project is given a deadline that has very little to do with reality. Often, the project was funded when the champion "won" a type of "liar's poker" about what the project would cost and how long it would take. Such a deadline was set without full knowledge of what needed to be done. Yet, that is not the cause of the failure. It is how everyone reacted to that deadline when they realized that it wasn't going to be met that is the true cause of failure.

One of the most common situations in development projects is the lack of good communication about the project status. Team leaders engage in a kind of "chicken" trying to hide how their part of the project is not following schedule. They lie about their team status hoping that some other team will take the heat for missing schedule and allow them the time to get their part working. Often, the result is that these problems will only surface when it is time to install the system.

The common process of "liar's poker" to get the project and then, "project chicken" leads to attempts to install systems that are years behind schedule and are a mess of parts that work and parts that don't.

Let's be honest about software development. Most development projects are a compromise between features and time to develop. Often, the effort to meet the deadline means that features get shortchanged, parts do not get tested properly, and user requirements get ignored. These actions can happen openly or they can happen surreptitiously. When management allow such choices to happen in secret, the project is far more likely to fail. Here is where "management by walking around" and quietly talking to the developers about what they are working on helps. Often, management can "take the pulse" of a project by noticing what kind of problems the developers are working on.

The standard "waterfall" method of project management assumes that we can know enough to properly manage the project from the beginning. In contrast to that, the Agile project management methods such as SCRUM assume that we have limited knowledge of what needs to be done. In such methods, a project is split up into blocks that can be properly managed in small amounts of time.

The challenge is not to meet that impossible deadline, but to push back with ways that both satisfy the needs and deal with the deadline in an open and honest manner.

Computer programs, like many other complex systems, need to meet a minimum level of operation in order to be successful. Having open and honest project management lead to systems that might not have all the features, but are far more likely to meet the needs and work.

Top Sellers

Every recruiter knows that their customers want only the best people. They are constantly asked to deliver "top producers". Yet, for all their efforts, most recruitments fail. This is especially true in sales. Recruiting fails to deliver "top producers" because of both demographics and the structure of sales.

The demographics of this country mean that 50% of the people out there are less than average. No matter how well we "slice" the pie to try to find the best, most of our efforts will wind up with average people. But that is not the real reason new recruits are not productive.

The real reason that people do not reach peak performance is due to how we structure and reward the job. Selling is not an individual activity. Selling is a team activity. When we structure the sales compensation and the sales management to reward individual activity, we limit ourselves to average results. It takes a whole company to deliver the sales.

There was once a top producer of sales. She was rewarded with a special dinner and a fancy watch. At that dinner, nearly everyone else in the room had been part of the team working nights, weekends, and other extra efforts to deliver on the sales that the producer had made. Yet, not a word of thanks was said to that team. Afterwards, the team never again pulled together in the same way and that sales person never reached that same level of sales again at that company.

One sales manager restructured the compensation to reward the team effort instead of just the individual making the sales. The result was that the sales people were able to call on the rest of the company to help them in "crunches" and the customers were allowed to interact with other people at the company. It meant that the sales people had less stress in their lives and were better able to sell the company to prospects. By recognizing the team aspect of sales, the company also has better customer retention even when sales people leave.

Top selling is not just a one person skill. It takes the whole company working together to "sell" and deliver on those sales to make satisfied customers and satisfied customers are our best sales people.


We have seen how trucking companies are using the driver's cell phone to track where the truck is. Recently a Japanese phone company offered a phone that could detect many of the actions that the wearer was doing based on a history and a database of behaviors. They offer it to companies that want to make sure that the workers are doing what they are being paid to do. Big Brother is coming closer.


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