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Derelict Projects


This expands upon points in a post Sept. 8, 2010 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com


  With a little imagination, it's not hard to see a project manager shouting defiance into the howling storm like the Flying Dutchman. As the winds of variance, scope creep and managerial neglect buffet the project, it sometimes seems that fierce tenacity is the only alternative to surrender.

  “Dereliction” is defined as “abandonment by the owner or operator,” and that's what it is. It refers to the captain taking to the lifeboat when he prefers that to standing steadfastly on the bridge. It also is what is happening when an executive or senior manager turns a deaf ear to the entreaties of a project manager battling the stormy crises of a troubled project.

  This is all a little lurid for our restrained world. Perhaps more recognizable is the image of a worn and weathered project silently drifting around in the background of daily activities.

  Either picture expresses a truth about uncounted projects that sink unnecessarily into failure, or hang lifelessly on a few to-do lists. Like diseased branches on a tree, such projects drain away sustenance from an organization, not just by wasting resources, but also by promoting a psychology of ineffectiveness. Good project managers need to be prepared to rescue what has value, prune what needs to go and bring the thing to closure.

  Better yet, they must be alert to signs of drift in any project, and be unforgiving in tracking and communicating it. When the loss of momentum is traceable to the senior management sponsors of the project, things become delicate. Job security issues can arise.

  The best antidote to project dereliction is administered at the launch. The project manager is crisp, specific and complete in nailing down the foundational intentions and commitments of all the stakeholders, especially those at the top of the food chain. Why do the organization's authorities want the project? What do they expect? How aware are they of what it will take? How serious are they? Is the vision of the payoff attractive enough to sustain a solid, credible organizational commitment?

  It's up to the project manager to skillfully manage the negotiations that establish that foundation. If there is reluctance or avoidance in key places, it must be engaged and overcome – in as nonconfrontational a manner as possible. Using concrete, comprehensive documentary tools is the best way to do this. And it must be in place before anything has happened, including the hardening of opposition or unacceptable limitations.

  Proceeding with project planning and organization activities when the foundation is incomplete puts you aboard a derelict before it even leaves the shipyard.

  Okay, how about that familiar situation in which you're assigned to a leaking ship that's already under way? Your new job is to bring successfully to port a vessel long overdue on a voyage that has left it listing and wobbling. You don't get to haul it ashore for complete refitting, and the backers often are off there somewhere on the arc of avoidance.

  Don't go to sea alone. The project manager who wades into this situation needs first to nail down full agreement among the key stakeholders as to the realities of the situation. No pretensions, no unrealistic expectations, no offloading of responsibility/blame, whatever. While plugging the leaks and correcting the course, you also pull out the original charts and determine how to get back on course.

  In the not-unusual circumstance that there aren't – or never were – usable project plans, you create them. Just as you would have at the establishment of the project in the first place, you involve all the decision-makers in the agreements and commitments it will take to right the ship. You always have something of a magic moment when you're brought to the scene. It's just a lot briefer when the sea is cascading in over the side.

  The Flying Dutchman got into his fix through stubborn denial and unwillingness to work out a reasonable response to bad weather. Probably hadn't kept up his certification, either.


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