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Fatal Assumption

      This article expands upon points made in the post of April 3, 2010 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com.


      Participants in my Advanced Project Management training are asked to choose among 10 factors in naming the four that are most frequent/damaging/whatever. The worst. I've done it for years.

      The participants get four small black Lego blocks, and can drop any number of the four in cups labeled “Schedule,” “Teamwork,” “Planning and Task Definition,” etc.

      Then we count the Legos, and launch the argument. The participants' collective judgment frequently groups the three correct (in my mind) factors at the top among the 10: Goal Coordination among Stakeholders, Planning and Role Definition, and Communication.

      However, there usually is a spirited exchange between the instigator of the discussion (myself) and everybody else about the order among the top three.

      You see, I put Goal Coordination among Stakeholders at the top of the list, as the most serious and damaging factor when a project is failing. My colleagues most often put Communication at the top. We disagree about which is the more serious matter: Communication or Goal Coordination among Stakeholders.

      To some people, this disagreement ranks with those interminable barroom sports arguments among people who have no worthwhile place to go and nothing meaningful to do. The critics miss the significant point of this. I believe it reveals a frequent, fundamental, damaging misunderstanding among Project Managers.


      It is important because Project Managers often must make snap decisions with serious consequences in hurried situations. If their essential decision-making machinery – made up of their basic assumptions – is not properly tuned in advance, they can be at the mercy of circumstance, impulse or inadequate information/advice.

So, which assumption is more vital?

      That Communication is the most serious failure factor because Communication is universally and undeniably essential to the proper functioning of Projects? Or that Goal Coordination is the most serious failure factor because different goals among decision-makers can bleed the Project to death through rework, waste, conflict and loss of motivation?

      When I take to the ramparts on the side of Goal Coordination among Stakeholders, I refer first to the daddy/mother of all Stakeholders: The senior authorities of the sponsoring organization.

      If those people – the ones who control the resources, strategic direction and ultimate evaluation of the Project – don't agree among themselves or with the Project Manager or other key Stakeholders, the Project simply cannot succeed.

      To avoid misunderstanding, I want to make it very clear that I consider Communication essential if things are to go right. That's not the point here.


      The reason for my vigorous advocacy is that I see too many Project Managers working like the devil on a variety of fronts, including Communication, because of a false premise. That's when their guiding assumption (there's the key word!) is that those supreme Stakeholders cannot be questioned, cannot be presented with information and evidence they do not want to hear and see. They assume they must salute and march on the original directive they received, whether it makes sense or not.

      That assumption is the basis for the incorrect evaluation of Goal Coordination on the scale of problems, the misjudgment that causes the Advanced Project Management disagreements.

      Once this matter is properly understood, the Project Manager employs the assumption that thoughtful, careful Negotiation with the senior party(ies) will rectify the problem. This assumption is that such Negotiation is possible – in fact, will be welcomed. A supporting assumption is that, in a Project-healthy organization, the approach is expected.

      If they are to be successful, Project Managers can't be so timid that they won't address the matter that way, nor should they lack the Negotiating skills to do so.

      Good bosses will accept the reality that they weren't right, or weren't wholly right. While they may need some convincing with the pertinent information presented in the right way, at base they place their trust and confidence in the people they put in charge of Projects. They expect to hear documented alternatives when their own assumptions and expectations are not well founded, or turn out to be unworkable.


      When bosses won't accept the truth and won't truly commit to sharing in the discomfort that comes with working toward sound Project outcomes, well. . . .

      Too many of the Project Managers I talk with make that negative assumption. They never actually check it out or test it. They don't want to address it, or it doesn't occur to them to do so.

      That's why they don't put Goal Coordination at the top of the list of success/failure factors, and why so many of them add unnecessarily to their heavy workloads while accepting disappointing Project results. Too bad.


Organizations need frequent tune-ups to maintain effective workflow amid change. Jim has long experience – plus creative tools -- to help executives analyze their organizations, then design and implement better ways.
Project Management is the 21st-century model for managing complex, risky innovations to on-time outcomes within budget. Jim Milliken offers workplace-tested designs in customized formats for onsite implementation and classroom training.
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