Copyright to Michael Cavanagh, © 2011.
Abstracted from original writings and reprinted with permission.
Published August 2011

Editor's Note | Introduction 
Pearls of Wisdom - Management | Pearls of Wisdom - Process
Pearls of Wisdom - Delivery

Pearls of Wisdom - Delivery

"Project Management only becomes news when it's a bad news story." The "hero" Project Managers - those who pull projects back from the brink of disaster - aren't really the ones at the top of their profession. The real heroes are those whose projects come in unspectacularly - on time, on budget, delivering the desired outcome. Their stories are rarely told.

Ed: OK, we have to acknowledge that we are not one of "the ones at the top of our profession". In fact we rather like taking on projects in serious trouble. As well as management being generally willing to open the purse strings to fix a badly run project, a little analysis, logic and organization can go a long way. And besides, it is difficult to do worse than the last guy. Hence you have a better chance of coming out "smelling like roses".

"It is essential that we avoid the 'sunk cost' issues - past expenditure must never affect current decisions." Peter Bernstein, in his excellent book Against the Gods,[3] makes clear the fact that human nature is not so much risk averse as loss averse. We would sooner throw good money after bad than write off what we've already spent. The English and French governments' refusal to cancel Concorde even though it became clear that it could never become economically viable is a well-known example of this. It can also manifest itself when an expensive feasibility study finds that a project would not be viable. There is a feeling that the money spent to date will have been wasted if the project is aborted.

"Focus on outcome, and think about people." The trouble with people is that they are expensive, bloody-minded and, unfortunately, necessary. No matter how comprehensive the toolset, its effective use is subject to the vagaries of the human condition. The 2nd order leader's prime task is to constantly ensure that the efforts of the people-at-hand, with their skills and behavioral preferences, and in their current mood, are applied as closely as possible to delivering the desired outcome. Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs[4] may be a simplistic model, but it's pretty useful as a starting point.

"In reality, Liquidated Damages drive bad behavior - they are used as a financial recovery tool, but you'll have paid extra to get them. If contracts are punitive, they will result in a loss-loss situation - a combination of poor service to the customer and financial pain for the supplier." Imagine a situation where significant daily Liquidated Damages will be applied if you, as Project Manager, don't release the product to factory acceptance testing on a contractually agreed date. You know of a slight enhancement which will take a couple of days to implement, but doing so would mean that you miss the date and the LDs would kick in. If, however, you release the product and implement the enhancement later, it will necessitate regression testing taking three or four weeks, but you could charge the customer for this. It is not operationally critical - it will simply result in slightly reduced performance under rare circumstances. The choice is yours.

Ed: In our view, this is a no-brainer. Discuss the opportunity with the client and make it clear that this is a change to the original agreement and will require both time and cost adjustments. It is then up to the client to make the decision - and produce the necessary documentation to support the decision!

"We still have the ability to build St. Paul's Cathedral, but we probably would not." Of all of the interview quotes, this is the most enigmatic. In the course of discussing something else, I had asked a throwaway question whether we had forgotten some of the skills of the past. The answer to the statement was "yes" - but then why would we probably not? Because our culture doesn't allow for non-functional, purely aesthetic additions? Because we'd never get planning permission? Because we have better ways of building? Because we'd never get the funding?

The discussion moved on, I didn't pursue the point and haven't had an opportunity to do so since. I wish I had.

Ed: And we wish the author had, too.

Pearls of Wisdom - Process   Pearls of Wisdom - Process

3. Bernstein, P. L. Against the Gods. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1996.
4. Maslow, A. H. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50(4): 370-396, 1943
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