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 - Process

"OK, I agree that if it ain't broke, you don't fix it - but [the project] is broke!" The difficulty is getting people to accept that it's broke. Fear of blame, lack of mutual stakeholder trust, punitive contractual sanctions, and (perhaps most often) simple denial, can lead to terminally-ill projects being kept on life support far beyond the point where recovery is possible, or losses minimized.

"If an organization can't afford to get its budgets wrong, they need to accept the truth, however unacceptable. It is utter foolishness to believe that you can outsource risk." A way of dealing with the above is to pass the blame onto someone else. There is a tendency to feel secure behind rigorous contract conditions. It is all very well to say: "if it goes belly-up we can always sue them afterwards" but post-failure litigation cannot deliver retroactive success.

"The system is designed to produce the outcomes we're getting. We consistently use the low bid price as the basis of the budget. When it all goes wrong, we should ask ourselves 'What did you expect?'" We won't, though. We shall look for other causes and explanations, and we shall do exactly the same next time. One of the visions of a good experiential learning program is "We will never make the same mistake twice". This tends to attract two different responses. One of them is: "We shouldn't be making mistakes at all!" This sort of comment merely reflects the stupidity of the speaker. The other response, made by people who actually know what they're talking about, is: "We'd be happy if we could reduce the number of times we make the same mistake down to single digits."

"Our priorities are cost, schedule, resources - when really we should be thinking first about relationships, infrastructure and ways of working." True, because the latter are ways of delivering the former.

"We adopted an approach euphemistically called 'Preference Engineering' - doing things in the way people would like them done, when a business case could not be made for so doing." This can be taken two ways. On the positive side, it allows tacit wisdom - instinct, intuition and inspiration - to override explicit knowledge. Conversely, it undermines the good governance practice of validating the Return on Investment equation. In the positivist business world, wisdom is often ignored in the face of raw data that is presented as inalienable fact.

"Attempts to deal with complexity get strangled because the leadership hasn't the appetite for the fight - we get audited at a 1st Order level, so that's what we make sure we do." We often hear people say "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it", or alternatively "what gets measured gets done". In practice, imposing rigorous measures results in behaviors based only on achieving those measures, whether or not they are appropriate. In which case, you'd better make damn sure you choose the right metrics in the first place. As Albert Einstein noted: "not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted counts."

Ed: If a post project audit is a possibility, this attitude is especially pernicious. Audits necessarily make judgments based on some generally accepted standards. Since "1st order" standards are the only ones currently produced and recommended by project management associations, it follows that the potential for audit on a complex project can be very counter productive.

Pearls of Wisdom - Management  Pearls of Wisdom - Management

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