Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, recounts a bit of a planning pickle he and his Israeli Ministry of Education colleagues encountered when estimating how long it would take to complete a high school textbook on judgment and decision making.
When the group estimated how long it would take to get the book done, the average wound up being two years. But when Kahneman pressed their curriculum leader to compare their team to other teams in similar situations, something a bit concerning happened: when the leader drew on his knowledge about similar teams and working on similarly big projects, he concluded that his team was slightly below average when it came to their skills and resources. He estimated that 40% of comparable projects failed, and for the teams that did finish, it took about seven years.
Even more concerning was the fact that until Kahneman prompted his colleague, “there was no connection in his mind between his knowledge of the history of other teams and his forecast of our future.” And even after the connection was made, the team didn’t alter their project plans in the slightest.
Eight long years later, the book was completed. It was never used by the Ministry of Education.
If big projects aren’t at the forefront of your mind due to coverage of HealthCare.Gov’s rampant problems, they probably are because you’re actually working on one. And while there’s ample debate about what went wrong with the former (consultants! government! code! all of these things!), Kahneman’s tale points to another factor that may have played just as big a role: misperceptions, insecurities, and communication difficulties that often take place on project teams.
Truth be told, no one wants to be the person to pipe up and proclaim, “this massive project we’re betting our business on isn’t working, and here’s why.” According to Matthew McWha, the practice manager at CEB, a member-based advisory company, the culture of project management often discourages the raising of important red flags that could turn problem projects around.
“There’s a lot of perceived personal risk in saying, ‘I’m managing a failing project,’” he told me. “Or people actually think they can turn it around, so they don’t bring it up. They think they’re better off trying like the dickens to recover it in the meantime.”
McWha calls this a “watermelon project”: nice on the outside and one big mess once you cut through the surface. And if you think you can identify these projects in your company, forget it. “We think, based on our research, that a significant percentage of a portfolio that consist of watermelon projects don’t actually show up as troubled by conventional definitions,” he says.
Aside from human tendencies to self-protect and see themselves as the exception to the rule, the wrong project metrics are often being tracked — and they’re being tracked in the rear-view mirror. Too many projects measure success based on two metrics: time and budget. While these are important factors — research from Bent Flyvbjerg, author of Megaprojects: An Anatomy of Ambition, and his Oxford colleague Alexander Budzier identified time as the “the biggest factor and largest constraint” for tech projects in particular — they may not actually add up to what McWha defines as success: realizing your business outcomes.
The rub is that it’s easy to measure time and budget quantitatively; it’s not always so easy to measure business outcomes or whether you’re on the right track to meet them.
So how should you approach big projects differently? McWha offered a few suggestions based on research he’s conducted for the CEB PMO Leadership Council, analyzing over 100 large organizations with more than $1 billion in annual revenues:
Check and Revise Your Business Case Regularly. Because markets and competitive environments change, you should always revisit what, exactly, you’re doing, and more importantly, why you’re doing it. This is not only critical for uncovering hidden stumbling blocks, but can help guide your project toward accomplishing its business outcomes, which can shift over the course of your project.
Pay Attention to What Really Happens at Meetings. Gathering lots of data isn’t the be all and end all of project management. How people behave is just as important, if not more so. “If you have a project review meeting and no challenges or conflicts get raised, that’s a potential red flag,” he says. “The same is true if people walk away from a meeting with different perspectives of what’s happening.”
Cast a Wide Knowledge Net. It’s not just the core project team that needs to be part of the conversation. Educate your project sponsors on how to spot signs of trouble, and help people who aren’t involved in the day-to-day running of the project understand its goals and potential pitfalls. Often, when you’re in the midst of that Big Important Thing, it could take someone with an outside perspective to notice a problem everyone else missed.
Monitor What’s Not Being Spent. “If you’re not spending the money you should be spending, either you haven’t identified the right things to be spending it on, or people are hesitating to make decisions because the project objectives aren’t clear,” explains McWha.
Have an Entrepreneurial Project Manager. The number one driver of successful projects is a great manager. This doesn’t just mean someone needs to be good at conducting the trains; the person you pick should be an ‘entrepreneur’ — someone able to manage stakeholders and risk, and be comfortable adapting and changing course if necessary. “Nothing stays constant,” says McWha. “You have to find and develop project managers who can exercise judgment instead of slavishly following the process.”
In the end, even the drivers of even successful projects aren’t actually technical, Flyvbjerg and Budzier explained: they largely involve the project’s environment, whether there’s organizational resistance, and how risk is being managed. All of these internal indicators, combined with our own human perceptions about what we can and can’t do or say, play into whether projects are headed for a head-in-your-hands kind of moment.