Believing is not an Option

In 1970, the ill-fated American Apollo 13 lunar landing mission suffered an oxygen tank explosion that crippled the critical service module and stranded the crew in orbit around the moon with no way home back to Earth. Through the ingenuity and determination of the astronauts and Mission Control back on the ground in Houston and with only the material, tools and skills available on their the severely damaged Apollo 13 space craft, repairs were successfully  made. A creative, alternative approach back to earth was plotted and the crew were returned with out further incident.

The Apollo 13 incident, with it’s life and death consequences, is an extreme outlier but starkly illustrates the ideal that “failure is not an option”. While those words were a Hollywood creation and were never actually uttered, Flight Dynamics Officer Jerry Bostick responded when asked in an interview by the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” :

  “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution”.

They believed that the goal of returning the crew safely was possible despite extremely limited resources and options. What would have the outcome been had they felt that the goal was impossible because of those staggering odds against their success? When you are the leader and bad things happen, all eyes are on you. How will you react? If you believe the goal is impossible, then you will absolutely fail. If you believe that the goal is possible, then you have a chance of success. Both sides of the same coin are infectious; optimism on one side and pessimism one the other. Pessimism is self-fulfilling. Optimism opens the door to possible success.

Beyond Project Management to Project Leadership

We are only in the second month of the new year and I have already had three conversations on a topic that I sadly continue to discuss year in and year out; why is it so many IT projects fail?

Most recent studies show that only about one in three projects are considered successful and even many of those have the quality of “declaring victory” and moving on in spite of evidence to the contrary. The generally reported reasons are:

  • weak executive sponsorship and involvement,
  • vague or incorrect requirements,
  • unrealistic schedule,
  • poor scope management,
  • team break-down,
  • lack of user participation,
  • inadequate or incomplete testing.

All these reasons are widely known and accepted. Anecdotally and interestingly, the majority of IT projects in recent years have required that the project manager is Project Management Institute (PMI) PMP certified with the implicit assurance that projects lead by certified managers are aware of and able to avoid these pitfalls. Project mangers with a PMP  are educated and certified in the PMI’s PMBOK guide which cover their principles of project management and project management processes. In my opinion, the PMBOK is a solid body of work that focuses completely on the process of managing a project but falls completely short on the subject of project leadership. It is telling that leadership was only explicitly acknowledged as an important project management skill in the 4th and latest edition of the PMBOK for the first time and only in a brief paragraph buried in an appendix.

The PMBOK exemplifies what Donald Schon in the “The Reflective Practitioner” touches on;  “the inadequacy of established management theory and technique to deal with the increasingly critical task of managing complexity” where “professional knowledge is mismatched to the changing situations of professional practice – the complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflicts which are increasingly perceived as central to the world of professional practice”.  PMP certification, while demonstrating that the holder is acquainted with the PMI’s “body of knowledge” regarding project management, does not imply that said individual can effectively apply this particular body of knowledge in the real world nor does it ensure that this project manager is capable and willing to deal with the uncertainties, complexities, vulgarities of a project at the human level.

By definition projects are unique. By nature, they are very human endeavours. Projects are often foggy, untidy affairs staffed with less than a perfect team. This is lost on many who plan and staff projects. They believe that projects are deterministic, predictable, cookie cutter affairs and as such require managers of process and not leaders of people. We all have encountered the clip-board toting project manager with low to zero emotional intelligence, checking and measuring against “The Plan”. They hold meetings straight out of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where all is fine and nothing is amiss, hole up it their office fiddling with software tools that “manage” the project, and carefully craft meaningless status reports right up until the project hits the wall (to none’s surprise except perhaps to the few that actually read the status reports and took them  at face value).

Reliance only on process and certification will most likely result in a failed project. A successful project is the result of an effective and efficient team effort. The success of that effort is more assured with a true leader at it’s helm; an individual that is a communicator and motivator, a person that instills confidence and enthusiasm, and by their integrity and credibility has the mutual respect of all involved. As an industry, we need to make the requirement of these qualities in our project managers the first and foremost visible priority and place process knowledge in the back seat as a given core competency.