Don't let Murphy run your project

Murphy's Law--If something can go wrong, it will--can worm its way into your projects if you don't work to keep it out. Here's some basic advice to help you remember that you're in control.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
I had a lunch meeting with Reyna, who is in the testing phase of a project to implement a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) package for the sales division. Reyna and I had worked together to get her project defined and planned, but I hadn’t touched base with her for a while. In between bites of salad, she gave me an update on the project status: The project is a little behind, but the client is not very concerned—yet.

“You have a complicated project to implement,” I said. “It sounds like your sponsor understands it’s hard to plan everything out perfectly up-front.”

“She has been understanding so far,” Reyna said nervously. “However, we have had more than our share of glitches lately.”

“What are you running into now?” I asked.

“It seems that we have hit a streak where a problem or extra work is popping up every other day,” Reyna reflected. “Two weeks ago, we had a contractor leave the project after an extended illness.”

“Could you see it coming?” I inquired.

“He had been out off-and-on for a couple of weeks,” Reyna noted. “But we always thought he would be back.

Reyna and I discussed a couple of other items that her team had encountered during the past few weeks. One delay was caused by having to add a new set of analytical reports to the list of deliverables. Another was a communication mix-up with one of the field managers that resulted in some mandatory training classes being delayed. The CRM vendor was also causing some concern because it had misplaced two invoices.

“These things always happen to me in the middle of a project,” Reyna sighed. “It’s Murphy’s Law again!”

Mentor advice
Everyone knows about Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” You may have also heard O'Toole's Corollary: “Murphy was an optimist.” But have you ever noticed that Murphy seems to strike most often against project managers who aren’t managing their work effectively?

Some project managers plan thoroughly, control their internal processes, and manage the project proactively. Others only update the workplan, hand out assignments, and then curse Murphy when problems arise. (In fact, given Murphy’s track record, maybe he [or she] has turned out to be a strong project manager by now.)

To be honest, I’m being too hard on Reyna. Her project is not in bad shape, and she will ultimately implement this package successfully. However, if you hear yourself talking like this, take pause. The problem with Murphy’s Law is that it implies that everything is out of your control, and bad events are happening, as a result. But look at the problems Reyna described.

First, she had a team member with a serious illness who was out for some time. Reyna could hope that the person would come back to the project, but this sounds like a risk to me. Risk management should have been invoked to put a plan in place to deal with the strong possibility that the team member might not return.

Second, when new reports are requested, it is not bad luck; it is a scope change. Scope management should have been applied.

Third, the communication mix-up is a part of communication management and is within Reyna’s control. She can’t get hit by communications problems and then blame Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is to understand who is managing the project—you or Murphy. Once you’re comfortable with that, you start to realize that most events are within your control. If some events are not within your control, the way you respond to them definitively is.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Editor's Picks