Banking

Problems don't mean a lack of progress with projects

During a project, you can find yourself taking the bumps in the road too hard. But it can be okay if you realize that, like everything else in life, projects follow the same pattern: two steps forward, one step back.


We've all witnessed instances where progress occurred, only to backslide a little, and then move forward again. Yet, somehow, the thought that this cycle might exist in our own projects doesn't seem to occur to us. I had this point driven home to me on a project where the constant forward/backward motion of progress nearly drove my project manager insane.

The job was, we thought at the beginning, a relatively simple server deployment. Displaying an unusual amount of forethought, our client called us in nine months before the lease expired on the equipment. A team of consultants and the IT staff would work together to update the hardware and perform much-needed server software upgrades. Penalty clauses built into the leasing contracts gave the engagement an extremely clear TCO horizon of around six months.

Our first few weeks on the project looked good. Operational budgets flew through the approval process. Our team gelled quickly. Our work on the server swap tests showed that—by spending less money on the leases—we could get systems that were not only more powerful but also more stable and reliable. In short, we were in technical and managerial heaven.

Then, the little nagging problems started up. One accountant didn't like the layout of the budget request. A site manager got his dander up about the schedule. A key department manager rescheduled his annual audit to correspond with the time we wanted to roll over his servers. Unexpected delays began to erode our TCO horizon, as machines scheduled to stay in service for three to six months passed the point when their leases expired. A thorough survey of the environment turned up 400 leased laptops that were due to expire a month before most of the servers.

Each time a problem appeared, my project manager threw himself at it with compassion and determination. He tried to understand the client's position. He worked with clients to get a grip on what could and could not be done. Most of the time, he resolved their issues without seriously affecting our schedule, although it took a careful eye to catch that among all of the schedule drafts.

During this process, he became a nervous wreck. He also started to whip the team harder and harder, looking at every technical setback as a potential source of disaster. As his leadership degenerated, we began to bicker among ourselves. We also started hiding technical problems from him, knowing that if he heard about them, they would become the next "big thing."

Eventually, despite all our problems, we converted the servers about a month behind the originally estimated schedule, using less manpower than expected and delivering a lower overall TCO to the company. The client was pleased. The project manager was a total wreck.

Problems and progress
After talking with him, I came to understand what went wrong. He spent his time with the client dealing exclusively with their problems. Every issue with the project fell into his lap, eventually leading him to believe that the project as a whole was a failure. Meeting or just missing our goals did not provide him with a sense of accomplishment. All he could see was the constant, steady, unrelenting stream of issues generated by our activity. Even our teaming with the client, which went through some hard times but turned out relatively positively, "sucked."

Thinking back over my relatively short experience, I could see many occasions when I came to the same conclusion. My encounters with problems tended to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Each separate negative experience pointed out the flaws in my approach. Every time a client pushed back, I took it as a sign that the project teetered on the edge of oblivion.

Although dramatically satisfying, such thinking failed to reveal one of the simplest, most obvious truths of human existence. The problems we encounter occur because of, not as an indictment of, the progress we make. If we did not move forward, the situations we experienced as problems could never happen.

Take the issues from the story above as an example. Let's break them down:
  1. One accountant didn't like the layout of the budget request. This particular accountant dwelled deep in the bowels of the accounting department. His role was to delay projects to verify that there was really value in them. Getting to him was a major milestone. Getting past him was a companywide rite of passage for serious projects.
  2. A site manager got his dander up about the schedule. We had a schedule dictated by corporate-level contracts. That schedule trumped his; in other words, our schedule had become strong enough to overturn a site-level decision. Again, we passed a major milestone.
  3. A key department manager rescheduled his annual audit to correspond with the time we wanted to roll over his servers. He was convinced that the servers would be down for longer than we claimed and wanted to get his work done before the move. We had his buy-in that this project was going to happen and happen relatively soon; he just didn't trust us.
  4. A thorough survey of the environment turned up 400 leased laptops that were due to expire a month before most of the servers. This was the first major reconciliation between the accounts payable, the existing hardware, and the lease contracts in over two years. That we pulled it off at all indicated the passage of yet another major milestone. Finding an unexpected savings turned out to be a bonus for our TCO argument.

In each case, the problems occurred as our project cut though political, social, and technical constraints. The more people believed that the project was real, the more problems we encountered…and the more progress we made.

Same pattern, different day
This idea that the problems we encounter are the milestones of our success seems obvious. In fact, my clients often shake their heads at me when I bring it up. "Of course," they say. "We know that." But then they hold long meetings about their problems and flagellate themselves and each other in e-mail about the issues they encounter.

As project managers, we don't have to fall into this pattern. As team leaders, we can choose to focus on the progress that brought us to this point. We can choose to help others see that. We can choose to point out that projects, like everything else in life, follow the same old pattern: two steps forward, one step back.

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