Ignoring the needs of real customers is just the start. When most project teams hear the shot of the starting gun, they leap into figuring out HOW to do the project – before they clearly understand WHAT the project is intended to accomplish, and what is expected of them. When goals are fuzzy, instead of specific and measurable completion criteria, notions of the end result hover in a foggy haze where these clearly defined criteria should be. Each stakeholder will have a different idea of what defines success, and in which direction the finish line lies. Ask a group of people to draw a tree and each person will imagine and draw an entirely different tree. Similarly, when the goal of a project is not clearly specified, perception of the goal will vary from person to person, making shared goals a remote possibility.
Rip Tide Model of Project Teamwork. When goals are unclear, the speed of mistakes exceeds the speed of progress. Imagine yourself floating on a raft in the middle of the Pacific ocean on a dark, cloud-covered moonless night. Having no idea of whether you were moving, or in which direction, why on earth would you bother to paddle? Compare this to being on a speeding bullet train where the path and destination are clearly defined. Even if the track runs out a couple of kilometers down the line, a team that trusts the leader will fly down the tracks at full throttle, knowing that more track will be laid by the time they arrive in this dark territory.
I think about projects gone haywire as being similar to what happens when multiple people end up drowning in rip tides. One person is being pulled under by a strong current, so another person wades in to save the first, and also becomes ensnared by the violent tide. Seeing two victims struggling, yet another brave soul tosses himself into the fray. The news channels inevitably report multiple drowning victims. Instead of one tragic loss of life, a whole heap of people meet a watery death.
Sometimes projects are like this, with everyone thrashing about. This situation calls for keeping a cool head. Stop first, think for a nanosecond or two, and then acting with the common sense required to break free of the unproductive adrenaline-fueled struggle. Otherwise one by one or en masse, each person finds himself drowning in an overwhelming tide of tasks and demands. Mistakes mount as they struggle valiantly to do what needs to be done. If only one person with a shred of leadership in their body would say, “Hey guys, let’s step back and think about why we’re here and what we’re doing”, the team might be able to regain perspective and take a more productive approach. Instead, they panic. They work longer hours, work harder, but they most assuredly don’t work smarter. In the grip of the adrenaline rush, so familiar to those of us who work in fast-paced project environments, they put in more effort but get less done.
Project teams committed to their goals need a well-rounded, complete, and measurable definition of success that drives the decisions, behavior, and choices of every stakeholder. Comprehensively defining success increases the likelihood of achieving it. Try using a “Success Scorecard” to explicitly define what it means to be “done.” Create it early in the project while everyone is still thinking clearly! It’s just too friggin’ easy to lower your standards when the drop dead date is bearing down on your team.
Scrappily yours, Kimberly
P.S. If you have some spare time on your hands and an extra couple of bucks, pre-order my Scrappy Project Management book at my publisher’s website.