I have come to a conclusion this week … most IT Project challenges are not solved by theoretical, intelligent design.
Now, I make a living delivering project success through proper planning, processes, governance, etc. … in other words theoretical, intelligent design – so let me explain what I mean.
After I’d written my blog for CIO.com “Where did the project go right?”, which is a cracking read, by the way, I had one of those eureka moments.
I’ve been wondering for some time whether it is intelligent design that leads to project success or is it more thanks to the lessons learned from all the projects that have failed. Are we are standing on the shoulders of those who went before, blazed the trail, and have the scars to show it as much as our own talent and skill?
Naturally, today’s IT Projects will only succeed if yesterday’s lessons are put into practice. All those mistakes and failures provide valuable lessons that theoretical designers would be foolish to ignore! Unfortunately, fast paced IT Projects rarely allow room for mistakes let alone the time to learn lessons from them. If only there were a way that all this experience could be parachuted into your project if only there were a dongle you could plug in to access all this greater knowledge and better ways of working.
The good news is that there is – it’s Project Management as a Service – and I’ll explain more in a moment.
Top Down Intelligent Design or Bottom Up Iteration? How IT project Management Can Have Both.
First, I was reading “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed this week and in it, he shares the story of Unilever who back in the 1970s had a problem making washing powder. I think it sums up the challenge well.
Unilever’s problem was thus. The nozzle, through which they pushed, at high pressure, the boiling hot chemicals used to make washing powder kept clogging up. Unilever called upon their best mathematical minds to solve the problem, experts in high-pressure systems, chemical analysis and phase transition. Theoretical, intelligent design was surely the fastest route to success and, sure enough, they came up with the mathematically optimal nozzle. It went into production and … it clogged up.
Eventually, Unilever turned to its biologists who took a different approach. They made a bunch of nozzles based on the original but with subtle ‘improvements’ and after testing each of them rejected the failures and created ten copies of the best … again, with marginal changes. After repeating the process over and over they were left with a nozzle that worked “many times better” than the original.
The point is that the winning nozzle came only after 449 rejected designs. It took 449 failures to reach that one success – a design which no mathematician was ever likely to come up with. It demonstrates the relationship between failure and success.
As Syed notes, “…learning from mistakes relies on two components: first, you need to have the right kind of system – one that harnesses errors as a means of driving progress; and second, you need a mindset that enables such a system to flourish”.
To learn from mistakes, you have to have the right culture in place – but in a busy IT Project, with tight deadlines and budget constraints, who has the time to make the equivalent of 449 nozzles?
Of course, thanks to increasingly collaborative working, you don’t need to!
This week I saw Project Management as a Service at work in all its glory delivering this very solution.
Distilled down to a few sentences, here’s what happened.
A team tackling an especially complex IT Project had taken the decision to complement their in-house capability with tools and talent from the Project Management as a Service sector to improve performance and delivery.
The in-house guys were running the show – a team of mathematically gifted project management talent who were also experts in their industry field – sound familiar? They are intelligent designers, like the Unilever guys, with a track record of delivering the optimal plan. On this project though, they’d got their sums wrong … or rather the sums were right but the optimal plan would not be the very best option.
It was a member of the PMaaS crew that pointed it out but only because of painful experience working on a similar project elsewhere.
Now to be clear, the in-house guys would have succeeded had they stuck with their plan. It was sound and it would have found its way – perhaps delayed, perhaps over budget! However, thanks to this suggestion their project will deliver a measurably greater return on investment and some extra, really exciting, deliverables that the business will be able to monetise in the future.
The PMaaS hero of this story only had this insight because an IT Project he’d worked on in the past had hit problems. After several costly failed attempts to deliver the intended outcome he and his team had eventually struck gold. By this time that project late and way beyond the forecast cost but he never forgot the lessons he’d learned.
He’d already made 449 nozzles so the team he was now working with didn’t have to.
It’s not a regularly advertised benefit of the concept of Project Management as a Service but, along with “high-quality Project delivery”, “robust and consistent process” and “governance, metrics and reporting”, perhaps the industry should be selling itself as a plug and play dongle for best practice and greater experience.
The best way to learn is from mistakes, even better when they’re not your own.