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Not seeing the woods for the trees

I was recently asked to do a short piece of consultancy to help a client sort out some trouble with one of their projects. We all know that projects can go wrong for many reasons. In this case it did not take long to work out the cause of their difficulties.

The objectives and the scope of the project were unclear. Without clear objectives and with an ambiguously defined scope, trouble is bound to occur. This prompted me to wonder how common this situation is.

The trees and the wood

In theory, having unclear objectives and scope is a very basic mistake for a project manager. Yet I am often surprised by how commonly project managers, project sponsors and team members cannot, convincingly, tell me the objectives of the project they are working on. If I am honest, when I reflect on the projects I have been involved in over the last few years, there are some that I was not completely certain what the objectives were.

Why is this? There are a number of reasons, but they are best summarised by the English expression “not seeing the wood for the trees”. For those who are unfamiliar with this expression, it simply means that you become so focussed on the details that you lose sight of the big picture.

Projects are full of details, and one of the skills of a good project manager is to be aware of sufficient detail. But understanding detail should never be done at the expense of losing sight of the overall rationale for and direction of the project.

The big picture logic of projects

There is a simple piece of logic for me in any delivery related activity. This logic says that the order of thinking must be to answer certain questions in the following order:

  1. Why are we doing the project? Answering this question enables you to define objectives.
  2. What are the boundaries of the project? Answering this enables you to define scope.
  3. What do we need to develop to achieve the objectives whilst remaining within scope? Answering this enables you to define the deliverables.
  4. What actions need to be taken to develop the deliverables? From this you can get on into resourcing and planning.

In reality, these simple questions hide a lot of complexity. Each question can spin off much more detailed analysis. Understanding the objectives and scope of a complex programme can be a project in its own right. It is also not a simply linear process of answering the questions. There are feedback loops making trade-offs balancing, for example, the resources available and the scope of the project. But nevertheless this high level logic still holds.

We often become so focussed on the complexity and details that we lose sight of this simple logical flow:

  • Objectives -> scope -> deliverables -> activity -> resources -> plan

We try to keep control of many individual activities in the plan, and forget to keep our eyes on the objectives.

Identifying flawed projects

No matter how well you understand your plan, unless you can trace what is in the plan back to your original objectives then the plan is flawed.

When I am asked to review a project I always start by enquiring: what are the project’s objectives? And please explain the scope of the project? If a project manager cannot meaningfully answer these questions then I know the project either is in trouble or will be soon. Additionally, if key project team members cannot also answer these questions, consistently with the project manager’s answers, then I also think the project is likely to be in trouble.

The reality is that it often takes an outsider, (not necessarily a consultant - it could be a project manager from another project), to see that a project does not have clear objectives or scope. This is a problem I see time and time again and is one that all project managers understand. So why do we fall into this trap?

Falling into the trap

In the urgency to make progress, and probably as important, to be seen to be making progress, we often jump into the project without being clear about objectives. We are all familiar with the reality of working in a business. Budgets are set and commitments made long before a project is planned. It can therefore seem that we just need to get on delivering as soon as the project is really started.

This is always a mistake. Unless you are clear about the objectives and have a complete and unambiguous scope it is unlikely that the project will be a success.

You don’t have to just know the objectives at the start of the project, you must keep them in mind as you deliver. There is a tendency for projects to slowly veer away from original intentions. We have all seen a project completing a year or two after it started, apparently a success but not delivering the outcome that was expected at the start.

Of course, there are situations in which the objectives or scope are not easy to determine. The solution is not to progress the project in spite of this, but to see clarification of the objectives and scope as the first phase of the project. It is not until these are understood, that a plan and budget can truly be finalised.

If there are issues with objectives and scope that cannot be resolved, assumptions can be made. But it is critically important that these assumptions are managed as risks upon the project. Additionally, the objectives and scope are key parts of the project you must maintain and keep under change control.

Defining objectives and scope

In my experience, the best way to determine objectives and scope are by structured questions - documenting the result and getting it reviewed by the project sponsor and key project customers. There are examples of the sort of questions you can ask in two of my books: The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery (chapter 3) and Brilliant Checklists for Project Managers (chapter 5).

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