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Do you think everything is late? Are you asking the right questions?

One of the habits I have observed in management is the tendency, in trying to solve a problem, to focus in one area, when it is a different issue that lies at the bottom of the challenge being faced. A key reason for this is the questions that are asked. 

Take projects - a frequent management moan concerns the delivery times for projects. The question arises – why is everything we try to do late? Asking this question focuses people on trying to understand what makes them late. My response is to ask in return – what makes you think your projects are late? 

Let’s look at this in a little more detail.

As someone who classifies two of my base skills as program management and change management it is not surprising that some of my time is spent thinking about, shaping, initiating, delivering and reviewing projects of one form or another. Another chunk of my time is used setting up or improving the capabilities in organizations to deliver such projects. Many organizations I interact with start their conversations with me along the lines of –we have a problem. Every project that we try to undertake is late. What can we do about it?

First, let’s consider the situation in which someone tells me about an organization that has delivered many projects on time, but suddenly has a project which is running disastrously late. Then I will try to work with that person to work out what it is about this project that has made it late and what can be done to bring it back on time. 

But now, let’s consider the situation in which someone tells me about an organization in which every project is late. Then I am far less likely to consider what it is about that project that has made it late. Instead I am going to look at their planning process in general. How did they come up with their plan for the project in the first plan? If a project is late, presumably it is late relative to a plan. 

Planning is a central tool in the project manager’s armoury. Whatever form of project management one is doing, planning is a challenging intellectual and technical activity. In understanding how planning is done I ask a series of questions: how is the work identified? How is estimation done? What assumptions are made? What risks are taken into account – and how are they taken into account?

But planning is not only an intellectual activity, it is inherently a political one. We have all seen the situation in which a very senior manager says “I want this completed by the end of next month”. Hey presto a project plan is produced which shows the task completed by the end of next month. The unfortunate truth is that no amount of table thumping pronouncements on critical dates that must be met, even by the most senior manager, makes the impossible possible. If a plan is to be useful, it needs to represent reality.

Of course, a lot more is possible in a shorter time than most organizations take to do their projects. Table thumping by managers can speed up delivery. If you take your best people, give them some excellent facilitators and all the resources they require, dedicate them to a project – then you can normally go at a much faster pace than the average project. But management dictate alone will not make a project go fast.

Another point is that if you plan a project, the length of time you estimate a task will take should not be some generic estimate of what is theoretically possible, but a realistic estimate of what doing a specific task takes in the environment you work in. There is no point planning tasks that could take one day as one day tasks if you know in your organization they always take five days. A plan is not meant to be an inspiration or an aspiration – it is a tool for management, and as such it needs to be realistic.

Hence when someone asks why their projects are late I want to explore if the problem is late projects, unrealistic planning or unrealistic commitment making in the first place.

That is not the end of the story. There is another relevant example of the tendency to ask one question, when one should be asking a different one. The statement “why are all our projects late” may hide a very different question. This different question is “how can we deliver faster”. 

Why are all our projects late is a question that late implies the project team has done something wrong. In some situations this will be true. But in many others, the project team produces perfectly realistic plans and delivers to those plans. It’s just that the project customers need a faster pace of delivery. 

How can we deliver faster is a request to innovate. It is not a finger pointing question, but a desire to seek new ways to do things. There is not one way to deliver projects. By exploring innovative techniques, team structures and reviewing people skills most organizations can improve their pace of delivery.

Next time you are in a situation in which you are trying to work out why all your projects are late then ask yourself:

•Are all your projects really late; or

•Are you coming to the conclusion that projects are late because you accept unrealistic plans; or

•Are you making unrealistic commitments because of political pressures; or

•Are you seeking to work out how to speed up delivery?

These different questions will point you towards different types of solutions. There is a huge difference between:

•Assessing why a specific project is late;

•The technical task of improving project planning for a group of project managers;

•The political task of generally improving realistic commitment making; and 

•The organizational, people and process task of speeding up delivery.

Ask the right question and you are much more likely to find the right answer!


For more discussion and ideas of this type see my book The Project Management Book which contains 40 essays on different aspects of projects and project management.


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