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The Horrors of Project Management

All Hallows’ Eve is upon us and this celebration of the dead, saints, martyrs and faithfully departed (or if you like, the excuse to dress up in creepy costumes and raid your neighbours for sweets) is one of the most anticipated days on the calendar. For many of us in the programme and project management community, it’s just another day at the office but this profession can give us all a fair share of frights too.

After 20 years in the profession across multiple industries and organisations, I have encountered a number of fear-provoking experiences which have helped me to develop my capabilities as a programme manager and leader. It is important that we all take the opportunity to reflect when things go bad for us (as they inevitably do regardless of our individual or team performance) so we can improve and help others to learn from our mistakes or mishaps.

Here are my top ten project management horrors for your consideration:

1) The spirit of the absent SRO

The Senior Responsible Owner can be the most important source of support and guidance for your programme/project but their absence can also have many undesired impacts. Having a senior leader driving your change with the wistful presence of a ghost can slow down delivery, dissuade supporters, disillusion your team and generally leave the work without guidance or momentum.

2) The skeletons of previous attempts at change

Learning lessons from past programmes/projects can be vital in your work to prepare for the challenges of a new change. Lurking at the back of the closet is a ten or twenty year old project that experienced the exact same circumstances you went through…don’t be scared by it, embrace those lessons or you might find yourself down to the bare bones too!

3) The cobwebs of poor communications

Getting communications right can be a challenge but when it goes wrong, it can lead to any number of sticky situations from lowering team morale to having lawyers or trade unions knocking on your door. Save time and hassle in the long term by ensuring you have a clear approach to managing your communications.

4) The pumpkin lanterns of Early Warning Indicators

As mentioned above, it can be possible to learn from the ghosts of our past in this profession. At the start of a new programme/project, you can spend some time proactively establishing the right Early Warning Indicators that will be a beacon indicating potential impending doom. Cause and effect diagrams are particularly useful tools for mapping out the risks that allow you to see doom approaching and take preventative or mitigating actions.

5) Bobbing for benefits…

…stay with me here. We all know that one of the key first steps in establishing a new change is to map out the benefits early on and build a business case that explains how investment in the new change will realise a good set of positive outcomes. But take opportunities along the way to revisit the benefits case and look again at the situation, which is constantly changing. You might discover some juicy new benefits or even ways to enhance or exploit the existing ones.

6) The hideous beating heart of the dis-benefits

Edgar Allan Poe had it right, a guilty conscious can leave you feeling the emotional burden when you are trying to deliver meaningful change. Sometimes for every good and positive outcome, there are people who are disadvantaged or have to change when they do not feel the need. It is important to spend as much energy handling the dis-benefits of a change as the high profile “shiny” positives. If you don’t, the combined impact of all these dis-benefits could sweep across the organisation like a tide washing away your other good work.

7) The black cat of exceptions

Programme and project management can be more of an art form than a science and sometimes, things go wrong “just because”. Instead of cursing bad luck or hoping these incidents just pass by, we should accept and embrace the fact that nothing ever goes exactly to plan. You and your team should be ready to react to the sudden appearance from the shadows of an unscheduled or unanticipated event.

8) The creepy cobwebs of scope creep

The biggest terror for the resolute PM. You are happy delivering your initiative within time, cost and quality tolerances when suddenly you walk into a new item of scope and spend time distracted by the debates of “can we” and “should we” and “how do we”. By the time you have dusted those debates off you, tolerances are stretched or broken. The best advice is to start the programme/project with a process for dealing with scope creep effectively, rather than just praying that you can protect your scope from “incy-wincy” stakeholders.

9) The bubbling cauldron of inconsistent standards

Best practice standards are “best” for a reason. Your organisation has committed to a clear model of the most suitable framework for delivering change that meets your organisational needs. Chucking bits of protocols or half-cooked ways of working into a boiling pot of procedures can result in a bitter-tasting approach to delivery so take time up front to source the best ingredients (and document them appropriately so all of your team will understand what is expected of them). Being adaptable is always recommended but completely abandoning best practice can be a recipe for disaster.

10) The trick-or-treat of unclear governance

My own personal PM nightmare! Getting a clear, unambiguous decision from senior leaders on a programme/project is hard enough but without a robust governance structure and clearly defined terms of reference, decision-making can become unpredictable. It can take extra effort (which is better focused on other aspects of the initiative) to get a simple “yes or no” so avoid this pitfall with a well-defined model which includes information cascades and escalation channels.

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