Entrepreneurial Project Management

Guerrilla tips and tactics for getting things done

Unworkable Projects

Posted by matteverard on July 12, 2006

I’d guess 20% of IT projects are “unworkable.” By that I mean that, as a PM, you should find a way to gracefully shut the thing down before a lot of time & money are wasted. There’s two steps to this:

  1. Figuring out that it’s a dud
  2. Counseling your exec to shut it down

Now, to explain.

#1. This is the hard part. If you’re a seasoned PM, you’ll feel it in your belly after about 2 weeks on the job. Go with your gut. (If you are a novice, good luck.) Here are some early warning signs that might be of use.

  • The team is fragmented and they don’t communicate often or well.
  • No one has time for the project due to pressing production issues and when you ask them for time they begin pulling at their hair, contorting their faces or simply don’t respond to your email.
  • There is no defined budget. When you talk about money, people speak in ambiguous terms.
  • The users have a totally different vision than the exec sponsor, etc.

#2. Oh, this is the really hard part…all of the root failure causes mentioned above will have executive answers. Examples:

  • “Bring the team together! That’s the PM’s job!” Well, yes, we can setup meetings and take everyone canoeing, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll come. People are busy with their daily jobs and personal life. You need a cohesive group, rallied around a goal to make a project work. Has the exec made this possible?
  • “Help them see that this is valuable!” Well, yes, but there are organizational and structural issues that will conspire against you. If the resources don’t have any skin in the game, you’ll always be a 4th priority (after regular work, personal email, and kids’ soccer games). Has the exec made this valuable to the team?
  • “Well, we’ll figure out the money later.” Fine, but the problem is that if the PM doesn’t have a sense for the monetary value of a solution, they don’t know whether to build a breadbox or a refrigerator. The PM has to set expectations for the solution at the beginning. Has the exec quantified the value of your project?
  • Is there agreement on the problems your project is trying to solve? Often the tool users are interested in improved productivity, but the exec has his eyes on customer sat or the bottom line and productivity is low on the totem pole. You can find a bridge to make people happy if there’s a general consensus, but not if there’s radically different understandings. Has the exec made his vision clear?

Execs are hard driving, goal oriented, damn-the-torpedo types (something I love) but they pay a PM to keep them out of trouble. They want you to warn them of risk and convince them to keep their wallets in their pockets if necessary. If you don’t raise the white flag early in a bad project, god help you! You’ll be on the hook for delivering a great product when the odds are nearly zero that you’ll be able to.


One Response to “Unworkable Projects”

  1. John B. said

    Hmm. . .#1 sounds like a project I’ve been working on for a while.

    But mine hasn’t failed.


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