Project Canaries


Yellow-fronted Canary (Serinus mozambicus)
Yellow-fronted Canary (Serinus mozambicus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On my way home today, I heard a classic song from my youth, Canary in a Coalmine by The Police. This song reminded me of a book that I have found to be insightful and a concept within Business Transformation that is worth expanding upon here.

The book is Corporate Canaries: Avoid Business Disasters with a Coal Miner’s Secrets, by Gary Sutton. The premise is that just like coal miners used to bring canaries into their coal mines as a form of early detection system for poisonous gas, there are corporate canaries that can serve as a similar form of early detection system for corporate death or failure.

So, on my ride home inspired by The Police, I began to capture some project canaries, or project level warning signs that can show a toxic environment within your project, programs, or portfolios. Here they are in no particular order:

  • The business should make business decisions and technology should make technology decisions.
  • If you don’t have the business defined, you don’t know your destination.
  • If you don’t have a schedule, you don’t know when you will arrive at your destination.
  • If you don’t have “one throat to choke”, you don’t have any accountability.
  • If you don’t have organizational roles & responsibilities understood, you can’t make decisions.
  • The project can only move as fast as decisions are made, and kept.
  • If you don’t communicate, others will define their perception as your reality.
  • If you don’t manage your budget, you don’t have control.

Think of these bullets as canaries in your project. Find the shelf for them to prop them up and watch to see if they keel over. Keep your eye on them as you traverse your project environment, organizational culture, and hallway passages.

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