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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How do you “turnaround” a troubled organization, project or team?


Have you been asked to turn around a troubled project, team, or organization? Have you seen this story:

  • The stakeholders have walked away from the project, team, or organization. They are disengaged and believe the effort is a complete failure. They have put a “toe tag” on the engagement and have moved on.
  • The scope of the project is a mess. You cannot tell where the project, team, or organization’s scope begins or ends. Success criteria for the engagement is unknown.
  • The solution is failing. The initial proposal seemed sound (9 months ago) but now the situation is much more complex. Software is not meeting the “marketecture” promises, integration is much more complex than originally expected, the business rules are not as clear as the stakeholders suggested.
  • The budget is shot. Profit is bleeding. Costs are out of control, if you can even find all the costs.
  • The risk profile is “off the charts”. Every risk in the plan has materialized, and the mitigations have failed.
  • The team is revolting. There is in-fighting, political and personal agendas are everywhere. No one wants to work on the project. People are jumping ship like rats off the Titanic.

Where do you start? What do you do first? How do you turn this situation around?

With experience, and the right kind of leader, the turnaround can start to take hold in less than 30 days. There are many techniques and “how to” opinions available to people. As opposed to describing the “how to” aspects of turn around lets discuss a framework. How you turnaround a project, team, or organization will vary based on the environment within you work. For example, if funding is no issue, you will have some freedom and luxury to act as compared to a financially stressed situation.

There are four key areas to address: People, Process, Technology, and Finance.

While there are benefits to starting in different areas, the context of the situation will drive you to tailor where you approach the problem first. Nevertheless, you will need to completely address these four areas if you are going to turn around a project, team, or organization.

People – Determine who is part of the solution and who is part of the problem. Move the problem children out, and the solution providers in. Just “lightening the load” will improve the environment and give you momentum.

Process – Determine if the project, team, or organization has enough process to be successful. No process creates confusion. Too much process gets in the way. Even the most simple environment needs some degree of process to facilitate communication and coordination of the assets. Once you gauge the degree of process in play, assess if it is the right process. Does the process add value? Does it make up for gaps in skills? Does it reduce risk?

Technology – Are the right technologies in play? Are the technology components being assembled in the correct manner? Is the team using a hammer when a screw drive is more apporpriate? Keep a sharp eye out for the tools that are needed to assemble the technology. I have frequently witnessed teams who are really good at building simple solutions (e.g. building a dog house) approaching a much more complex probelsm (e.g. building a sky scraper) with the same tools. In addition to the final solution, make sure you have the tools to assemble the solution and get you to the finish line.

Finance – What is the weekly burn rate? Do you know where all the money is being spent? Who is spending the money? Gain control of the budget, turn off any efforts that are not abolutely successful and necessary for the solution (after all, the current course and speed is a death march, so stopping the spending is actually going to save you money), define your recovery plan, and redirect the spending in alignment with the recovery plan.

In terms of how to execute across these four areas, as I mentioned, depending on the situation, it will make sense to start in different areas. I prefer to start with the finances. It is amazing how much you can learn about a project, team, or organization through the lens of the CFO. It also allows you to become engaged on the activity without being public, getting your feet under you and allowing you to craft your agenda for the people, process, and technology aspects. With the finance assessment complete, I prefer to move to people, then technology, then process.

This framework is flexible enough to apply to many many situations. These experiences can be very rewarding and quicken the pace of your learning and skills development. Many leaders talk about a “crucible of crisis”. These are truly incredible and daunting experiences that leap frog your skills to new heights, mostly due to the extraordinary challenges they present.