Saturday, 26 January 2008

Failing projects 2: How to save a failing project

This section is written under the assumption that you are the office-based manager of a project team led by a field officer and the project appears to be failing. If you are the field officer, see part 3.

Houston, we've got a problem

The first step you need to take it to recognise that there is a serious problem. Accept it. If you spend all your time complaining that it isn't going as planned, you will not be in a positive enough state to drive through any improvement.

We are where we are

If saving projects was easy, none would fail. There are losses; some will be irrecoverable; not all outcomes will be achieved. You should be thinking about damage limitation: what are the key outcomes? How could we get there from here? It is important to remember that whatever you plan, it will probably have to be delivered by the existing team, the team which is already performing poorly. If they have taken 50% of the time and resources to do only 40% of the work, you have two problems: there's 60% of the work still to do, and at the current rate that will take 75% of the available time.

Do something now

Every week of underperforming creates a bigger problem to be addressed. Minor changes early on may do as much as drastic actions later.

"Do" and "Don't"

Don't tell them it's easy

There is no point saying that you could do it quicker or better, or somebody else could. They are finding it hard; unless you are intending to actually do the work yourself, the fact that you could do it standing on your head is irrelevant.

Don't apportion blame: leave the autopsy until the patient is dead

There is a time and place to work out what went wrong. Surrounded by frazzled staff who have been quietly panicking about how it is going isn't one of them. Save it for the post-project review, which will usually conclude that decisions were made with the best intentions in the circumstances as they appeared at the time.

The review may well show that the problems were caused by a combination of bad research, bad planning, overoptimistic costing, remote management, bad luck and bad weather, as well as project implementation. Often such problems only become obvious at the fieldwork stage, but that doesn't mean that's what caused them.

But even if it is true that the fault lies with the field team, who are no doubt demoralised and unmotivated, telling them this is hardly likely to inspire them.

Don't tidy up

You could clean up the cabins and tool stores and make the site look a bit smarter. But it won't help: although a dirty site is a symptom of a failing team, the obverse isn't true. The problems with the team need to be addressed if anything is going to change.

Don't work overtime and weekends

The extra work done won't compensate for the administrative and logistical problems caused, and productively in core hours will suffer.

Maybe send people on holiday

This will be good for them, and good for the site, since it provides a break which will alter the team dynamics. It's actually a good plan to include a break in projects on purpose: the need to hand over to someone else is a very good discipline.

Maybe replace the field officer

This might seem the obvious solution, but it is fraught with difficulties. For a start, it seems to personalise the issue into a matter of their competence. It will probably irreversibly damage their working relationships in the future. And it will be resented by the staff (paradoxically, this is true even if they have spent the last month complaining about how useless they are), the staff you are hoping to lead forward to success.

Maybe provide more staff or more time

Again this may seem an obvious solution. But throwing more resources into the mix will have little effect unless the fundamental problems are addressed; in no time any new staff will have gone native and be just as unproductive as the rest. And adding a few weeks to the project may be felt to be extending the prison sentence.

Even if this doesn't happen, there's likely to be friction between old and new staff, especially if the new members have been labelled as 'the ones who are coming to sort it out'.

Do make hard decisions

In general, problems arise because people defer hard decisions, rather than because they choose wrong. But archaeologists will be understandably reluctant to depart from accepted methodology. If you are going to abandon stone-by-stone planning, the decision should be made by the senior archaeologist involved, after careful thought. The team may well be reluctant: it is important to explain to them the rationale, not just the outcome.

Do support your field officer

Help them by smoothing any practical issues, listening to their views, respecting their opinions. And make sure you are available and visit site often: long distance management only works when projects are running well.

Do talk to the team

Give them information about the background to the project, what your priorities are, and how they fit in. They should be made to feel part of the company, even if they are only there for a single site.

Do listen to the team

You never know, you might learn something.

Redesigning the pyramid: archaeological management 10 years ago

Martin Locock "Project management in a changing world: redesigning the pyramid", in M A Cooper, A Firth, J Carman and D Wheatley (eds.) 1995, Managing Archaeology (Routledge, London), pp. 208-215.

Click on an image to see a bigger version.

Copyright Martin Locock. Published here under the Creative Commons Attribution/ Non commercial / Share alike licence.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Failing projects: 1 - identification

So how do you spot a failing project?

Although this question is framed as if it were about the project, it is really about the project team. Some projects will fail because they are too big, too complex, or too under-resourced to achieve their aims despite the best efforts of a fully functioning team. Here the issue is rather: how do you spot when a project threatens to fail even though it should succeed?

Teams are astonishing flexible and powerful. Humans are by nature social animals; if you put people in a room and give them a task they will become a team. As Big Brother has shown, this may not be a pleasant or wholly positive process: the missing element in the House is leadership. Most failing teams reflect a failure of leadership. There are a lot of warning signs indicating that such failure is imminent.

Site visit to a failing project

  • Workers will be focused on specific tasks or areas, reluctant to share equipment or lend staff

What this reflects is a lack of belief in the project as a whole. It isn't necessarily a conscious effort to avoid blame.

  • Untidy tool store, site and cabins

People feel too busy or too tired to do anything that isn't their direct responsibility: it's easier just to leave the rubbish on the chair or put the tools away dirty.

  • Minor accidents, incorrect or incomplete records

People who feel under pressure won't have their usual air of calm competence.

  • Minor sickness, lateness and slowness

One of the prime motivators is feeling that you can't let your team down by not playing your part: so these symptoms reflect that the central identity of the team is weak.

  • Poor morale and working relationships

Arguments are to be expected when people work together, but in normal circumstances they would be brief and soon forgotten. One common phenomenon is the developemnt of a strong site v office antipathy where senior managers are seen as the enemy.

It will be apparent that 10 minutes of wandering around the site and talking to a couple of the team will probably be enough to assess these warning signs. It should perhaps be emphasised that although it is often said that conditions like the weather or the nature of the work are responsible for poor morale, this isn't true: an enthused team will cope with an adverse situation positively.

Talking to the team leader (Project Officer/ Project Manager)

The team leader will be aiming to deliver a successful project completed on time. They will normally do their best to avoid admitting to uncertainty. Phrases such as "I'm not sure ...", "I don't know ... "and "I can't decide ... " should be taken as red flags that they have reached the point where they are no longer able to take effective decisions. This is usually because they feel swamped by the work to be done and therefore cannot plan ahead. Another warning phrase is the reponse, when asked for the likely completion date for a task, is "As long as it takes"or "I can't tell". This is not because people should be able to predict the future accurately, but rather because it's telling you they haven't even got a plan for how it might work out.

When people get to this state they cannot prioritise effectively, but more importantly they cannot direct the team, who will sense whether their leader has a grasp on the project.

Action is needed ... but what? See part 2.

Transform your company with "10 simple steps"

The project management skills of your company’s staff are critical to its success. Improving them will have an immediate impact on project delivery and reliability as well as on motivation. Most generic management training is expensive and hard to apply to the specifics of the archaeological sector, and employers are sceptical of its direct benefits.

The one-day workshop, 10 simple steps to better archaeological management , is different. Aimed at senior and middle managers in archaeological organisations, it provides a mixture of practical tips, analysis of current practice, and opportunities for discussion and reflection, which will leave them ready to face the challenges of their work with a new enthusiasm and insight.

Issues covered include: communication, image, cost, risk, health and safety, and specific management tools.

If your company needs better results from its projects, you should invest in this course. It can be delivered at your workplace or in a nearby venue, at a cost of £400 for the event. Contact me at mlocockATgmailDOTcom to discuss this further.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Good enough is good enough

I sometimes describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. I used to go to enormous lengths to ensure that every letter, report, or set of minutes was not just clear and promptly produced, but also well laid out without spelling or grammatical errors (or their increasingly-common near-equivalents, keyboard mistakes). In some circumstances this was the right approach: you don't want an advert for your new website to show the wrong url; but there is little doubt that I spent more time on these tasks than I would if I were content to tolerate minor faults.

There was a time when critical readers of reports would highlight such errors as if their presence cast doubt on the reliability of the evidence and interpretation presented. This was never, strictly speaking, fair (the process of converting handwritten manuscript into printed text involved many stages and multiple hands), and has become obsolete. These days readers are unlikely to complain about minor mistakes in web content, as long as the text is helpful and errors, once notified, are corrected. It is churlish to complain (as some do) about the low standards of academic rigour and syntax in blog entries, considering that the writers have spent their time and trouble to create them without hope of reward beyond the gratitude (if any) of their readers (if any).

The whole notion of living in perpetual beta, where you expose material you know to be incomplete or containing errors, is hard for many to accept. Hence you still find the die-hard emailers who insist on using the formatting and syntax which was appropriate to formal business correspondence 40 years ago. It is, alas, futile to object that their use of "your letter of even date", "submitted for your consideration", and "under separate cover" is as baffling to their recipients as breathless uncapitalised under-punctuated text-speak is to them.

Which is not to say that we should abandon all hope of precision. But often perfectionism is a tactic to conceal ignorance about hat is important and what is not. Like the actor who said that he didn't care what lies the newspapers told about him as long as they spelled his name right, we should spned more time ensuring that the conclusion and summary of a report are correct and clear, rather than proofreading the context catalogue.

[Incidentally, the prevalence of spellcheck and autocorrect functions is changing the sort of mistake that commonly escapes correction: because 'their' and 'there' are both plausible words that appear in the dictionary, they are becoming effectively interchangeable - in 20 years' time the grammatical niceties of their use will seem as quaint as rarified debates about split infinitives seem now.]

Focusing on the important stuff is a good thing in the office: it is vital on site. In a way, it is easy to dig a site properly: you start at the top with your trowel and toothbrush and keep digging down until you hit natural. But unless time and resources are unlimited, this approach will not work; instead, the topsoil will have been lovingly removed, each residual ploughzone find carefully recorded, and the henge or cemetery or villa will not have been reached.

The main reason that experienced excavators work faster than newcomers isn't because they can use the tools well, or because they are fit: it is that they know which tools to use, how fast to go. If you watch one at work you will see they continually switch from mattock to trowel to leaf to mattock as their confidence in the stratigraphy ebbs and flows. Equally, at a project level the specification will identify the key elements of the resource to be examined. Whatever the truth about The Digger's story of machine stripping of medieval stratigraphy, it is possible to acknowledge that in theory such an approach might be justified: I write as a member of the select club, along with Philip Barker, of those archaeologists who have dug a section through medieval town defences using a Hymac. Such actions can be defended if they provided the evidence required, regardless of their apparent brutality.

Such a defence is, of course, undermined if it turns out that the information you were so keen to retrieve is then left to moulder in obscurity for years. Prompt dissemination is fundamental to the development of archaeological thinking -- the perfectionist's definitive account is all too likely to emerge 30 years after the debate they wished to illuminate has been settled once and for all by others with lower standards and faster publication schedules.

So before getting out a red pen to edit a report, remind yourself: good enough is good enough.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Delegation and succession planning

There is a word for the sort of organisation with one key member of staff, in whose absence the whole thing grinds to a halt: doomed. In the short term, they will take holidays, sick leave, attend meetings; and in the long term they will leave or retire. A good warning sign is how often someone who is out of the office is phoned on their mobile.

This often happens because a dependency culture has grown up (perhaps unconciously reinforced by the key manager who insists on doing everything). A healthy organisation should be able to cope with temporary staff absences; if yours can't, you should be looking at sharing skills and knowledge more widely.

Getting the most from external training

So you've got past the reasons not to train and are about to go into the outisde world. How can you ensure that you benefit as much as possible from the opportunity?

One way you will benefit is by coming back inspired. This may not in fact because you have learnt a lot; time away from the office and its day-to-day crises is very refreshing in itself, and it is also a good chance to think about thorny long term issues. It is worth taking some reading or writing that you have been putting off delaing with 'until you get a chance': you may not in fact deal with it, but at least it's there if you feel like it. It is also worth reading the literarture about the event you're attending, so you are clear about arrangements, and can also think about which speakers you wish to hear, which attendees you might want to link up with. This is all 'train work', and needs doing, but it is also important to arrive fresh and energetic, so you needn't feel guilty if an early start has left you unable to do more than read the paper on the journey.

It is easy to forget that travel and training can be quite hard physical work. It's no surprise that by Day 3 of a conference many attendees are falling asleep. It's a good idea to take water and fruit to suuplment the coffee and biscuits which will no doubt be supplied as a staple. It's alos a good idea to get out into the fresh air: walk in the grounds or a local park rather than attend a session you're not interested in.

And while you will hope that speakers will be clear and interesting and organised, you certainly won't be completely enthralled all the time. Don't beat yourself up about this. Even the worst speaker will probably set off some train of thought (even if it's only "I must make sure my team learn to give talks properly"); I note down such ideas around the edges of the page, with action points marked with a *.

Then on the way back these notes can be reviewed to see whether they make any sense (both as legible text and as intellectual content), and back in the office you can easily work through the action points before filing them.

If you learned stuff, say so. There's nothing more likely to smooth the next application like the demonstrable effectiveness of the previous one.