Monday, 4 February 2008

Failing projects 3: saving your own project

The previous section dealt with saving a project from outside. But what if it's your project, and you're beginning to recognise the warning signs?

Don't panic, act

or rather

Don't act, think

Have you really got a problem? It is notoriously difficult to predict how much longer an excavation will take. The best way to visualise the timescale is to think that if you stopped digging now, and all you did was record, sample, and close down the site, how many weeks would it take? If your project is in any sort of trouble and nearly halfway through, the answer is likely to be "most of the remaining time". Which means that, unless something dramatic changes, you have very limited scope for further excavation if it is to be dealt with properly. And so the answer is "Yes- you have really got a problem".

This may be a deeply troubling revelation; on the other hand, you should take some comfort in the fact that maybe you can do something about it.

Am I to blame?

The honest answer is "perhaps", but that's not important right now. It may be that the tasking and resources were so mismatched that equating the two was completely impossible. That's not your fault (unless you did the estimating). Or it may be that you were treating the stratigraphy carefully hoping that there would be time to deal with the whole sequence that way. It may be you were unlucky with the weather. But whatever it was, just leave it. The important thing is how you react now; delivering projects when it's easy is easy; it's the hard stuff that's hard to do.

If at first you don't succeed, review your success criteria

Re-read the spec and brief to remind yourself what the key interests are and what you are committed to delivering. You may find that a problematic recent feature can be ignored, or left in situ. Or that full excavation is not expected. There are a lot of clauses about variations and unexpected discoveries which may provide a way out.


If you can't deliver the narrowly-defined success criteria, you'll need to negotiate with your client and curator. Complete honesty is vital to this process: in most circumstances an extension can be agreed, but if the site still ins't finished then you will be stuck.

Pass the buck

Your managers are paid more than you, because they are responsible for your projects among others. Most of the time this is a hands-off role that involves them in little more than tracking and the occasional flying visit. But their most important role is when things go wrong: they are the cavalry. Call them. Tell them you're stuck and need help. If they understand their job, you will find that it ceases to be your problem and has become a company problem.

Tell your team

Keep your staff informed as the strategy changes, explaining the thinking behind it. Do NOT blame it all on head office or the developer or the curator. You should present it as your plan. If you can't do this then you shouldn't be on site any longer: go on holiday. There will inevitably be objections about whether it is proper to depart from conventional archaeological practice. Face them head on.

Don't spread despair

One definition of leadership is "transference of emotion".* What emotion will you be transferring to your team? If you spend your time bemoaning the past, criticising your bosses, and doubting whether the work can be finished, they will end up too depressed to work effectively. The role of the field officer always involves the difficult balancing act of representing the office to the site team and the site to the office staff. This becomes even harder when projects start to go wrong. But don't give in and stay positive.

My indecision is final**

Even the best people need to be told what to do. The worst, even more so. You should expect to be asked at regular intervals all through the day, every day, what needs doing next, how, who by. If you're not being asked that doesn't mean that you're safe. It probably means people are choosing themselves, and they are probably unaware of the wider picture. Nothing destroys a team's morale quicker than uncertainty at the centre (even making wrong decisions is better). If you find yourself saying "I'll have to think about it" more than twice in a day, you need to do some planning. The best solution in the short term is to spend half an hour in the evening, at home in peace and quiet, making a list of the next tasks to follow completion of the current ones. Then if inspiration fails, use the list. All of a sudden it will look like you know what you're doing.


"The fundamental task of leaders... is to prime good feeling in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance a reservoir of positivity that unleashes the best in people." Publisher's Weekly review of Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

My Indecision is Final by Jake Eberts is an account of the death of the British film industry.

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