I Got Rhythm — Project Failure and the Criticality of Moving from Ad Hoc

The initial period of project ramp-up often is a period of intense activity and, in many cases, chaos.  People are brought into unfamiliar surroundings and are dealing with both unfamiliar peers and management structure.  The business environment is new and in the developmental phases, resources are being identified and applied to the project tasks, roles and responsibilities are being defined and documented, methods of planning and assessment are yet to be determined, and the project plan and goals must be decomposed and then recomposed to ensure fidelity to the scope of the effort.  Much of what is done on a day-to-day basis, despite the plan that was devised regarding ramp-up constitute ad hoc adjustments to the reality being faced.  As a wise general once said:  “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”  The enemy, in this case, being entropy.

If we are dealing with the introduction of new technology that forgoes development in an established system, such as Commercial-off-the-Shelf (COTS) environments, we are dealing with situations that involve not only implementation and training of personnel, but adjustments to established systems and procedures, and a period of overlap between old established pathways and the new way of doing things.  In these cases we will see the introduction of uncertainty regarding the effect of the new technology on the organization’s social systems and relationships, adjustments in expectations among personnel, and a very real impact to productivity and communication systems.  The disruptive effect of new technologies in an established system is equivalent to an organizational intervention involving a major process improvement (or series of interventions).  Organizations will try to handle the disruptive risks through phasing and incremental change, but the difference between the old technology and the new may be so significant that, even in cases where less effort and more powerful functionality is anticipated, that there is no alternative than to reinvent the way that business is conducted in order to realize the full benefit of the new technology.

It is during the initial phases that projects are most vulnerable to dysfunction that will bake in failure, long-run difficulties, or disappointment.  Even where it appears initially that the organization is responding positively a good manager must be aware of the social psychology underlying the results.  During this period it will appear that the system itself is experiencing mood swings.  One day will feel like victory while the next will feel like defeat, and then back again.  Pockets of resistance will appear as managers see push-back from established stakeholders, others will embrace the change and it will appear that the organization is coalescing sooner than expected.  In all of these cases managers and those personnel implementing the change must inform their perceptions by the knowledge that they are dealing with a complex adaptive system that will tend to bias the observations being made during the transition; that is, that the act of observing will influence the perception of the system, and vice versa.  It is during this early stage of the project coalescing that variances in cost and schedule performance will be baked in.

Thus, the effectiveness of the organization to transition away from ad hoc oftentimes will determine the effect of the negative influences during this time.  In the article “Project Rhythm and Successful Project Execution” by C. J. Jang, the author compares establishing a business rhythm to a conductor leading an orchestra, and I would posit that the music analogy is a strong one.  But my issue with it is this:  it is not the rhythm that is problematic but rather the transition period between each segment of our plan.  In music parlance, these are known as “the changes.”  We can speed up or slow down the chord changes in music.  The same goes with projects.  Our application of business rhythm will vary based on the phase in the project.  If we stumble on the changes we not only make bad music but also create problems in projects that will carry forward.  It is not that we cannot recover (see my previous posts on the Affordable Care Act federal on-line marketplace roll-out), but the time and resources devoted to recovery will never be recouped.

For example, when introducing new technology, how do we get from technical and operational implementation in a test environment to systems deployment?  Let us say that our project team has faced the practical challenges needed to establish the test environment but must now begin to phase in stakeholders to become familiar with and in the use of the new technology.  Do we limit ourselves to training a core number of personnel who will phase in the change over time?  How large is this group?  How quickly do we enter this phase?  What part or level of the organization should be included?

The constraints we face, of course, oftentimes will dictate the answer to these questions.  Contract and management commitments and expectations will dictate the plan.  Our schedule dictates when in time we need to achieve particular milestones.  Resource availability will determine the size of the phase execution.

But moving from ad hoc to a business rhythm as smoothly as possible that provides certainty, control, communication, and feedback–and making adjustments in the elements of the business rhythm as one phase passes to another–provides a project with a better chance of success than one that fails to adapt to (and adopt) a more formal and mature structure.  The effective transition to a rhythm ensures that personnel can act autonomously and synchronously in the project’s execution since it provides certainty to personnel in understanding their role, the latitude that they possess, the manner of performance measurement, and the desired end state.

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