Episode 15 — Project Recovery and Turnaround Part 1

Episode #15
Original Air Date: 08.02.2016

30 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Andy Crowe, Bill Yates, Nick Walker

Have you ever had a customer or vendor "ghost" you? Are you holding your team and yourself accountable throughout the project? Tune in now for valuable tips from the cast on what to do when your project is in trouble and needs a turnaround.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"There are many triggers to me, many signs to look at to detect trouble. And some of those are real soft skill type things. You’ve got to read people. Others are hardcore metrics. So you start, if I think about soft skill stuff, Andy, I think about some of the past projects that I’ve worked on where things, the train came off the rails. And many times you could pick up on it in your interaction with a customer. The customer’s attitude towards you or towards the project or towards the team changed."

- Bill Yates

"And the point here for anyone listening is this is uncomfortable, and that’s okay. Just embrace, lean into that discomfort. Stephen Colbert talks about standing the wrong way on an elevator and facing everybody and leaning into that discomfort. And with his ratings right now, he’s probably getting a good chance to lean into that. But it’s a good thing. It helps you to really understand and get deep in the problem. And you’ve got to understand."

- Andy Crowe

" If you’ve been brought in externally, your job is to listen – listen, listen, listen, and listen some more – and really start to understand what’s going on. And it may take a little bit longer to really get what’s happening because, again, people all have their own way of representing it."

- Andy Crowe

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ANDY CROWE ● BILL YATES ● NICK WALKER

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  This is our every week chance to meet and talk about what matters most to you as a professional project manager.  We talk about getting started, getting certified, getting the stuff of project management done.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and beside me are our in-house experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  They are project managers themselves.  They mentor other project managers and those working to become one.  And guys, today’s topic addresses what might be to some teams sort of an elephant in the room, the fact that many projects don’t move along as we originally envision.  In fact, Andy, sometimes, as a friend of mine once put it, you know, when the manure hits the combine blades…

ANDY CROWE:  Right, the fertilizer hits the ventilation system, sure.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, right.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah, and you know what, a lot of times figuring out what to do with a troubled project, with a project that’s in distress, and where do you start?  And a lot of PMs spend time in this space.  This isn’t an unfamiliar territory for a lot of people.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, people should not be surprised by this.  This happens.  This is a part of project management.  There’s a quote by William A. Cohen.  He says:  “All successful projects are simply a long series of adversities that must be overcome.  Adversity is normal.”

NICK WALKER:  So we just need to look reality in the face and say, okay, this is just going to happen.  Adversity is going to happen.  But is there a difference between just simple adversity, you know, little roadblocks that come in the way, or something that is really in flames?

ANDY CROWE:  Well, there certainly can be.  A lot of times project managers start a project.  They don’t have any input into the finish date.  They don’t have input into the schedule, necessarily, or the budget.  And now they kind of have to find some way to meet the goals of the project.  By the time that they get added, they’re already in trouble.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.  So sometimes it’s even almost too late.  So what do you do at that point?  How do you sort of regroup and pick up?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, and that’s what we’ll focus on today is looking at those troubled projects, those that are in recovery mode, those that need turnaround.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  And so Bill, maybe not just the ones in recovery mode, but the ones that need to be in recovery mode.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  Maybe they’re going along, business as usual.  They haven’t detected trouble yet.  So let me ask you, if you’re thinking about a project, what’s the canary in the coal mine to you to know if there are problems on the project, to know if it’s time to kind of circle the wagons and start thinking about it differently, put it in recovery mode?  When do you – what are some of the triggers?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  There are – that’s the perfect place to start.  There are many triggers to me, many signs to look at to detect trouble.  And some of those are real soft skill type things.  You’ve got to read people.  Others are hardcore metrics.  So you start, if I think about soft skill stuff, Andy, I think about some of the past projects that I’ve worked on where things, the train came off the rails.  And many times you could pick up on it in your interaction with a customer.  The customer’s attitude towards you or towards the project or towards the team changed.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

BILL YATES:  In some cases, the customer disappeared.  They no longer had an interest in the project.  And that was scary.  That’s scary.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, as long as the money’s still flowing, I guess it’s not all that scary.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, right.  Yeah, you may think, you know, well, there are times when I wish my customer would go away so we could get something done.  But what I’m talking about here is the sudden neglect.  It’s like you’re dating someone, and they’re not returning your phone call.

ANDY CROWE:  The new term for that is “ghosting.”  You’re being ghosted.

BILL YATES:  Right.  So your customer starts ghosting you.  There’s no longer an interest.  Or they seem – maybe they’re not showing up for the status meetings the way they used to.  They’re not being responsive when you’re asking for decisions to be made.  So customer or senior management, you know, could be that my customer is still engaged, but maybe this is a project I’m doing for external purposes, and my internal manager is kind of giving me the cold shoulder.  They don’t have that availability or interest anymore.  That to me, too, is something I need to investigate that could be trouble.

ANDY CROWE:  So that requires some intuition, though, on the PM’s part, you know, because you can drive yourself crazy trying to read into every non-returned phone call or every missed meeting or things like that.  I’m a data guy.  And to me, I like to see information.  So one of the things I love to look at, I love earned value metrics.  And I’m a believer in the saying – there’s an old saying that two points make a line, and three points make a trend.  And I pay attention to that because when I see, for instance, if I see a performance metric, your schedule performance index or your variances trending down over two or three reporting periods, then I’m going to start paying a lot of attention to that, if I see things consistently coming in.

I also watch – and I’m a big believer in holding people accountable to individual estimates.  And when I say “accountable,” I’m not saying you would necessarily let somebody go because they missed several estimates, but you loop back with them.  You help them kind of steep in that.  You show them, hey, you estimated here, and you came in here.  And in fact I’m working on a chart right now that tracks people’s accuracy to their own estimates over time.

BILL YATES:  Excellent.

ANDY CROWE:  Because I’m fascinated with that metric.  It helps.  The more accurate you can get your team to estimate, the better off you are.

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  So I pay a lot of attention to that.

BILL YATES:  That’s good over the life of the project, too.  So that makes sense to do that, to really jump in and hold them accountable right upfront with that.

ANDY CROWE:  How about rework?

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah.  Yeah, yeah.  Rework is a big one to me.  That’s a key metric.  If I’m tracking rework, and to your point about trends, if rework is trending up suddenly?  Or change requests.  Let’s say there’s a sudden spike in change requests.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

BILL YATES:  Those are warning signs to me.  That canary is starting to show signs.

ANDY CROWE:  Those are kind of evil twins, rework and change requests.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  They sort of go together.  There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  And so you’re forced to relook at something.  People just didn’t get it right at some point.

BILL YATES:  There’s another for me, too, Andy, where if I think about, let’s say we’re tracking expenses, and we look back over the past month, and maybe we paid a lot more overtime, or paid higher consulting fees than normal.  That tends to raise an eyebrow for me, too.

ANDY CROWE:  This is getting a lot more attention at a federal level, too.  This whole idea of overtime is starting to – people are paying more attention to it.  So businesses definitely care about it.  Now the government’s starting to care about it in a very different kind of way and forcing people to track it and account for it a little bit differently.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  So it’s going to get more attention.  There’s no question.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  In a larger project, sometimes if you’re the project manager, and you have a larger project team, and a certain area starts to have higher consulting fees or more overtime, that could be an indication to me that, okay, they’ve got an issue they’re dealing with.  They don’t really want to tell me about it yet.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  So my wife had a professor in college, and she went to Furman University, that you perhaps know well.

BILL YATES:  Go Paladins.

ANDY CROWE:  And her professor’s quote that we still use many years after we’ve graduated was “Things take longer than they do.”

BILL YATES:  Nice.

ANDY CROWE:  So I think every project manager can relate to that, absolutely.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  So we have a problem.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.  And it seems like a little delicate balancing act here sometimes to determine just how big of a problem.

BILL YATES:  And let me – one other symptom that I don’t want to overlook, too.  Nick, sometimes as a project manager you’ll pick up on things within the team.  There could be some conflict on the team that you don’t understand.  Is this personal, or is this because they know there’s a bigger issue that, again, I don’t have full exposure to yet?  Or do I just have, like, warring parties on the team?  What’s going on here?  Is this something that’s going to upend the cart?  Is this going to throw us off?  Because suddenly I’ve got like a team funk going on here.  I can’t explain it.

ANDY CROWE:  So this is the thing.  The PM, the project manager’s at a point, and you’ve got sort of senior manager of the organization and sponsors above you.  And you can picture that as a triangle with the top pointing down.  And if that makes sense, the tip, the sharp point of the triangle is down.  And then on the other side is the team.  And the PM is right in between those two and is sort of at this friction point.  And it is a challenging job.

And so the PM a lot of times will pick up on team distress and distress within the senior management of the organization, sponsors, et cetera, we’ll just lump all of that and call it senior management.  And you can know about things going wrong.  It’s a very sensitive thing.  Once you kind of get into that, it’s as if you’re driving a car, and everybody’s had that experience where you can tell, you’ve driven this car enough to know something’s not quite right.  It’s not stopping.  It’s not breaking down, but something’s going wrong.

BILL YATES:  Right.

NICK WALKER:  All right.  So we want to fix it before it breaks down; right?

ANDY CROWE:  Yes.

NICK WALKER:  So where to begin?

ANDY CROWE:  Well, there’s a couple of approaches.  One thing you can do is bring in outside help.  I’ve done that in a previous life where I’ve been one of the guys who’s been parachuted in, in sort of a tiger team, to reboot a troubled project.  And that was a fun chapter in my life.  It was an interesting chapter, very stressful.  So they would fly me in.  A lot of times I would commute, and I would come in and help get the project back on track.  The other approach is to try and do it internally and try and fix it yourself, which is probably a better approach, if you can do that, rather than just bring somebody in from the outside.  But either way.

BILL YATES:  Andy, I think back to some of the interactions we’ve had with students, with project management professionals through the years, through Velociteach.  And that tiger team approach, you know, that is very intriguing.  And I know for you professionally you probably grew a lot during that time because you’re having to – you’re the fix-it guy; right?

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

BILL YATES:  And I think of some of the – we do a lot of work with Siemens.  They have a big power generation group.  And they have a group of engineers that are experts in diagnosing what’s going wrong with one of these wind turbines.  And I’ve had some of them in the classroom before describe all the different points on the globe that they’ve had to fly to, to go fix a troubled project.  And, Nick, if you envision some of these wind turbines, these blades are 150 to 250 feet long.  They’re huge; right?  So if there’s a tiny little vibration, if it’s off just a little bit, that’s a big, big issue.  It’s going to break equipment.  They’re not going to be as efficient or produce the power they’re supposed to.

And it’s a pretty good analogy for the team, too, right, just the same way these experts are flying in, parachuting in to solve the problem for that project.  Many times there’s a little trouble, there’s something off with our team.  And if somebody – if an expert from outside can come in and help fix it, great.  But to Andy’s point, I think the second option is probably the one that we’re most familiar with, where we’ve got to heal ourselves.  It’s kind of that do-it-yourself approach.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  And I’m wondering if those guys can consult on a wobbly ceiling fan, too.  Probably the same principles at work.  Maybe even easier for them, who knows.

BILL YATES:  It would be ironic if they go home, and their ceiling fan is wobbling; right?

NICK WALKER:  Maybe the manure hit the turbine fans.

BILL YATES:  That could be it.

NICK WALKER:  Well, so we pick an approach, whether it’s the tiger team, whether it’s to solve it internally.  Let’s get into that a little bit more.  Why is that advantageous?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And we’re going to talk about the steps, what steps should we follow as project managers in, okay, we’ve got a problem.  We’ve detected the problem.  Now what do we do with it?  And I want to quote, you know, Andy’s quoted some famous folks, and I wanted to throw this quote from a leadership expert out as we start in this area.  He’s a soft skills guru.  We know him as Mike Tyson.  And he says, “Everyone has a plan…”

NICK WALKER:  Soft?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.  Soft, right?  “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”  And I can relate to that as a project manager.  Right?  So much of our time is spent planning.  And then suddenly we have these variances, these gaps.  Things are not going per the plan.  And we start to get just consumed with it.  Now we’ve got a serious issue here that we’ve got to fix.  We’ve been punched in the mouth.  So what are we going to do about it?  So Andy and I hope we can tease out some advice for project managers, some things to think through.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  For our poor IT listeners out there who are in information technology, they’re the ones who – this always happens with the interfaces.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, you plan a project, you look at it, and you say, oh, this will be easy to talk to this other system.  It’s not going to be easy to talk to that other system.  Nobody’s going to make that easy.  That’s the punch in the mouth you’re about to get.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

NICK WALKER:  Are there specific steps, then, that we can identify and take?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, you know, the first piece of advice I’d go with, two words, “calm down.”  Calm down.  We’ve all been there.  There’s a troubled project.  Maybe we’re the frog who’s felt the temperature rising so slowly in our project.  In our debrief meetings, our status meetings, we’ve seen a variance, to Andy’s point.  The trend has been slowly but definitely emerging, and we’ve got a troubled project.  And now I can’t sleep at night.  Now I’m worried about my career.  Now I’m worried about my senior management or my sponsor.  I’m worried about my team.  The first thing I’ve got to do, once I’m staring this problem face to face, staring it down, is I’ve got to calm down.  I’ve got to get my emotions under control.

ANDY CROWE:  Nobody is at their best when they’re relating or trying to lead out of fear.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  That’s never going to – you’re never going to be at your best.  Period, end of sentence.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.

NICK WALKER:  And the leader is really the one that’s going to set the tone here.

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.  And, you know, I don’t want to completely discount that emotion.  I think for me it’s a motivator.  If I can not be overwhelmed by that emotion, then I can harness it; right?  I can harness that power, kind of going back to the power example there.  But I’ve got to get it under control because, to Andy’s point, it blocks clear thinking.

ANDY CROWE:  I saw a coffee cup the other day – you’ve seen the ones that say “Keep calm and carry on.”  And this one said, “I will not keep calm, and you can shut up.”  Yeah, okay, maybe that’s – maybe you need to put that one aside and sort of tap into your inner British resolve here.

NICK WALKER:  So we want to probably, my guess is, avoid finger-pointing to some extent.  But it’s hard not to do that.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  We want to get to the root of the issue.

ANDY CROWE:  This is the time to point fingers, Nick.

NICK WALKER:  Oh, it is, okay.  All right.

BILL YATES:  We want to point the finger at the cause.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah.  And so you know the joke about the first person you blame is the guy who just left.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, right?

NICK WALKER:  Of course.

ANDY CROWE:  Blame the employee who’s just left.  And the second person to blame is who, Bill?

BILL YATES:  The consultant.

ANDY CROWE:  Or the vendor, yeah.

BILL YATES: Never should have gone with that consultant.

ANDY CROWE:  Right. We’ll know better next time.

BILL YATES:  Exactly.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, there’s a bunch of ways to do root cause analysis.  There’s Ishikawa diagrams.  They are also known as fishbone diagrams.  These root cause, the point behind the root cause is to really understand the problem.  And this is uncomfortable for people.  People do not want to talk about problems.  So I’ve got a colleague, not at this company, but someone that I do work with from time to time.  And this person regularly says, “You know what, I don’t want to look backward.  I only want to look forward.  I want to keep positive.  I don’t want to talk about the problem.  I want to talk about a solution.”  That doesn’t work well.

And Mahan Khalsa in his wonderful book, “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play,” says you have to really understand the problem, or the only way you’re going to solve it is through blind luck.  So I’m a big believer in taking time and getting to the core and really understanding what went wrong.  So these root cause diagrams are one way.  I’m a big fan of the Five Whys.

BILL YATES:  Exactly.  I was going to bring that up.  The Five Why technique is an excellent way to force the team to continue to dig deeper and deeper and keep asking the question of why.

ANDY CROWE:  Sometimes you get to surprising answers.  And Toyota made this famous.  They use this technique.  They continue to ask why because people at first want to deal with these surface answers.  Oh, it’s this stupid vendor.  Well, okay, wait a minute.  Why?  You know, and you start looking deeper.  What was it about this that didn’t work?  A lot of times you get to some very surprising answers.

And the point here for anyone listening is this is uncomfortable, and that’s okay.  Just embrace, lean into that discomfort.  Stephen Colbert talks about standing the wrong way on an elevator and facing everybody and leaning into that discomfort.  And with his ratings right now, he’s probably getting a good chance to lean into that.  But it’s a good thing.  It helps you to really understand and get deep in the problem.  And you’ve got to understand.

NICK WALKER:  Does this also help you identify maybe some parts of the program that can be salvaged?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it does.  And to do that you really have to have the right people in the room.  You’ve got to be asking the question and doing the analysis with the right people.  Again, we talked about sometimes you need to bring in an outside expert.  The people that know the problem most intimately are probably on your project team; right?  They’ve been the closest, trying to vet out those requirements, come up with a solution.  They’ve dealt with the vendor of the solutions that may have had an issue.

ANDY CROWE:  And yet they’re the ones who may have gotten you into this situation.

BILL YATES:  Exactly.

ANDY CROWE:  So it may take some fresh thinking here.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it’s tricky.

ANDY CROWE:  So what’s the right number of people to have in the room?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.  There’s a – Scott Berkun is an author that I’ve probably referenced before.  I’ve got a lot of respect for him.  He has a quote on this.  He says:  “The more contentious or complex the issue, the smaller the group should be.”  Now, we’ve also mentioned “The Wisdom of Crowds”; right?  So if you just took that at face value, you could say, oh, bring everybody into the room.

ANDY CROWE:  No.  Yeah, and the reason why is this whole idea that’s familiar to project managers of communication channels.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  N x (n-1)/2, or n factorial.  And the whole idea is the more people you get in a room, the more conversation has to take place, the different ideas.  And then you’ve got to vet those and distill those down.  I was in a meeting this week outside of the office with a group of people.  And at some point there were too many people.  There were just too many people in this meeting.  And I was leading the meeting, and at some point I had to step back and just let people talk.  And it was a little bit frustrating because we were off-topic, we were off-target, and yet I realized quashing that conversation was just going to be counterproductive.  We needed to let everybody have their say.  In a crisis, that’s not always the best way.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  What do you think, Andy, what do you think is the appropriate role for the project manager in this?  So you have the subset that you think are the right people to help identify the problem.  You’re using techniques to get there.  What’s the role of the PM in that?

ANDY CROWE:  Okay.  So let’s go back to our idea of an internal PM and an external PM.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  If you’ve been brought in externally, your job is to listen – listen, listen, listen, and listen some more – and really start to understand what’s going on.  And it may take a little bit longer to really get what’s happening because, again, people all have their own way of representing it.  If the project’s in trouble, they may be representing that out of fear, and you may get some distorted things and really have to dig and dig.  If you’re internal, and you already have a good feel, you may have to change your leadership style.  You may have to become a little bit more autocratic, a little bit more directing, and a little bit more authoritative.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  One of the things that I’ve learned as a leader, the art of asking the right question, and I think you nailed that.  Whether it’s an external or an internal PM, somebody who’s kind of parachuted in who needs to do a lot of listening, one of the keys is to ask the questions, ask the right questions and listen, lean in and listen.  Make sure you’re really helping identify that root cause.

ANDY CROWE:  The more people trust you internally in this process, the more forthcoming they’ll be.

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.

ANDY CROWE:  A lot of times people are going to represent it, and they’re always going to be pointing outward.  They’re always going to be saying, “You want to know what the problem is?”  And that’s the reason it’s so easy to talk about somebody who’s left or some vendor, because they probably can’t defend themselves.

BILL YATES:  Right.

NICK WALKER:  You know, I’m listening to this, and I know for me starting over goes against my grain.  It’s like, I don’t want to take two steps back before I can go forward.  I just want to keep moving forward.  That must require a little bit of discipline.

BILL YATES:  It does.  Revalidating the goals and the purpose of the project is a worthy thing to do at this point.  It’s the smart thing to do.  But it is, Nick, it’s difficult.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, it’s very difficult.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  And what you’re asking in that situation is are we still solving the right problem?

NICK WALKER:  So you’re actually going back to the beginning?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

NICK WALKER:  Yikes.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it’s scary, yeah.

NICK WALKER:  We wasted all our time.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  No, not necessarily.  And you’re not necessarily throwing out all the solutions.  You’re going back to the business case.  You’re going back to the charter.  You’re going back to a contract.  You’re going back to the scope statement, whatever it was that you began with, where life originated here.  And you’re asking, if we solve this problem, if we gave this solution, if we delivered this the right way, would we still be on track?  Would this be a success?  It’s these critical success factors that you’re revalidating.  Did the team just not execute well?  Or did they deliver something that didn’t solve the problem?

BILL YATES:  Mm-hmm, yeah.  One of the – this is a twisted way to look at it, but one of the good things that happens from this is you’re forced to go back ad look at the value that the project is going to bring and make sure that it’s still on point.  Markets change.  Some of the projects we work on are really long; right?  So we start with a certain set of assumptions.  Those may have changed.  The market may have changed.  Our customer may have changed.  The needs may have modified.  Does our project still answer the question, is it a need that needs to be addressed?

NICK WALKER:  So in some ways you’re not only starting over, you’re actually looking to the end?  Am I hearing that right?  You’re sort of looking to the end and saying what is this supposed to look like, and how do I get there?

ANDY CROWE:  And we’re big believers, and we constantly advocate for beginning with the end in mind.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits, I believe.

NICK WALKER:  Aha.

BILL YATES:  Very nice.  There’s another, one other piece to think about here.  Specifically, we have requirements.  Let’s say we have 10 requirements that we’re to deliver with this project.  We may be through this looking to see, okay, if this aspect of our project is troubled, then does it only impact a subset of those requirements?  Or is it everything?  It may be that we look at those requirements and go, okay, if we ditched those, if we cut out that piece of the scope of this project, is the rest recoverable?

So then we go, you know, PMI speak, the requirements traceability matrix.  So who owns that requirement?  Who do we need to engage in that conversation, to say, hey, we think the right move to make is to ditch this requirement.  We don’t need to build to that spec anymore.  And then we think the project can recover.

ANDY CROWE:  This is leadership, though, Bill.  This is hard work to actually do this.  It’s one thing to sit here and talk about it behind a microphone.  It’s another thing for a leader to walk in and look at it.  The truth is something has to change.  If you do what you’ve done, you’re going to get what you got.  And so it’s not going to improve.  You’ve got to change things up.  Scope is one of the big variables that you potentially can impact in almost any project.  Not every project.  Some are done under specific contracts.  But almost any project has to go back and look at that as one of those things that they can influence, is the scope.

BILL YATES:  So you’re talking about a reboot.

ANDY CROWE:  I am talking about a reboot in the sense – so I would say Ctrl-Alt-Delete, but I started in the old DOS days, and that really dates me because now that doesn’t do what it used to do.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  For those younger listeners, that used to actually reboot your computer, just so you know.  So, yeah, I am talking about a reboot.  But what I’m talking about is trying something different.  And that’s challenging.  If you’ve done this project since the beginning, you’ve been the PM, and now suddenly things aren’t going well, it’s really hard to say, okay, I’ve got do something different.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Yeah, different is scary.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  And what do I do?

BILL YATES:  Right, exactly.

ANDY CROWE:  What does that look like?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.  You know, one of the – when we do reboot, one of the approaches to take is to simplify.  Let’s pursue simple solutions.  Now we’ve got our hands around this problem.  We’ve looked at the problem in the light of day.  What is the simple solution?  What’s the most simple solution that we can offer to right the ship?

ANDY CROWE:  Let’s rate our critical success factors from greatest to least.  Let’s talk about how well the solution design is going to meet these things.  Let’s also take a look at the team and see how their capability to meet these things is.

BILL YATES:  Right.  I can think, when we go down this topic, I think of specific projects where we fell in the love with the technology or an approach.  We had a process that we just thought was designed exquisitely.  It was going to be the best solutions.  Most of these are software examples with financial service systems.  But there was a point in a troubled project where we had to scrap it.  We had to say, you know, this new tool is – it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s too buggy right now.  We can’t rely on it.  Or we’ve been embarrassed in front of our client with it two months in a row now.  We’ve got to ditch it and go with a more simple approach, the old tried-and-true, you know.  And it’s very – and you may get a lot of resistance from the team members, who have invested in learning the new system, bringing that new process into play.  Or maybe they built it out, and it may be a new module or capability that you created.

ANDY CROWE:  I would advise you to blame the vendor, but it sounds like you might have been the vendor in that case, so we won’t go there.

BILL YATES:  That’s true.

NICK WALKER:  This seems like almost a metaphor for a lot of different projects.  The code okay, the data bad?  You know…

BILL YATES:  Right.  Right, right, right.  Yeah, I can think of a specific example.  I worked with Verizon for a number of years.  And we built a really fancy interface.  Again, this is a data, an information technology project that we were doing.  And we had to throw away the interface and go to something simple.  All we were trying to do is load data and crank up a system, prime the pump and get it going.  And through that I earned the reputation – one of the guys on the team for Verizon, he actually called me “Mr. Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V.”  And that, for those who don’t use that shortcut, that’s to copy and paste data from one place to another.  So we kind of went with a very simple approach of roll the sleeves up, get your hands on the data, and get it in here, and let’s see if this stuff is valid or not.  Forget the fancy interface.  Let’s get it going.

ANDY CROWE:  You know what, Bill, when you’re talking about simplifying here, one of my favorite quotes, and I can’t remember who said it, but the quote is “Perfection’s achieved, not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”  And so you pare it down.  You simplify.  You know, project managers are always afraid of gold-plating.  And gold-plating is just adding additional scope that wasn’t critical to the success of the project, and maybe wasn’t even requested by the customer, something else to add, and it’s time to really pare things down to their critical components and understand them.

NICK WALKER:  Well, guys, I hate to jump in here; but, you know, we’ve talked about detecting problems.  We’ve talked about different approaches to analyzing the course of action we need to take, rebooting.  But we really haven’t gotten into some of the juicy stuff.

ANDY CROWE:  Some of the chocolate.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, yeah, you know, the team dynamics, communication.  So can we pick this up next time?

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.

ANDY CROWE:  I think that’s a good idea.

NICK WALKER:  So watch this space.  There’s a lot more to come.  In the meantime, Andy Crowe, Bill Yates, thanks, as always, for sharing your expertise.  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on August 16th, when we’ll talk about some of the painful but necessary steps project managers may need to take to get a project back on track.  And I do mean painful.

You can visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us.  And tweet us at @manage_this if you have a quick comment for us or a question for our experts.  We’d love to hear from you.  That’s all for this episode.  Talk to you soon.  In the meantime, keep calm and Manage This.

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