Question of the day

Here is a question on project management that I read today.  It immediately caught my attention.

Do you understand what success looks like before starting, or do you get stuck in and work it out as you go?

Project success is of course what all project managers want.  There’s no doubt about that.  However, I find that the question is loaded and very bias.  It sounds as if there are two types of projects managers, those who know what success looks like before starting, and the others who improvise and find a way to survive.  And if you are a good professional project manager, you know in which group you want to belong.

Can it be so simple?

What is a project?

Yes it would be nice if things would be so simple.  But let’s pause for a moment before saying yes.

What is a project?  PMBOK, 5th edition defines a project is section 1.2 What is a Project?

A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates that a project has a definite beginning and end. The end is reached when the project’s objectives have been achieved or when the project is terminated because its objectives will not or cannot be met, or when the need for the project no longer exists. / PMBOK 5th edition – p.29

As we can see, the definition is pretty vague on what the project will do, but insists a lot on the timeline.  It must have a start and an end.  The definition contrasts projects with operations.  I discussed in the past the fact that this model was a good representation of the business world… in the past.  However, the line between project and operations is becoming thinner and thinner with the pace of changes in knowledge, technology and business and social environment.

See: The thin line between projects and operations

But aside from the focus on timeline, does that mean that all projects are the same?

Types of project

Project management is very interesting.  As project manager and team member, you can be exposed to so many subjects that you wouldn’t see otherwise.  Project management applies to any industry around the world.  It is not limited to one industry, services, products, country, language, etc.  That is one thing I love about project management.  I can discuss project management with others project managers who works in totally different types of projects.  Some are more in the construction industry, such as Cesar with the Construction Industry Podcast.  Others are more business, or products, or research, or technology.  Recently, Francis Hooke from Quality Project Delivery presented case studies on different kind of business including candies, fashion and music.

That part of project management is usually well understood, and often those who work in project management appreciate that.

There is another thing about project management that is very important to understand, but often misunderstood or fully ignored.

Design project and implementation project

Project methodologies, and discussions, often assumes that blu print exists at the beginning of the project, or can be completely defined in the planning phase of the project.  This is an assumption that is a key mistake that can easily lead to mega project failure.  For every project that you are managing, you need to ask yourself if it is an implementation project or a design project.  Those two types of projects are totally different and must be managed differently.

Implementation project:

Any project for which the work that needs to be done is defined in details at the beginning or will be in the planning phase.  Often, for those projects, someone has managed very similar projects before and it is just a matter of running the script again.  The activity list may needs to be combined in planning in a different way, but often it has been done before.  Project management is more an issue of optimization.  Think of a residential building.  Each home is a project for the builder, but the blueprint exists.  Even if it needs to be customized in planning, the blueprint will exists at the end of planning.

Design project:

Design project are based on creativity and innovation.  They are more unique, and require us to think creatively and differently.  An example could be composing a music album.  Innovation and creativity is often misunderstood, dismissed, and even worse someone used to implementation will try to force it in an implementation approach.  You cannot task Joe or Jane to be creative on Friday May 10, at 2:00pm.  It doesn’t work like that!  But often, those who do not work in design, creativity and innovation completely ignore that.

Of course, this can be an axis with pure implementation on one side and pure design on the other side, and various degree in between.  Also, a project can have a design component and an implementation component.

The Trap

The common trap is to confuse all types of project, and manage them all the same way.  You need a different approach to manage a design project compared to an implementation project.  The most common error I have seen in my career is to try to manage design project exactly like implementation project.  Trying to do that is a good recipe for failure in design project.  Managing creativity and innovation is a very unique process.  It is very important to understand that.  You need different tools and methodology.  Also, compared to implementation projects, you need to be very confortable with the unknown and constant changes.  Design, creativity and innovation has a high level of constructive destruction, meaning doing and undoing constantly.

Many project managers are actually specialists in implemetation project.  And then suddently they are assigned a design project, or have a design component in a project, and try to force the same methodology on it.  It is a dangerous recipe, and often a recipe for failure.

The solution

It is essential to identify from the very beginning the type of project.  The following questions are very important

  • Is it design or implementation?  Is it a mix of both.  Does it have design component and implementation component?
  • As a project manager, do I have the skills to manage a design project that requires creativity and innovation
  • As a project manager, am I a specialist in implementation project
  • Do I have creativity and innovation skills in the project team
  • Does the project sponsor is aware of the design component.

All these questions are important.  You can have very competent team members, including the project managers, who are absolutely not fit to manage as design project.  Also, if the project sponsor expects to manage a design project like an implementation project, it will create pressure that may kill all chances of success for the design part.

Back to the question : Defining Project Success

So the question was:

Do you understand what success looks like before starting, or do you get stuck in and work it out as you go?

My answer is simple:

It depends on the kind of project.  if it a design project or implementation project?  You better know what success looks before starting for an implementation project.  However, you should never put that kind of constraint on a pure design project, unless you want to maximize its chance of failure.

I have seen to many design project (or part of project) fail because this distinction was not understood, and the proper approach for an implementation project was imposed.

I would like to end with this quote:

I love this quote from 25 Most Essential Insights About Innovation:

Never start innovation with an idea. You will fall in love with it. But love is blind.