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“If you have to be a target, the best thing to be is a small target.” So goes Ken Hanley’s introduction on how to reduce the odds of getting hit if you have to work in the line of fire, better known as project management.

Hanley, a principal with KPMG Consulting in Calgary, spoke at the recent Project Management 2000 symposium held in Toronto and outlined strategies to help project managers make sure they remain a small target and stay shrapnel-free.

His opening statistics reiterated the fact that many in IT project management are definitely targets for senior management. Citing KPMG’s own study, Hanley noted that in 1995, 31 per cent of software projects were cancelled before completion and that more than half of them cost almost twice the original budget. Adding salt to the wound, he cited a 1996 Standish Group International survey that found 73 per cent of North America’s IT projects were cancelled, over-budget or late. Small wonder corporate executives have some IT project managers forever lodged in their crosshairs.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part of the blame for this situation falls squarely on the shoulders of the project managers themselves. Hanley talked about examples of “mind defying logic” used by some project managers that gets them into trouble in the first place.

Hanley had a client who blew his budget all to hell. Though the client knew the project was going to cost $40 million at a minimum, he told management he could do it for $20 million. So why did he tell management this? “Because they never would have approved it at $40 million,” he told Hanley. The project ended up in the $70 million range, a sure-fire way to go to the corporate dog house.

This is the kind of project manager, Hanley joked, who should be taken out behind the barn and shot.

Project managers have to learn to dig in their heels and not get bullied or flattered into coming in with budget predictions that are insanely low.

Learning from the master

Red Adair, the gruff Texas oil fire guru, had it just about right, according to Hanley. Years ago when he was asked to put out a large oil fire he told his customer, “You can have it good, you can have it cheap, you can have it fast. Pick two.”

That is the essence of good IT project management, because getting all three of those simultaneously exists only in project management fantasy land.

Long before any IT project manager is about to talk money, he or she has three key questions to get answered. Hanley stressed never to start any project until the answers are clear and concise. The first question is, how do we know when we are finished? This is no easy task since each participant may have an extremely different opinion of when the project is over.

The oil industry is a good example. A geologist and geophysicist might deem the project over when the oil is located, the drill operators when it is coming out of the ground and the marketer when the refined product has gotten to the customer. The definition of finished could thus be off by a factor of months, even years.

Number two. What are the objective measures for this project? Or How will we know if we have won? Does victory occur only when all of the customers are happy? Beware, Hanley said, since this objective is inherently difficult to measure. As a project manager, it is your job to make sure there are specific means to define whether success has been achieved or not.

The final question. Who gets to make the calls on questions one and two? Hanley said if these three questions are answered definitively, the project will dramatically increase its odds of success.

For Hanley, Columbo would have been a good project manager. The television detective was a stickler for getting everything clarified, even to the point of asking suspects the same questions again and again. Hanley said good project managers are similar pains in the butt because they go out of their way to make sure they have clear and concise answers to questions. He added that if popularity is your goal, project management is the wrong business for you.

put your x in the triangle

A small target project manager also gets senior management to put an X on the priority triangle. This comes back to the words of Red Adair. One corner is duration, the others are cost and performance. But this far from being an ordinary triangle.

The norm for senior executives is to put the X in the middle, where each of the three possibilities is equally important. That is a no-go zone, Hanley said. And so are the corners. Putting the X in the dollar corner tells a project manager nothing about the relationship between duration and performance. If all hell breaks loose, and it very well may, the manager has no information on whether to reduce performance or increase time to delivery.

Needless to say the spaces on the sides of the triangle, equidistant between any two, are also a no-go zone. This would imply that both are of equal importance, which is a project manager’s nightmare. The spaces left over for the executive to X, leave a distinct one, two three priority. An X on the cost-performance side of the triangle, closer to cost, thus ends up with a ranking of cost, performance and duration since the X is closest to cost and furthest from duration.

Now a project manager would know when obstacles come up to forgo on the target date first and then to reduce performance. For this particular project the budget is the last thing that should change.

Finally, Hanley warned, never fall into the superhero trap. When a project manager says a project will take 18 months and $20 million to produce a certain level of deliverables, senior management may come back and say, “Well Joe, you are amazing, capable and creative and we know you can do it in 12 months for $12 million.” And stupid superhero Joe says, “Yeah, sure I can do it.”

Tongue in cheek, Hanley told participants how to deal with these superhero types. “Kill’em off so they don’t reproduce.”