Reading project road signs
The metaphor of a project as a journey is one that has been used by others (see this article by Max Wideman, for example). As a consequence, a high-level project plan is sometimes referred to as a roadmap. Now, real roads have signs at appropriate points, informing motorists of potential hazards or other matters. In this post I extend the project-as-a-journey metaphor, looking at how some common road signs might be interpreted in project management terms.
I start with the stop sign. Project managers, as a part of their day-to-day work, make several decisions regarding their projects. Admittedly, many of these decisions are trivial ones, which don’t really matter one way or the other. But there are others which are major crossroads- and a wrong choice made could have a significant negative effect on the project. At such crossroads it is important to stop and deliberate before deciding which way to go.
There’s a tricky bit ahead on your project. What do you do? Well, you do exactly as you would when driving on a winding road – slow down and watch the road ahead carefully. Project managers often seek to maintain project velocity (rate at which the project progresses) even when implementing a technically difficult phase. It is important to recognise that some bits of work are harder than others. Recognising this means: a) slowing down and, equally important, b) keeping a close watch on quality, as the tricky bits of work may be more prone to defects than others.
This one deals with compromises. Have you ever come across a situation where you want something done in a particular way and your counterpart (sponsor, team lead, team member whoever) disagrees? May be you think you’re right. But on the other hand, may be you really aren’t. Is there a large inverted, Give Way (or Yield) triangle hanging above your disagreement? It is always worth checking for it. May be you are being unreasonable. In any case, it behooves you to consider the possibility.
Round and round we go – or so it seems in some project meetings. This sign is a warning that a meeting is headed nowhere. Metaphorically, I’ve seen it at many meetings that I’ve been in – interminable discussions on irrelevancies. The best thing a project manager can do when he sees this sign is to firmly, but politely, take charge of the meeting and drive it out of the roundabout.
A canny project manager will realise there are some battles that are simply not worth fighting. It takes some political nous to figure out which these are, and that’s where the No Entry sign comes in. As an example consider the case of a project team member who isn’t up to scratch. He or she may be slowing progress due to shoddy work. You’ve discussed the issue with the person concerned several times, all to no avail. You now go to the team member’s functional manager to discuss a potential replacement. He doesn’t want to hear about it, and starts to get upset with you. That’s a No Entry sign flashing right there. Back track, walk away and have the discussion another day.
This one has a universal relevance, despite the Australian imagery. I often think of the kangaroo sign when confronted with problems that are created by someone else unintentionally. Here’s an example: I need a data projector for a meeting that’s due to start shortly. I go to the support area to get the projector, only to find that another PM’s already grabbed it. I’m now projector-less, with the meeting coming up in 5 minutes. I’ve been blindsided or “mugged by a marsupial”. I should’ve allowed for the possibility and reserved the projector well ahead of time.
There are quite a few unusual road signs out there, and it can be an amusing (if not edifying) pastime to look for project management (or, more generally, management) interpretations to these. So I sign off, leaving the interpretation of the following road sign as an exercise for the reader.