Projects that don't meet their goals are so common that a law was developed for them. It's called Cheop's law, after the king associated with the Great Egyptian Pyramid. It reads:

No project ever comes in on time or under budget. 

We can all think of many different projects that didn't live up to expectations:

  • The Denver Airport
  • The Edsel
  • The various upgrades to Microsoft's Windows
  • Almost any Defense Department contract

As an example, we need only look at the software industry, which is in a constant state of evolution and change. A few years ago, a Standish Group study showed that close to 75 percent of all software projects end up either cancelled or badly late and over budget. In fact, such studies estimate that the average development effort consumes nearly 180 percent of its original budget.

Why is project management so hard? And how can we change the way we manage projects to make them a competitive weapon, instead of a drain on resources?

The games people play

The development of a project plan and budget involves a ritual dance that puts any found in the animal kingdom to shame. Here is the usual way in which a project timeline and budget are developed.

  1. Management decides that it is going to introduce a new line of furniture - the Three Stooges Collection. (I can see it now, the upholstery will all be done in Moe-hair, and the veneer will be - what else? -Curly Maple).
  2. They appoint a project manager and ask him for a timeline and budget.
  3. The project manager has been down this road before, and knows what is the likely outcome of being given this opportunity. Still, he has a job to do. He sets up his project team, and assigns each of them part of the project. He then asks them for the time and budget figures for each of their areas.
  4. The team members have also been down this road before, so they can give the manager very conservative figures.
  5. The manager takes the figures from the team members and, knowing that management will probably cut whatever he submits, adds 25 percent to the total budget figures and deadlines.
  6. Management, as expected, cuts the numbers. However, they know that the manager usually throws 25 percent in, so they cut it 40 percent. They then tell the manager to "Make it happen!"
  7. Thus encouraged, and already sure of failure, the manager and his team begin to work on the project, which they have nicknamed, "The Death March."

But with all this padding and cutting going on, you might think that they would come out close to the actual project requirements, and that at least 50 percent of all projects would be completed within the guidelines.

The Student Syndrome

Unfortunately, projects are also undermined by what is called the Student Syndrome. If you were like me in college, you would put off papers that were due, projects, etc., until the very last minute, and then cram to get them in. Most of us approach the workday in much the same way. We have so many things to get done we can't possibly complete them, so any big projects get put off until time runs out and we have to address them.

Let's take an example. Let's say that I luck out and get assigned the occasional tables for the Three Stooges Collection. I have the same lead time as the guys doing the bedroom and dining room portions of the project - four weeks. Well, I know it isn't going to take me as long as it is the other teams, so I delay starting my part until week 3, when I have only one week left to complete it. The other teams have been busting away at the project since day one, because they knew it would be tight to complete it anyway. So let's say that they complete the bedroom and dining room on time, and I end up being a week late with the occasional pieces.

The whole project is a week late, and it was the easiest part of the project that caused it to be late. In all projects, there is "slack time" between operations. The problem is that team members tend to eat this slack time up by delaying the start of their projects, when it is really there to protect them from unforeseen problems that will appear.

Resource conflict

An inevitable outcome of the student syndrome is resource conflict. It is very unusual for team members to have only one task. Usually they are responsible for various parts of the project. When they start finishing portions of their project late, it begins to create conflicts with other parts of their schedule. The conflicts then begin to create delays, and the whole process snowballs from there.

As the delays begin to pile up, so does the overtime. The specifications for new hardware and other custom items begin to be delayed, and now you have to beg vendors for expedited service, overtime, etc. This now begins to take its toll on the budget for the project, and soon a project over time and over budget is inevitable.

So what can we do? The key is to change the way we approach the project from the very beginning. It takes a new mindset for everyone involved, from the management team to the project members.

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