I Don’t Feel So Good
It might be in the back of your throat when you swallow. Maybe it’s a tiny headache. Perhaps an errant sniffle. It’s barely there, but you know what it means. It means you are getting sick. Soon, you’ll have a full-blown cold or maybe even the flu.
We all can identify the subtle feeling when you are about to get sick. Yet, it is hard to explain the exact symptoms. If you went to a doctor they wouldn’t find anything wrong. But you are certain. You know that very soon you’ll be hit.
You can choose to ignore it. We often do, because it always seems to happen at the worst possible time. “I simply can’t afford to be sick right now. I can just push past this.” Denial is possible, but alas, illness is inevitable.
Sure enough, a day or two later, you wake up miserable. You knew it was coming. If only you could have done something about it beforehand. If only you could have taken something to fend off the illness right at the first sign. Because, darn it, you knew it was coming.
A Train Wreck Approaches
You invite an old friend for coffee. She is an experienced manager who you once worked for. You’re excited about your latest project and your enthusiasm shows. She listens carefully as you share how it’s going. As the conversation goes on, she says less and less. Like a tracker in an old western, you can almost see her put her ear to the ground. After an awkward silence, she gives her assessment. Your project is in trouble. A train wreck is coming.
Unlike the old westerns, however, she’s not going to be the hero. She smiles, wishes you the best, and is gone as quickly as possible. You stand there aghast, as she vanishes into the traffic.
Awash in a stew of denial, panic, and desperation, you’re left festering in the realization that she’s right. And with a nagging question: how did she see that?
Later when there is time to reflect, you may remember the early symptoms and try to log them into your own mental database for the future. Too bad there isn’t a more detailed and instructive guide to have helped you see the signs yourself. Until now.
What Is This Book?
This book the difference between the illness you knew was coming and the train wreck you didn’t. It is exactly what you needed at that time, a clear tracker’s guide. It will help recognize the symptoms early. To help put your ear to the ground and identify the signs of a project out of control.
This is not a quick fix book, not a project management how-to, not a celebrity CEO book of management platitudes. This is a hands-on manager’s guide to all of those signs that tell you that it is time to take the overdue corrective action.
Perhaps frustratingly, this book will probably confirm what you already know. You felt the tingle, you saw the sign, but you just didn’t internalize it. Maybe you were in denial, maybe you thought it would go away, maybe you thought you had just read the tea leaves wrong. This book will throw cold water in your face and scream “you have a problem!”
Perhaps equally as frustrating, this book doesn’t have all the answers. It doesn’t tell you step-by-step how to fix your project, how to get the train back on the track. It simply outlines in clear detail how to know you have a problem, and how to confront that reality. Fixing it is left as an exercise for the reader, or perhaps another book.
As in many 12-step programs, step one is recognizing and admitting the problem. That’s this book’s charter, to help you recognize the symptoms, and in many cases to measure their severity. But most of all the goal is to help you admit you have a problem.
Another reason why this book avoids solutions is that, as we shall see, projects come in a vast array of shapes and sizes. The symptoms described in this book cover almost the entire range of projects. Many, if not all, of the symptoms are applicable to all projects. But the ways to handle and manage a project are almost as varied as the range of projects themselves. This book strives to cover as many projects as possible, and therefore limits the scope to the symptoms, not the cure.
But most importantly, this book concentrates on identifying the problem because the most common phrase you will hear at the scene of a train wreck is “if I’d only known”. Well now you do.
Where Did This Book Come From?
This book grew from my own experiences: from my over 40 years of being a part of and managing projects large and small. It comes from my own nagging sense of dread when managing projects, my own amazement when listening to that experienced hand tell me when I’ve had a problem, and my own horror at watching others miss the obvious signs of impending doom.
An early seed for this book was a paper that I wrote in 1995 when I was Director of Software Development at Microsoft. It was the peak of Microsoft’s phenomenal growth, and I was responsible for software development best practices across the corporation. My team gathered, refined, and disseminated the very best in software development tools and techniques. This was a big responsibility in a company with dozens of projects in progress at any time. But it also offered me a unique perspective on a huge number of projects.
The projects at Microsoft range in size from quick, small projects with no more than a few people to vast, almost infinitely complex projects involving thousands with schedules of nearly a decade. As I worked with these groups, I saw an opportunity to research what makes projects successful, and what holds them back. The more managers I talked to the more I heard that plaintive cry “if I had only known”.
I set out to find out how you could tell when a project was headed off the rails. I interviewed dozens of project leaders, some successful and some less so. The result was the paper, and my fascination with the art of project management.
Since I wrote the paper over two decades ago, I have had the opportunity to work with a range of companies, big and small. I consulted with companies, I co-owned businesses, and I worked on startups. In the background, I continued my research, interviewing managers and observing projects large and small. I realized that almost no project was immune to the same forces I had seen years earlier. More and more, the themes kept repeating. And more often, I kept wishing I could help people see the signs. This book is the result.
How to Use This Book
When you read this book, you will inevitably reflect on your current project. But it must be clear that the purpose is not to point fingers, not to find fault or direct blame. After all, in most cases, to quote from the comic strip Pogo by Walt Kelly, “we have met the enemy and they is us.” As the manager, you’re probably the most to blame.
Rather, the purpose of this book is to help you, the manager of the project, to see more clearly. To help you to understand how your project is working and how you can make it work better. To help you admit, finally, that something is wrong and change is required.
Remember, a couple of days rest and a lot of chicken soup can fix a cold, but it will do nothing to rescue your project. Knowing how it got in trouble and what caused it, however, can work wonders.