The following is an excerpt from Pete Smith’s book “Project Management: All You Need is Love.”
Project Recoveries are really fun. They appeal to the ego because you are striving to achieve something that the previous team failed to do (not that you would ever, of course, be so gauche as to admit that in public). They are also surprisingly easy.
There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, if the project failed and the company is trying to recover it, there really must be an excellent business case for delivering it. No one spends a lot of money, fails and then makes the same reinvestment if they aren’t blindingly sure that they really need this project to succeed. Given that one of the main reasons projects fail is a lack of clarity over the business case, you’re already off to a good start.
Secondly, everyone involved is feeling guilty. The reasons the previous project failed were complex, but they’ve all had a great bitch about it, played the blame game and put someone’s head on a stake. That’s why you are there – it is probably your predecessor’s head dripping blood down that stake.
But although the corporate lynching was tremendous fun, people know privately that, well, they could have done just the tiniest bit better themselves. Most people have a pathological dislike of making the same mistake twice so they are all committed to doing better this time around, or at least, they’ll make different mistakes.
I have led many turnarounds; the Manchester mob, and of course TDIC in Abu Dhabi stand out amongst many – some I’ve mentioned above without stating the name because the company is too embarrassed about the failure still.
TDIC was a textbook recovery; they fired the vendor and disposed of the IT leads shortly after I arrived, and asked me to take control.
The single largest reason that the previous project had failed was, unsurprisingly, lack of ownership. There were many other reasons: the vendor wasn’t strong enough, the business case hadn’t been clarified, and they had all become embroiled in a mesh of irrelevant detail. What colour shall we paint the lifeboats on the Titanic?
But in truth, the number one reason for the failure was a lack of real ownership. Senior staff went to weekly Steering Group meetings, but they had long since given up listening to what was allegedly going on. People hit their crackberries and tuned out the misinformation being presented. They had their minds on more important business.
The re-run project was a tremendous success and people have since been clamouring to identify what we had done differently – the magic ingredient, if you will.
The answer should be obvious to you by now; all relevant staff from the business were fully engaged the second time round. It owned the project. All I had to do was to tell them what to do in my terribly polite way, and off they went. Resources were poured in; staff were seconded to the project (and not the usual B team fluff). We were decked out with A-teamers who knew what they were doing. Graeme, Kieran, Phil, Liliana; these were all top guys who could make things happen.
I was able to run the project ‘By the book’ and although that meant there was still a lot of work to get through, I had a great team. It was fun.
Probably the fundamental question to address when you start on a recovery is exactly how much can be recovered. The depressing answer is usually somewhere between ‘None’ and ‘Not very much’. If the project has gone wrong to the extent that it requires a formal recovery rather than just shoring up, you have to ask yourself: is there anything at all that you can rely on?
This isn’t just my opinion. At TDIC, when we put the failed project out to re-tender, we gave potential vendors the option of recovering or restarting. It was a competitive tender with price obviously one key factor, so you would have expected at least some interest in re-using pre-existing materials to arrive at a lower bid.
We asked the top six systems implementers in the world to respond. Only one of them even wanted to review the existing documentation; the other five weren’t interested. They had been bitten too many times before relying on someone else’s iffy work. The sixth party did review the material. And then decided not to use any of it.
You might say: ‘Surely there must be something in there! What about all the work that was done on Chart of Accounts design, for example?’ Nope. If the work was good, it will be easy enough to re-design it.
But chances are the previous project failed through lack of ownership, which together with everything else, meant that the wrong people were in the room having that design conversation. As a matter of interest, I did compare the previous project Chart with the new one produced by the recovery project. You wouldn’t have known they were for the same company.
Finally, whatever else you do, do not launch your recovery project with a witty name such as Phoenix, Fawkes, or any other variation on the theme. They’ve all be done before and probably weren’t funny the first time round. More seriously, people will get tired of being reminded that this is a re-run pretty quickly.
Instead, start off with a lot of momentum and goodwill, and a need to not probe too deeply into why the whole thing failed last time. A perpetual reminder that there is some blame to divvy up is not a good idea. Put the failure behind you as quickly as you can and focus on doing it right this time.
This was an excerpt from “Project Management: All You Need Is Love” by Pete Smith. Readers on Amazon have rated his book 5 stars – purchase a copy for yourself.
Q&A with Author, Pete Smith
So ‘All You Need Is Love’ is just another Project Management book?
That’s an easy one to start with – No. There’s very little theory in the book; there are lots of anecdotes and stories about triumphs and disasters from my projects around the world. Some of the stories I hope you’ll find entertaining, I’d like to think all of them make a point. One key theme is an emphasis on the importance of soft skills like Listening. To sum it up, the book argues project success is about passion, commitment and integrity – which is what I think John Lennon meant when he wrote the song.
So you’re not a big fan of MS Project?
Nonsense – I use it every day of my working life. But I do tell a story that when I running a project in Cuzco, Peru, I was reminded that the Incas built Machu Picchu without MS Project. And more, they didn’t as far as anyone knows even have a written language at the time. But my guess is that someone in charge approached the problem as a project – and for all we know they used a combination of Waterfall and Agile techniques to pull it all together so quickly!
Are all the stories in the book true? Did you really get married in front of 10,000 people for instance?
The only details that have been changed are to protect individuals and companies that don’t come out too well in certain stories; broadly all the incidents recounted are true. I have worked in refugee camps and war zones, I have led projects in over 100 countries, I’ve worked in most industries around the world. Not only did Sarah and I get married in front of 10,000 people, we did it the same weekend that Prince Charles and Camilla were married just a few miles away. They only had 3,000 people at their do. The book explains why we did it.
You’ve worked all over the world. Do you have a favorite place?
For me, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen by some distance is Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but sadly it isn’t really safe to go there now. But I have so many fond memories of people and places – the positivity of Vietnamese people, the friendliness of Kenyans I’ve met. The talent of some Mongolians. Too many choices to just have one favourite.
Where can people buy your book?
It’s currently available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Just go to your Amazon store and search ‘Project Management All You Need Is Love’ and you’ll find it. You can read the first chapter free there; either use the ’look inside’ feature for paperbacks or download a sample to your Kindle. For example it’s available here:
I’m also hoping to have a Kobo version out very soon if that’s your preferred platform.