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Worst projects ever...

I’m not at liberty to tell you the name of my worst project. But I can describe some details and what I learned from it.

A multi-national organisation needed to upgrade its intranet. They chose to update the information structure, look and feel, content management software, search application and hardware within a single 12-month project. Need I say more? Well, the information and visual design was easy enough. We only changed designers twice. However, the content and search software were brand-new. So very few developers had the skills, and no one had yet tried integrating the two. We only had one person (who we contracted from overseas) who had the skills for the content software. And, wherever the going got tough, he went skiing for a couple of days. Deadlines or no deadlines, he needed fresh air (and he knew we had no easy alternative). Add to that a touch of politics within the project team and strong rivalries between stakeholders, and you start to get an idea for how things turned out (poorly).

To get things done within the timeframe, the project was divided within a series of workstreams. A project manager led each of these streams. The project managers met once a week, but the individual teams had little visibility on how their work affected the other streams. As a result, we suffered repeated delays, misinformation through informal gossip channels and ever-deepening trust issues. The timeframe slid well past the planned year. What’s more, the costs skyrocketed as the scope decreased. Everyone from sponsor to project manager to developer and business analyst suffered from the stress. And, the business groups were most unhappy.

So, what did I learn?

1. Technology, no matter how advanced and cool, could not overcome poor planning and politics. We would have done well to invest in some change management activities right from the start.

2. The planning was too high-level and functionally-based. The issues that burned us the worst did not conform to our defined boundaries (e.g. change resistance, lack of trust within the project team, etc). We would have more likely resolved these challenges had we dealt with them head-on. Had the project managers demonstrated knowledge sharing behaviours and insisted that team members follow their lead, we could have smoothed out some of the biggest issues.

3. Instead of packaging the project into a single, complicated monolithic project, we would have been better off if we had chunked the project into a series of sub-projects and adjusted the scheduling according to dependencies and resource availability. Oh, and we had data that suggested that a one-year completion was very ambitious. I suppose we should have taken that information more seriously (ah, hindsight bias is so liberating).

Now, it would be interesting to hear from you. What was your worst project? What did you learn from the experience?

Alex Natelli is a Wellington-based Knowledge Strategist within Intergen’s Management Consulting team alex.natelli@intergen.co.nz

Posted by: Alex Natelli, Management Consultant | 22 September 2008

Tags: Project Management, Change Management

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