As a guy who studies IT failures, I come across lots of rehashed textbook crap describing project management fundamentals. Every now and then, however, I read something that offers a fresh and informed perspective on the subject. A recent article, called How Project Leaders Can Overcome the Crisis of Silence, in the MIT Sloan Management Review (subscription required) falls into this latter category.
The article identifies key sources of what I call "non-technical complexity": the management, communication, and organizational factors underlying most project failures. It's a great article, and I'll be coming back to it again, during an interview with Andrew Shimberg, one of the authors.
Until the interview is ready, please enjoy this small tidbit from the article:
Fact-free planning sometimes happens when an executive or customer makes commitments to another stakeholder without the project team's consent and then presents the finished plan as a fait accompli. Over time, teams that suffer from these mindless demands begin to exaggerate when they are asked for project estimates. They pad budgets and timelines, anticipating that their estimates will be ignored. Imagine what happens when this padding gets multiplied by each level of a project -- front line teams, supervisors, managers, directors -- and on up. One senior executive frustrated by this dynamic confessed, "The contingency padding gets so thick and is so opaque that at the top level all you can do is make arbitrary demands for cuts and hope it doesn't go to the bone."
Fact-free planning in all its incarnations reflects failures of crucial conversations at several levels. When project managers realize it is taking place, they must be willing and able to call the bluff. If they avoid this crucial conversation and either commit to something they know can't happen or pad their way to success, they set themselves and their projects up to fail.
Fact-free planning is a very evocative way to describe a common, yet highly dysfunctional, project behavior. I suspect this behavior flourishes particularly easily in organizations where denial (also here and here) is strong.
[Thanks to fellow Enterprise Irregular and generally inspiring lady, Susan Scrupski, for bringing the article to my attention.]