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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

A Failure Is an Option

One of my ex-CEOs told me once a story about situation he’d have to face when he’d been a newbie manager. Shortening the story (it’s dull anyway, you can just skip it) a bit there was serious hardware malfunction in a company. There were no spare parts on service stock and they were to deliver their services next day, which was impossible to do without working hardware. The manager felt he had to do something to get machines working again. Unfortunately there was virtually no chance for him to succeed. Company failed to meet their deadlines and he felt as it was partially his fault, which wasn’t true.

The moral of the story is:

A failure is an option. Face it.

By the way I’ve heard the story just after I finally rescued a project after 80-hour over-weekend battle with short brakes to get some sleep. Yes, it sounded totally irrelevant, but what would you expect from CEOs in that matter anyway?

The moral however is very wise. A failure is an option. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try there are objective obstacles you can’t deal with. It can happen even if you’re the greatest Project Management Superhero in the galaxy and the biggest projects eat from your hand.

If you ask me what to do, well, you won’t be surprised with the answer – prepare yourself. Sure, you can sit and cry your eyes out but you won’t get The Most Creative PM Technique Prize for that.

First thing is to acknowledge you can fail. To be honest most of managers don’t get through this one. You know, you need to tell your ego you’re not as perfect as you think. That’s a tough task. Especially if your ego is so big it goes 5 meters ahead of you.

Second, to have clean conscience, make sure you did everything you could to avoid failure before giving up. After all you’d prefer to be fairly sure you couldn’t make it, right?

Third, prepare rescue plan. When you’re finished with hitting the wall hard with your head, have a plan how to call for an ambulance. It was said already that crying over spilled milk or crushed head isn’t the best idea in the world.

I always smile whenever the reaction for question about potential problem is “we’ll manage, we’re superheroes, don’t ask” kind of approach. And believe me I see that a lot recently. I should have several great stories to tell soon.

in: personal development, project management

2 comments… add one

  • Phil December 4, 2008, 11:30 am

    Something I tell young PMs I mentor is that, in short, you are not a god. If you were a god you could make a plan and force reality to conform to it. You are a PM and you make a plan that your experience, research, due diligence and forethought tell you is how reality will look but when reality has other ideas you’d better be ready. Watch your trends, your SPI and CPI and keep a close watch on your team and adjust early when the real world starts looking less and less like your plan.

    Funny thing is most PMs I’ve told this to look at me like I’ve just dropped a pink hippo in their lap.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 5, 2008, 9:35 am

    From my experience this approach isn’t limited to fresh meat in project management or management in general. Quite often seasoned managers still believe they are gods and they can change the reality. Unless you can convince them to change their minds you can only walk as they hit the wall hard with their heads.

    I don’t know if that’s funny or scary but even then they rarely learn.

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