Mission impossible.

Another piece inspired by "Mittelmaß und Wahnsinn" (Mediocrity and Madness). One, I suffered from dozens of times myself. One, everybody in our project driven business world can tell a thing or two about. Hear the epic poem of Beowulf and Grendel! These are our modern times' monsters: large-scale projects.

Doubtlessly your organization has its own equivalent to Berlin airport or Hamburg's philharmonic hall. Projects that began with the biggest ambitions but quixotic premises, developing into ever growing nightmares.


„This is not mission difficult, Mr. Hunt, it's mission impossible.
Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.“

Commander Swanbeck, Mission Impossible II



People around coffee makers and in commuter trains might have different perceptions. But corporate organs spin the message:

  • The ever chewy integration of the company bought ten years ago would be an outstanding success, only complexity and cultural issues had been underestimated; -- today, yet, one would be on a very good track.
  • It would not be adequate to judge the new product by its sales figures. Its contribution to innovation and change could not be valued highly enough. And -- after a bit of a rework -- it would certainly become a sales hit, too.
  • The IT project would be operationally as well as strategically without any alternatives. The initial issues had arisen only because of a level of complexity that hadn't been predictable beforehand. But after finalizing the project -- a feat that would be very close -- one would be prepared excellently for meeting digitisation's challenges.

You know what happens behind the scenes: new committees are put in place, reporting requirements are expanded, reporting cycles are shortened, actions are demanded. Consultants and staff are pulled in, project offices grow ... and axes start being swung. Project managers spend their days smoothing down political ripples whilst trying to get some work done during the late hours ... until they are either being replaced or throw in the towel themselves, exhausted.

Prae mortem

There is more in the book about why these projects are never to be aborted and why that's actually not a problem because they most often deliver after all (well, the case about Berlin airport is still up). The book also argues that you can save the fancied after action debrief, too, as the problems are always the same anyway. Here is the summary of that eternal prae mortem:

First, projects are generally launched with right intentions and good reasons. Yet, the have to be and are rationalised in weird ways (this is an interesting link to "MarketWorld", isn't it?). Which wouldn't be much of a problem as most people involved are perfectly aware of that dilemma. The dialectic twist though is that literally a second after the project is kicked off and the project team takes over, these "stretchy" plans and assumptions assume their own life. They become the measure of things. Regardless of whether they ever were realistic or not.

Second, as soon as the gap between ambition and reality created this way becomes insurmountable, the project changes into crisis mode. And despite the fact that the flurry of activity in this mode is rather counter-productive (whilst at the same time irreversible), we feel comfortable in that mode. Maybe because it offers opportunities for heroes and heroines.

Third, we hardly learn anything from that pattern and fall victim to it next time again.

What happens to Beowulf?

The conclusion that is as bitter as assuring at the same time is that despite all that dysfunctions, we finally get it done. Maybe a little later, maybe with somewhat higher effort, but done anyway. So, why all that fever? -- The dragons get slayed after all ... but maybe we could save their slayers the fate of Beowulf.

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