THAT project.

This is another confession and another apology. I cast that stone many times. Not openly. No, much more subtle. Well trained in the refined behaviours of (corporate) politics. It's hardly an excuse that almost everybody does it. Almost regardless of rank and title.

That deteriorating project

I am talking about "THAT project". The one that started with the highest of ambitions, the most cheerful support, just in order to deteriorate into a perception of under-delivery, of not-fulfilling its promises,  dwindling into enraging its supposed-to-be customers. That project we frown upon behind closed doors first and ever more openly later. That project colleagues start looking at you with pity when you confess being on it or tell you "good that you joined, it's time that someone begins fixing that mess".

The big question is: What if we turned the table? What if we would be the ones committed to delivering that project? Or: What if we would be the ones being devoured by the ever deteriorating reputation of that project? We will turn the table in a minute. Yet first, we look at it from our side.

That project that makes the future bright

That project is supposed to bring a major change: a new IT system, new processes, a new product, a new organisational setup ... or all of this together. It is supposed to make a dent into your corporate universe, to put you above competition or at least get you rid of all that old problems ... . And yet, even from a very early stage on, it doesn't feel perfectly right. The promises seem too big, the timeline too ambitious, the business case too good to be true, the buy in too shallow.

But -- being directly affected or not -- we all chime in to the praises. Our time will come later. Well, maybe around the coffee maker we already start seeding some doubts: "strategically for sure the right thing ... but ...". After the first wave of euphoria, things get a bit rougher. What a surprise (this is a significant project after all)? Our complaints -- again: being directly affected or not -- become stronger and more overt: "they already had to extend their timeline ... they don't deliver what they promised ... they just don't listen".

Isn't it noteworthy that we (remember: this is a confession of mine) talk about "them"? Them being the project team. Colleagues. Friends even. Or former friends?

That place in the desert

Well, the rest is well known. The negative aura mounts, the ambitious goals are not met. Frustration all over the place. Auditors are called in. Consultants, too. The project gets revamped. The project leads find themselves in some place in the desert. A new leadership and governance is established. And the circle starts over again. After a few of these cycles (the number mostly depending on the complexity of the project), the project is actually recognised as being finished (successfully, of course) or it is merged into the next -- no less ambitious -- one.

Time for turning the table. This is THE project. It is supposed to save our company's spot of the world. It has been charted by some very smart minds. It has been decided by the Board of Management. It is supported by some very strong sponsor. What happens next?

That battle long lost

Some very promising person is picked to lead the endeavour. She is asked by a very senior manager. She sees some risks but being promising for a reason she happily takes these risks and without much ado makes that project her mission. Not very much later, some of the best and brightest flock to the project. It is THE project after all. They work their heels off. Sooner or later, they start prioritising delivery as such over budget, time and scope. Then, they start "defending against" their in-house customers, against controllers, consultants, managers. In the worst of cases, they even have to defend the strategic decision as such. The battle is long lost but they keep on fighting. It is their project after all.

Of course, the inevitable happens. Some people will reach safer shores, some others will find themselves in that place in the desert. All being one experience richer. Some will have learnt the lesson that taking too much risk might not be the right career move, some others will still be willing jump on the next exciting thing; just because it is in their nature. And, with the wisdom of some experience, I can say that things will work out just fine in most cases. But that is hardly a consolation. Nor it is any good.

That friends of our's

There is a lot wrong with that major project: the decision that has been made on shaky grounds in the first place, the means that have been insufficient from the start, the hurry in the beginning that has thwarted the buy-in of most of the stakeholders, the deterioration of management support over time, the habit of sacrificing the project team instead of bringing the determining factors into line. Yet, enraging as these are, they are not the point of this post.

The point is: all of us are with guilt. Instead of providing support, real support, not that kind of we-only-want-to-help-lip-service-type-of-support, we contribute to growing that negative aura that finally suffocates THAT project and its team. Be it in the cafeteria, be it at our manager's table, be it in some committee. Instead of trying ourselves to bring the factors into line, we subtly blame "them", we complain, we push; -- and the weaker "they" get, the stronger we push.

The plot twist though is: "they" are colleagues, "they" are on our boat. Actually, a number of "them" are the best and brightest. It is never "them". It is always "us". And the plot twists again: very easily we could actually be in the same spot as "them". The next project could be our's. How would we feel then being talked about as the ones "not delivering", "not listening"? How would it feel meeting "them" at that place in the desert?

It is not just about "letting him who is without sin casting the first stone", though not casting that stone would be a great start. It is actually about true support, true help. It is about helping to shape conditions for success. It is about being there if the times get tough. It is about providing another place than that in the desert. In the end, it is about honesty.

Whooh, I never wanted to end a post on such a high moral note. So I don't.


Photo by Andrea Bertozzini on Unsplash

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