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#Project Management
Ned Mitenius

Work like it is your last day

We’ve heard a similar adage about living our life like it is our last day. But

Sabotage – your boss’s boss has already torpedoed your project

How can it be that your boss’s boss has sabotaged your project? It happens with too much frequency, and it can happen even before you have been assigned to the project.

I started thinking about this when I saw a reader’s comment on one of my previous blogs discussing project challenges:

Another big (challenge) I face is “sponsors that are not aligned to scope. Also a charter that has many items misrepresented or wording that leaves too much room for misinterpretation.”

The problem with sponsors that aren’t aligned, and vague and ambiguous charters is common, they are related, and they can be overcome with the same techniques.

We don’t want to think that the boss is purposely torpedoing our project. That may be true in rare cases. But what are the four most common causes of unintentional sabatoge?

  1. Different senior managers don’t have the same agenda and may have different interests and priorities.
  2. Sponsors don’t want to be pinned down; they want the project to “be flexible.”
  3. Sponsors simply don’t know how to be specifc – after all, they are “big picture” thinkers.
  4. No one wants to say what is not covered by the project.

So I am about to blame the sponsor? Nope! Except for that rare purposeful torpedo, I will say that this is the project manager’s problem. Let me tell you a story, and then I’ll continue with techniques to survive the sabotage.

A few years ago, I developed and conducted (with others) an advanced Scope Management class for the Dallas PMI. It was an engaging class with lots of exercises. We started with an introductory team-building exercise taken from one of my wife’s Sunday School lessons for pre-schoolers. Stay with me, that is an interesting twist to the story.

We divided the class into small teams, and gave them each an identical bag filled with identical items. There might be a plastic bowl, a couple of rubber bands, a straw or pipecleaner, a pencil, and always a roll of clear tape. We would change the items each class, but every team always had an identical bag full of stuff.

We gave them the vague instructions that they should “create” something – anything – and when they finished that we would judge the items. We gave them limited instructions to use all the items and limited time and asked if there were any questions.

Then they went about building their something. They made banjos, rocket ships, hats, various modern art; all manner of “creations.” We kept the time pressure on them using a stop-watch and periodic announcements. When the clock ran out, each team reported out on their “creation” and we celebrated their creativity.

Then the instructors’ fun began. We would take out a tape measure and start measuring each creation. We counted the items they used and those they didn’t use. Even the plastic bag and roll of tape were counted as used or not used. Then we calculated a numeric score for each team, posted them, and declared a winner.

What they didn’t realize is that we had a very specific formula to evaluate the creations. We would change the formula slightly each class, but our instructional team decided in advance to score based on the height, or the width, or the sum of both (and so on), and how many points to give each item used and subtract for each item not used (including the bag and the tape)..

If the teams knew the scoring criteria in advance, they would have made their creations differently, and they all might have “won.”

Our first scope lesson unfolded from this exercise. The scope (or instructions) given to you will often be vague. You have a chance to ask clarifying questions. You can’t change the vague instructions, or ambiguous scope, or conflicting direction that you receive. What you can change is your perspective and effort to clarify them. That is your responsibility.

You see, the instructor was prepared to give more detail during the introduction, only if asked! They would give a little more detail each time a clarifying question was asked, until by the fourth question, the exact scoring formula was provided.

In the many classes we conducted, only once did a class ask enough clarifying questions to learn the scoring formula. Some classes asked no questions at all.

So what began as a simple children’s Sunday School lesson on “creation” became our first substantive exercise on scope.

Back to where we were before the story:

  1. Different senior managers don’t have the same agenda and may have different interests and priorities.
  2. Sponsors don’t want to be pinned down; they want the project to “be flexible.”
  3. Sponsors simply don’t know how to be specifc – after all, they are “big picture” thinkers.
  4. No one wants to say what is not covered by the project.

The techniques to overcome these difficult situations are the same:

  1. Keep clarifying scope until it is pinned down to your satisfaction.
  2. Write down the scope.
  3. Define the scope unambiguously.
  4. Document what isn’t included (this is the subject of a future blog and maybe one of the most important clarifications).
  5. Drive consensus until all sponsors and key stakeholders have the same perspective.
  6. Iterate until you do have consensus and shared perspective.
  7. Put it in writing. Get signatures.

I’ll continue with some specific approaches that can help you in each situation:

1. Different senior managers don’t have the same agenda and may have different interests and priorities.

Ask those managers to reconcile their differences, before you go about designing and building the project.

Ask those managers for permission, authority, and funding to satisfy both their agendas.

Ask those managers to prioritize their joint priorities, and decide what to do now, and what to do down the road.

Escalate the conflict to their boss. (Ouch, be gentle with this one).

Document the scope as formally approved and understood by you, and ask those managers to understand, and acknowledge if you can, that this is what you are going to create.

2. Sponsors don’t want to be pinned down; they want the project to “be flexible.”

Ask your sponsor to help you pin down their “current thinking.”

Ask your sponsor to understand you need some specificity, so you can go about delivering your design and implementation on time and within budget. Or ask for more project time for the purpose of pinning him or her down to something specific. (They will often be reluctant to approve more time, and that may drive a more definitive statement).

Help your sponsor understand that your request is for a “defined scope,” not necessarily a fixed, locked-in, or unchangeable scope. Defining scope now lets you get started, knowing a robust scope-change process can provide the flexibility that he or she wants to retain. (Scope change is a future blog).

3. Sponsors simply don’t know how to be specifc – after all, they are “big picture” thinkers.

Facilitate a discussion with your sponsor, including “what if” questions.

Engage a subject matter expert to help translate the “big picture” into the granular detail.

Develop a “straw man” scope and ask your sponsor if this specific approach will satisfy the needs of their “big picture.”

4. No one wants to say what is not covered by the project.

Based on what you have determined is “in scope,” write a list of what “is not” in scope. Include the things your managers disagree about. Include items that were discussed but ended up not making the cut (memories can be short, later). Even include things you aren’t certain about.

Publish what “is not in scope” as part of your scope approval process. This is one of the surest ways to get people talking, even if only so that they can “correct” you and put their pet need back in scope.
Good luck! These can be difficult conversations at the beginning of your project. But if you wait until mid way through your project, these conversations become even more tense, especially if anyone disputes what should be done. If delayed until the end of your project, these same conversations can be career-limiting, especially if key sponsors think you did not succeed in satisfying their originally vague needs.

It’s all on you, project manager. Now go out and create something!

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