In large organisations that are characterised by quite controlling cultures the shift from traditional waterfall to more iterative process and project management can often feel full of risk, since it involves moving away from the kind of rigid stage gates and associated phased forecasts that can help leaders to feel comfortable about approving a business case. And yet the irony is that in the context of rapidly changing environments, these set forecasts can often be more damaging than they are helpful.
One of the challenges of waterfall project management in this context is it’s inflexibility. Rigidly sticking to a plan when all around you is changing can accumulate unseen risks that are only exposed once the project output is live. Hidden assumptions that remain unvalidated can sometimes grow risk to significant proportions without managers realising that there are assumptions being baked-in. In inflexible, hierarchical cultures projects can also accumulate political momentum which can make them very difficult to kill off. Executives who are associated with the project want it to continue for as long as possible in order to avoid the political fall-out that can come from ending an initiative. Which in turn can also accrue risk. In The Startup Way, Eric Ries has a neat way of expressing this:
‘Cancelling a project often has significant political consequences. As a result, companies don’t do it nearly often enough. Once a project starts to gather political momentum, it becomes hard for a stage-gate process to stop it. Middle managers are forced to act like executioners – when they do have to kill a project, it’s usually quite painful.
In fact, I’ve sat in on a lot of corporate reviews over the years. Most companies use a ‘green, yellow, red’ evaluation system to determine where a team is in terms of hitting necessary milestones. Generally speaking, if there are ten criteria for conducting the evaluation, every team always seems to present seven greens, two yellows, and one red. It’s like magic – they’re always the same!
Why? Every manager knows that if you show too many greens, you won’t sound credible. On the other hand, too many problems could get your project cancelled. Managers are perfectly calibrating their status updates to what is needed to pass through the gates.’
As Eric Ries also points out, the amount of time and energy invested in generating these narratives around how the project is progressing is huge.
Being more ruthless about prioritisation. Making smarter decisions about the progress and potential of initiatives. Identifying what you are going to stop doing in order to create space for the new. And balancing the persistence needed to realise long-term visions with the emotional and intellectual intelligence to kill off projects when it’s right to do so. These are all leadership qualities that have never been more important.
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