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How to guide your project towards failure
Posted on Aug 22, 2011 01:53:18 PM | Matthew Linton
I was chatting with some co-workers of mine today on Project X and the discussion turned to: Why is our project having so much trouble completing all its goals? The answer that I came up with is structural, and drove this blog post.
In short, here's how to structure a project for failure.
Step 1: Create a project with goals A, B, and C. Fund it reasonably to accomplish those goals.
At this stage, everything is working very well. Proceed to step 2!
Step 2: Involve more than one person in the management and direction of the project.
This step takes many forms. Sometimes it's a committee or board that runs the project, other times it's reporting to multiple bosses and/or centers for guidance. Either way it's critical to ensure that there are at least two people with differing priorities, all of whom have some sort of say in the project.
Step 3: One of the managers adds goals D, and E. No additional funding, or insufficient funding, is provided.
Eventually as your project is initially successful, someone in the management chain will identify things they'd like done which seem a lot like other things you're successfully doing. It's awfully tempting to add this to your project, as you already have skilled workforce performing similar tasks, and they DID see you reading Reddit that one time so clearly you're not all 100% working 100% of the time.
This is the critical stage in project failure - because now the staff has insufficient resources to continue the work.
Step 4: Shoestrings and Duct Tape.
In this stage, the project lacks the resources to fully perform tasks A,B,C,D and E but has no strict prioritization. They either internally prioritize, fully fulfilling A,B,C while shoestrining D and E or, more often, shoestring all the priorities equally. Now they're doing all of the jobs, but at least some and most likely all of them poorly.
Step 5: Management disagrees over prioritization.
In this stage, the project staff have brought up their troubles to management. They can't proceed with the amount of funding and tasks they have to accomplish, and they either need less tasks or more funding.
However - and this is the critical keystone in the bridge of fail - each of the individual managers begins to insist that their priorities are the reasonable ones, and that no extra funding is needed if you'd cut the other guys' stuff.
Manager1: You clearly have enough resources for A,B,C. D and E are unimportant. Therefore, you don't need money.
Manager2: You clearly have enough resources for A,D,E. B and C are unimportant. Therefore, you don't need money.
.... And so on.
The key thing here is that
each manager is being completely reasonable about their expectations from your project. But
, they're being completely UNresasonable.
Step 6: Saving throw vs. Morale
At this stage, the staff executing the project begin making monthly saving throws vs morale. Unless management either provides more resources or less work to do, they stand an increasingly likely chance of having critical staff get fed up and leave for greener pastures.
IF management turns things around at this stage, the project can still be saved. If not.....
Step 7: It's too late.
Beyond this step, it's probably too late to save your project. Even if management gets things turned around with funding and expectations, at this point you've lost too many key staff and your project has too poor a reputation internally to recruit anyone good to come back and work on it.
My thoughts on the Conrad Summit
Posted on May 02, 2011 02:06:46 PM | Matthew Linton
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Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in the Conrad "Spirit of Innovation" awards summit at NASA Ames as a judge in the 'Cyber Security' rounds. It was an excellent weekend and I was thoroughly pleased with the quality of the projects brought up, and the energy brought by the students themselves.
Now that the weekend is over, I have two items I think the competitors should know: first, why the judging at times appeared to be very harsh, and second, why not winning the competition perhaps wasn't as important as being in the competition.
Item 1: Ouch! What's up with the judges?
The Conrad Foundation did a very good job recruiting skilled judges - i.e, experts in their fields. People who are used to taking ideas proposed to them and tearing them apart. When a vendor comes to my door and wants to sell something to the government, I consider it a civic duty to be very thorough in my assessment of whether their tool is worth buying. The salesperson sitting in front of me is not going to get
sympathy from me if they can't give me great answers about how their product works and why it's a good use of taxpayer money.
However, you (the students at the summit) are not vendors trying to sell the government a product. You're also not Ph.D students trying to pass thesis defense (yet), and you're not participants on American Idol. So a real problem for the judges is - how tough should we be on you?
On the one hand, it's tempting to say "These are high school students, they should be treated gently". That's especially easy for those of us judges who are also parents, and have a natural inclination to want to protect our (and others') kids. There's a lot to be said for the pure utility of grading and judging easily for you. After all, the goal of the Conrad folks is to stoke the fire you've lit for passion in science and technology, not to snuff it out under harsh criticism.
On the other hand, you're not just "high school kids". You're extremely bright people who happen to still be in high school. You've already made it this far into the summit, you've got a passion for science and technology and overall you've got thicker skins than some people would give you credit for. To deprive you of honest criticism of your projects would be a disservice. How do you learn without feedback, criticism, failure? One of the hard realities of science is that you really need to learn how to fail if you're going to succeed. Moreover, you do need to learn that these lessons are sometimes painful to the ego!
After some discussions with the event organizers, our group decided that we would be tough but fair - and that we wouldn't shy away from asking you difficult questions, but that if we thought our feedback would genuinely hurt, we'd save it for after the judging. From what I hear we may not have done perfectly, but there's a lesson for you in that too. Like you, we tried our best but didn't always hit the money 100% of the time.
In any case I assure you, our REAL goal is to help you all better yourselves as students and young scientists; picking a "winner" of the summit is honestly a secondary goal. With any luck we'll be working with you as colleagues sometime soon.
Item 2: Why did X win and I lost?
If you weren't one of the winning teams, this question is bound to have entered your head. And while the answer varies for every team and can't be answered here, I'd like to address the question itself anyway.
First, each category had a winner. They were judged by an objective set of standards provided by the Conrad folks, and they clearly threw in a lot of extra work and planning to get the edge. Fair and square, they were well prepared, did their research and knew their technology. That said, not being the winner does not make your team "losers". And yes, I realize that your bull!#$@ alarm just went off when I said that, and it sounds like a platitude. But hear me out.
Think about the prize for a moment. $5,000. That's a lot of money…. but not really. It goes by fast in start-up land and even faster in large business land. A large business might spend $5k this month buying printer paper. But it's not the money that's really the prize. The fact is, if you've gotten to the summit in the first place, you have a number of things going right in your life.
You're smart enough to be playing through to the finals, and either haven't succumbed to the pressure to NOT be smart, or are lucky enough to go to school in a place where that pressure is minimal. If the latter is the case then someone, and most likely multiple someones, cared enough about you to put you into that good school, probably at greater expense than they "needed" to go to. Someone, probably multiple folks, took the time to coach you, mentor you and chaperone you to the summit. Sometimes across state lines, sometimes across national borders. Did they take vacation from work to do so?
And if you didn't have any of those things, but you still made it to the finals of the Conrad Innovation Awards, you were born with more strength of character than I've seen in many of my adult colleagues.
What I'm getting at here is that you've already won many of the prizes that are not only more critical than the award at this summit, but are unachievable no matter how much money you have. Supportive family, friends, good teachers and coaches, individual character - these are the things that no amount of money you earn later in life can go back and retroactively purchase. And every team and individual I saw this weekend competing at the summit has some, if not all, of those prizes hanging around their neck already. When you step back and think of it, the $5k in seed money is really just paper. The critical thinking skills, entrepreneurship, knowledge and connections you're getting just from trying mean far more than the prize and will last far longer.
TL;DR - What's it all mean?
You guys were awesome and I'm looking forward to next year. Whether your project was #1 or got slammed, YOU have my genuine respect. Also, don't forget that while winning the competition certainly looks great - just participating in the finals will look great on your resume'. Be proud that you competed.
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