Navigating A Project Without A Crystal Ball

The world moves so quickly these days that it’s hard to imagine a programme or project where external factors don’t impact either the scope or likely benefits that you’re trying to deliver.  This is particularly true of larger initiatives – the longer they go on, the more likely you are to have to adjust the sails.  As change continues to accelerate, this becomes more and more relevant.

“The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.”  Justin Trudeau

Sometimes it feels like you need a crystal ball to anticipate all of the challenges that are going to hit you along the way.  You’re unlikely to have one of those, so what does this mean in terms of being a great PM and navigating those unforeseen obstacles?

360 Vision

It’s easy when you’re delivering a project to focus inwardly on your scope, cost, time and quality, and these are things that generally determine the success of a project and the outputs, outcomes and benefits that it will deliver. 

However, if you don’t have an appreciation of what’s going on in the world around you, your project could become irrelevant whilst you soldier on to the bitter end.  This is more true now than ever before with the ever increasing pace of change.  If you’ve got a great sponsor, they will help you to do this, but as a PM, it pays to keep looking all around you and ensure that your project is going to survive and thrive in the changing landscape. 

Talk to others in your organisation about what is going on.  What projects and programmes might impact you, what’s happening commercially, how are your customer behaviours changing and what your competitors are doing to address this.  Go to conferences, seminars, read the trade press, use LinkedIn, network with your peers.  Anything that you can use to build up a picture of what is going on outside of your project will help you to mould what happens inside your project.  This is actually just effective risk management but in a less structured way.

The earlier you see an obstacle coming, the easier (and cheaper) it is to avoid them.

Agility

This isn’t about Agile as a methodology, this is about being willing and able to change your project when it’s right to do so.  And quickly.  There’s no point looking around, seeing the iceberg on the horizon and sticking to the same course.  There’s only one winner in that scenario.  Be agile, be flexible, be nimble.

The key here is not being overly prescriptive in the planning and design stages.  Many a project has been paralysed by over-planning and over-designing up front and then when you get into the detail of building, testing and implementing whatever your outputs are, they are no longer relevant or aren’t what the end customer expected or wanted.  Deliver quick wins through MVPs (minimum viable products), iterate and improve.  Okay, that is a bit like Agile as a methodology but you can apply those particular principles to any project!


Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Equally, you can’t just make everything up as you go. This goes back to having a clear vision of what you want to achieve and a broad plan of how you intend to get there.  How you do it might change, but if that North Star remains constant, it’s easier to avoid the icebergs and pick your way through the obstacles.  This is often uncomfortable for people who like to deal in the certainties (or perceived certainties) of a detailed plan and design, but my experience is that there’s a fine balance to be struck between planning and doing.

Terminate

Sometimes change means that no matter what you do, sometimes a project is better off being killed off.  The external factors, commercial landscape, company strategy or your customer wants and needs have changed so much that your project has no chance of success.  It’s really easy to look at all of the money that you’ve spent so far, the blood, sweat and tears that you and the team have put in, and try and battle on to the finish line.  It’s not worth it. 

It’s a brave PM who puts their hand up and says “this isn’t going to work”.    But it’s also the sign of a good PM.  When the ship is going down, know when to get in the lifeboats.

So as a PM you don’t have a crystal ball, but keeping your eyes open and understanding the changing landscape, remaining agile, flexible and nimble, and altering the course as you need to will help you to minimise the chances of having to abandon ship.  And most people won’t even notice as you navigate your way successfully to the end point as you’ll avoid getting too close to the majority of the icebergs. 

That’s the sign of a great PM.

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