Fly your project team in formation

Posted by Jeff Schnurr on November 07, 2013 · 5 min read

The project is off the rails. There goal was to migrate a service from an old platform to a new one, but at 70% done, the performance of the new system isn’t satisfactory, and there are key functional gaps. Smart people offer ideas, but nobody is taking responsibility. All components report green on their end, but the engine won’t start. Troubleshooting degrades into blamestorming, opinions masquerade as facts, and productivity plummets. Fractures form in the team, putting people on defence and further reducing the chance of recovery. The executives are getting antsy, and the reasons for delay more creative. The project turns yellow, and finally turns red.

Have you been there? Good chance you have, since according to a McKinsey study of 5,400 large scale IT projects, the average runs 45% over budget, delivers 56% less value than predicted, and 17% of the time, they go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company. As a technology industry, how do we get this so wrong?

At the risk of over-simplifying a very complex problem, allow me to offer a basic theory of project performance.

My thesis is this:

Rational people with a shared goal, given the same facts in the same context, make similar decisions and behave in a predictable way.

Teams in this state are said to be ‘calibrated’, and respond predictably as individual actors in a system progressing along a planned path. However, if a team is or becomes poorly calibrated, individual actors in the system will behave differently than other actors would have behaved in the same situation, and as this skew compounds with time, the integrity and performance of the team degrades.

In short, projects are failing because the team is not calibrated.

To visualize the concept, imagine a group of aircraft, relying on visual reference to maintain formation. As the group enters a cloud, each pilot becomes disoriented and no longer respond consistently to flight leader instructions. For example, a “left turn” to the pilot who has inadvertently rotated 90 degrees will send him sharply down toward the earth, while the rest of the formation (who did not rotate) turns west. Poor calibration leads every member of the team to follow the instructions and behave “correctly” from their position, but with erratic results.

As a project manager or a leader, what this means is that to restore project performance, you must restore a state of calibration. There are three key dimensions:

  1. Context Every project has requirements or user stories that help define what is to be built, and how it should operate. Context, however, lies behind those requirements, with the business that will receive the benefit from the success of the project. Why do the requirement exist, why are they important, and how do they serve to fulfil the larger goals of the organization? The team will defer to the context to make judgement calls and fill in gaps where the requirements are not clear.

  2. Planning The work plan needs to clearly articulate the work to be done, who is responsible for it, and when it’s due. More importantly, it needs to call out the dependencies and isolate the work on the “critical path” for special attention by the entire team. The plan must be net of any priority conflicts or other work that may impact delivery, and represent the committed and achievable plan. Every piece of work needs to tie into the master plan which, when viewed as a whole, can help members of the team understand how they fit into the overall outcome.

  3. Facts The team must be operating from a shared set of facts. A fact is either a known and quantifiable piece of data, or an assumption that has been declared and ratified by the team. The machine won’t operate with the switch in the “maybe” position, so there must be certainty in how facts are understood, communicated and used by the team.

A state of calibration is a beautiful thing. Like a soccer team in the middle of an important match, they understand all aspects of why they’re here, the stakes and consequences of the outcome, the expectations of their role, the current score and the orders from the coach for the next play. They respond to challenges individually, and then regroup to review what has changed and calibrate again. This iteration continues until the game is over. The context, plan and facts are understood and uncontested, so everyone moves together.

Consider a project you’ve involved in, that isn’t going according to plan. Is the team flying in formation?