Engineers also know that some of the mathematical formulas that represent the real world are discontinuous functions. That means that a graph of the formula will show a line or surface with gaps and edges. The formulas help us understand that some conditions are impossible. There are also some conditions that cause the formula to make a sudden jump. With just the slightest change, it goes from one extreme to the other extreme. Discontinuous functions are particularly interesting at the point of discontinuity.
So what does that have to do with project management? Well, a common failure of project managers, Project Management Offices (PMOs), and senior management is to ignore this characteristic of the real world as it applies to projects. Projects also experience discontinuities which at an instant in time can totally change how the project must be completed in order to meet the project objectives.
There are likely to be discontinuities within all three of the major project constraints. Scope discontinuities occur when unplanned work must be done, or planned work is not needed. Schedule discontinuities occur when estimates are wrong, when resources are not available as expected, or when an external event changes project priority. Resource discontinuities occur when resources are changed – either the cost of resource or the capability of the resource. There are three implications of this for project managers. One involves the plan, another involves risk management, and the third involves project control. Let’s look at each.
Project Plans and Discontinuities
The project plan is the project management team’s intent for how the project activities should be completed in order to meet the project objectives. The plan is needed to communicate with team members and stakeholders what is to be done, when it is to be done, and who is to do it.
Whether following a traditional, adaptive, or agile approach to project management, project planning is integral to the discipline of project management. But these project plans typically ignore the discontinuities that happen in the real world. Because of these discontinuities, the project plan is almost always wrong. It could be that a new task or activity is required; an estimate is inaccurate so a milestone date is wrong; or a resource is changed impacting both timing and cost of an activity.
Regardless of the reason, the project does not stay on the plan – a discontinuity occurs.
Many of these discontinuities are predictable. The discontinuity has occurred frequently in the past. The danger for project teams and PMOs is that they believe that the project plan is fully accurate. This leads to a blind spot when it comes time to change the plan to accommodate the discontinuity. Many projects operate in a phased manner and my rule of thumb is that I assume the plan will need to be changed at the end of each phase because of discontinuities discovered in that phase.
Project Risk Management and Discontinuities
Experienced project managers know the value of upfront risk management. They analyse potential risks and embed appropriate activities and resources in the project to mitigate the risk. This is a best practice. But too many project managers treat this as a one-time activity to be done at the beginning of the project. They don’t do regular periodic project risk reviews or updates. They may address the already identified risks at a project review; but they seldom go looking for new risks.
However, whenever discontinuities occur, there is a risk – either threat or opportunity – to the project. While some discontinuities are predictable, some are not. We can’t predict when the critical resource will break their leg skiing. We can’t predict when the key supplier will be shut down for an environmental permit violation. We can’t predict when a test will go much better than planned, eliminating the need for further development.
The project manager should be continually checking the project and the project environment for discontinuities. This is especially true for positive risks. There is usually someone who is quick to point out a new negative risk, but the positive risks opportunities are overlooked. Establish the habit of frequent reviews of new project risks. In many cases, I have seen the project risk register more than double in the total number of risks from the time of approval of the project plan until project closeout.
Project Control and Discontinuities
This points us now to the third aspect of project management that must be prepared to address discontinuities. Project control activities are used by the project team to review progress against the plan, forecast the remaining project activities, and then take appropriate actions. Well we have already seen that the plan is wrong due to discontinuities and that the anticipated risks are incomplete because of discontinuities. So it is no surprise that while performing project control activities, discontinuities are identified and analysed.
Typically when a variance is recognized during project control, a corrective action is implemented to get the project back on track. But discontinuities may represent insurmountable hurdles to getting the project back on track. Remember though, the project manager’s job is to achieve the project objectives. When a discontinuity is recognized, the project control activities should be focused on controlling to the project objectives, not to the artifacts of the project planning processes or risk management processes. This means that a project manager will often have to say at some point, “Our approach is wrong, we need to change it to achieve the project objectives.” A project manager who cannot admit that their approach is wrong, is one who will not be able to adequately respond to discontinuities.
As I mentioned earlier, the discontinuity is the interesting point. The project manager must be aware of discontinuities and flexible in their approach to the response. The nature of the discontinuity will determine the correct response.