When bringing a large ship up a river into a harbor, the captain and pilot must be careful that they don’t run aground. There is a channel of deep water that they must follow. By staying in the channel they avoid hazards such as rocks, reefs and sand bars. There are often navigational beacons and buoys marking the channel to assist the captain and pilot. If there are no navigational beacons, the captain must find a local experienced pilot, or proceed very slowly, taking soundings all along the way. The local experienced pilot can still bring the ship safely into harbor because he or she knows the path of the channel and can tell where the safe path is by other landmarks. The slow approach and soundings will tell the captain of dangers and allow the ship to maneuver to avoid them.
You are probably thinking, “What does this have to do with project management?” Well, channels and navigational beacons are great metaphors for some important project management principles.
Every project is different, yet every project has some similarities. Each project has a start and an end point. There is an optimal path the project should follow for achieving the lowest cost or fastest time. Depending upon the company and the project type, that path is unique. Often when starting off on the project “voyage,” the water looks calm and smooth, but there are reefs, shoals, and shallow water that can cause the project to run aground. The project manager, just like a captain or ship’s pilot, must navigate through the hazards and bring the project safely to its end point.
To assist the project manager, many times an organization will create a project management methodology with templates, checklists, and reviews that are used to “chart” the path the project should follow. The methodology defines a channel that has been determined to be the best path to navigate the risks and dangers of the project. The reviews, checklists and templates are the navigational beacons and buoys that are used by the project managers to guide them through the channel. The channel is still likely to have some sharp turns and dangerous eddies, but the templates, checklists, and reviews are there to guide the project manager through these dangers.
Without pushing the metaphor too far, we can see some of the problems and challenges that project managers and organizations face by considering some of the challenges associated with channels and navigational aids.
- One problem is that the channel will often change over time. Storms can shift sand bars and a channel can quickly be blocked. In fact there may not be a navigable channel following a storm. Within companies, re-organizations or new initiatives and systems can change how work is done. The original channel may no longer exist and a new channel must be found or dredged.
- Another problem is that the channel fills up with mud and sand over time so that it is no longer deep enough for the ships to come in. When that occurs, the channel must be dredged to clean it out. Within a company, a project management methodology often becomes cluttered over time. A Lesson Learned on one project adds a new checklist or template. The new checklist is added, but the old ineffective checklist is not removed. A new management team wants to do project reviews in a different manner than before. The new reviews are added, but the old reviews are not removed. The organization needs to periodically review the “channel” in the project management methodology to ensure that it does not get cluttered up with unneeded or ineffective templates, checklists and reviews.
- A third problem is the use of the beacons. Small boats can often scoot around the beacons and maneuver outside the channel because they have a very shallow draft. As the captains of those boats are promoted to larger ships with deeper drafts, they can no longer safely navigate outside the channel. Within companies, small projects can often be successful even though they did not use some of the templates, checklists and reviews because their scope or team is so small. However, when these project managers are promoted to the large projects, that same behavior can lead to disaster. The larger the project the more important it is to use the full project management methodology.
- A fourth problem is that the captain and pilot must be able to see the navigational aids and understand what they mean. This requires training. In a river or harbor, the color, shape, and number of the navigational aid has a distinct meaning. Within project management, checklists, templates and reviews also serve a distinct purpose. Using the wrong checklist at the wrong time in a project can lead to bad decisions that create project disasters. Project managers, project sponsors and key project team members need to learn the methodology. Project management methodology training, tools and technique training, and periodic performance reviews are needed to ensure that project managers are effectively working with the project management methodology.
Whether your project is best represented by a super tanker, a catamaran yacht, or a two-person dingy, it is still important to know the channel and to understand the navigational beacons. Using them appropriately will enable you to bring your project safely into the harbor.