The project as machine

Photo by Jonathan AdamiThe project managers I respect most are those who make it look easy—especially if I know the project in question is particularly nasty. I know one project manager who came in after four previous attempts to start the project, all of which failed. 12 months into the 18 month piece of work he described it as “a machine” which more or less ran by itself. There were still lots of moving parts, and there were always things to deal with, but they were never sufficiently terrible to escalate. Most important of all, he was demonstrating tangible, valuable progress month after month.

By contrast, many projects lurch from crisis to crisis.

In the Agile community we talk about continuous improvement. Deming and the Lean movement talk about looking at the system as a whole, and continually seeking ways to improve quality. But all of these things assume a stable system. If you don’t have a stable system then your attempts to improve will never be demonstrably successful—there will always be other random factors influencing the results. Only when we’ve got a reliable machine can we attempt to tune it. Once our project is stable then the crises reduce and our energies are focused on valuable business decisions, such as ramping resources or funds up and down, and continually ensuring it’s delivering the benefit/cost ratio that we expect.

A lot of people don’t like the idea of working in a machine. It’s certainly got connotations of Metropolis about it. But looking at it another way, we’re working in a stable environment, free of nasty surprises. And it gives us the only chance we’ve got to continually seek improvement.

Photo by Jonathan Adami