“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”
Years ago, when I was student learning software development, we were taught a simple process: you captured the business need, then designed the system to meet that need – what it would do, what it would look like – and then you built it. A bit of testing and debugging and you were good to go.
A few years after I’d graduated and moved out of IT, that approach also graduated and moved out of IT, morphing into the new global standard for project management. It was renamed PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) and it underpins almost all project management methodologies today, from construction to event planning to business change programmes.
As an approach, it’s easy to learn and easy to teach but even back in my student days, it was costing businesses and governments millions of pounds in IT overspend, and years of delays, because as it turns out, the real world isn’t a particularly controlled environment. In fact, it’s changing all the time, as are the people in it: your customers, their needs, attitudes and expectations.
The real issue though, is that people are extremely poor predictors of their own behaviour, let alone the behaviour of others, and we don’t use systems, or indeed products or services, in the way we think we will before they’re built. The bits we think are important in the design rarely get used, and the list of change requests that emerges after a system has gone into test can be huge. That’s why almost all software development has moved to a much more agile approach, with short, sharp development phases and continuous testing of new features with real live users. Agile doesn’t just accept change as something to be managed, it demands it as a fundamental driver of the process.
The agile approach has been transformational for software development, and it’s partly crossed over to business through the Lean Startup approach that I’ve written about here before. But most businesses are still using classic project management tools for most projects and programmes. Which is why most businesses are great at executing the kinds of projects they’ve done before and that have a clearly defined deliverable: a new store opening, a product range extension, a consumer marketing campaign; but they regularly fail to make headway on new, especially radical ideas.
Take a look at your own strategic agenda. You’ll probably see that the initiatives that are flying, are the ones where you know what the destination looks like and you know exactly how to get there. The more strategic and radical opportunities, the ones that by their very nature are less well defined and take your team along roads less travelled, are the ones struggling to get off the ground.
And I’d bet you a pound to a penny it’s because they’re being managed as traditional projects, the equivalent of using a hammer to paint a landscape. The real problem is this: everyone in your organisation who’s ever learned a formal approach to project management has effectively been given a hammer and trained in its use. So, everything you describe as a project, is immediately being seen as a nail.
If you really want to accelerate these ideas, you’ll need a much more agile, interactive and exploratory approach. That means you’ll need project managers with a very different set of skills, plans which have a very different set of success measures, and an executive that has a very different expectation about what the end deliverable could look like.
Sometimes we need to unlearn what we’ve been taught before we can learn something new.