Monday, October 1, 2007

Recognizing Loser Businesses

The ability to differentiate between winners and losers permeates virtually every aspect of our lives. Cadillac or Yugo, Bach or Courtney Love... the ability to quickly discern the gold from the tin in our lives has a profound and long-lasting impact on our power to maintain an upbeat, happy attitude.

The same is true of getting yourself involved in new businesses/projects. Is the company you are considering a winner, or a loser? If it's a bad project, you could end up losing a significant intellectual and emotional investment once it crashes and burns, and the blame starts flying. Associate with a winner company, and your career could go to warp speed. So, how do you tell the difference?

While winning businesses/projects can display a dizzying variety of characteristics, but the losers will often have key symptoms in common. Here, then, is a list of the top five indicators that your project is a loser.

POOR OR NON-EXISTENT SCOPE DEFINITION: If you have never been involved in a project or startup company with rampant scope creep, it's a thing to behold. Since the actual goals being worked remain in a state of flux, progress against the moving target is next to impossible. I witnessed a disaster of a project, where the scope was never clearly defined. What was being worked on that week was decided in Monday morning meetings, after which some teams were suddenly tasked beyond belief, while others were just as suddenly idled. These teams changed week to week, so that the staff were alternately buried with work or terrified of being laid off. Morale plummeted, deadlines were missed, budgets blown. Few of the participants' reputations were spared.

RELUCTANCE OR REFUSAL TO USE PROJECT CONTROLS: If the project's manager or business' founder is whining about the expense of a project controller--or is going out of his way to further some excuse for not creating a baseline and collecting status--run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. Some time back the "phased approach" to implementing project management rigor became popular, with the lower-risk projects avoiding many aspects of the old Cost/Schedule Control System Criterion (C/SCSC). To this day, I'm convinced that this was a cynical ploy to get contractors to reveal project difficulties: If a project tried to avoid the cost and schedule controls, it meant they were in real trouble, and deserving of more scrutiny.

LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY FOR PROJECT PERFORMANCE: I must confess that there is a great amount of comic value in the depths of deceitfulness that some PMs and business founders will go to in order to avoid accountability for the rotten performance of their projects and company ideas. They will tap contingency budgets to cover scope creep, process baseline change proposals to push out key milestones, or refuse to show a variance at completion for projects that have passed the 20 percent complete point. What's not funny is the amount of resources that are wasted while these idiots keep their PM/CEO/COO titles, and the way the staff is often held accountable for project failure.

STAFF AVOIDS COMMUNICATING BAD NEWS UPWARDS: This problem is occasionally caused by overly ambitious or confident staff members who believe that they can resolve any technical difficulties by themselves, and alerting higher-ups to possible problems constitutes a career-limiting move. However, in the majority of cases, it is my experience that this minefield is planted by managers and higher-ups who react to project trouble with the sole tactic of pushing the staff harder.

SCHEDULE DEADLINES ARE SET AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS OF MANAGEMENT: (i.e. By those who won't be doing the actual work) Most PMs will agree that activity-based costing is a good idea, so why hasn't activity-based scheduling become more prevalent? The practice of having executives set completion dates, often on an extraordinarily arbitrary fashion, is a guaranteed schedule-wrecker, and a business launch or project whose schedule is not properly managed is a project headed for disaster.

If you find yourself in a project that is displaying one or more of these symptoms, try to make a discreet exit.
"You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don't need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free"

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