Your Project Whispering Toolkit

ProjectFailure1RoadFailurePublished in the Project Post-Gazette, February 2014

by Paul Lohnes,. MBA, PMP

February Project Post-Gazette

Over the past few issues, the Project Whisperer has shown how to remediate different types of projects specific to particular industries: healthcare, financial, and government. Project whispering is a project management specialty that while not suited to all project managers (PM) can be quite beneficial to many organizations where the concept of using project/program/portfolio management (PPPM) is utilized to further the business value and preeminence of the organization in their industry or venue. All projects are not going to go as planned especially if the organization is using outdated and proven project success detracting methodologies such as Program Evaluation & Review Technique (PERT) and Critical Path Method (CPM) approaches without understanding their limitations and ‘bad behavior’ support. See our Feb 2014 Well-Skilled PM column for more in depth analysis of these issues.

Project Whispering is a specialty that if you have not already needed, your organization is going to wish they had access to such skillsets sooner rather than later since studies place the project success rates anywhere from 6 to 38% depending on the definition of success. The PPG has already discussed and referenced these studies in past issues (Dec 2013 PPG). Thus, when a project is not faring in the best winds, but before it is canceled unceremoniously as many organizations do to ‘bury the dead,’ other organizations are beginning to implement the rescue of such projects by engaging external project whisperers (PW). The reason for bringing in an external PW is due to only three outcomes available to a project rescue situation, and the impact these decisions can have on an internal PW career or social acceptance in the organization. These three outcomes are:

  1. Remediate and continue,
  2. Rehabilitate and start over, and
  3. Recycle and terminate

We will cover these three outcomes each in more detail in subsequent Project Whisperer columns, but for now and for the purposes of creating your PW Toolkit (PWT), we only need to understand the differences and applications of the outcomes for a beginning.

Outcome 1: Remediate and continue

Remediation of a failing project is used when the project is still salvageable, but if it continues on the current trajectory, it will soon move beyond a point where the cost of remediation exceeds the value of trying to keep the project in its original constrained (scope, time, cost, quality and risk) form. This outcome involves the least invasive actions or corrections to the project.

Outcome 2: Rehabilitate and start over

Rehabilitation of a failing project is applied to those projects that have reached the status where any further expenditure of time, money, or resources will be lost either in the complete failure of the project or in its reorganization. Rehabilitation usually involves a complete review, project scope integrity audit, budgetary analysis, and deliverable status dissection. The question to ask is can this project be salvaged in some smaller or different form to provide at least some value by producing reconstituted ‘fit-for-use’ deliverables within an acceptable modified framework of the original primary constraints.

Outcome 3: Recycle and terminate

Recycling a ‘failed project’ is exactly what it means – salvaging the parts, lessons learned, partially completed deliverables and then terminating the project to release the money and resources to other projects that are viable and possible. This outcome is the one that requires organizational courage and willingness to realize that throwing good after the bad is not a practice to be condoned either by silence or inaction.

Knowing the possible outcomes of a project whispering attempt, what can an organization expect to realize in benefits from the engagement of an external PW? Should organizations just learn to ‘kill and eat their young,’ so to speak and not bother bringing in a hired gun? While some organizations have done the internal project rescuing program with their red flags, breaches, and ‘stop work’ activities, most have realized that the internal politics of attempting to alter the path of a failing project is simply too difficult or inappropriate for someone inside the organization to try and accomplish. It is similar to the problem that law enforcement agencies have when attempting to police their own through a form of internal affairs process. The ‘IA’ practitioners are never accepted in any other role, and the conflict of interest decision laid at the feet of the senior leadership team (SLT) that approved the project makes the termination decision more difficult and complex. An external PW can more quickly and with less mess and political consequences make the recommendations objectively and without worrying about a future at the firm working with those for which the whispering suggestions are going to impact.

Save yourself the trouble and hire a professional project rescuer or whisperer. It is money well spent.

So, you are now that professional PW, what should you have in your toolkit when you begin an engagement as a PW, and what the components of the toolkit?

A PWT is not a physical toolkit per se, but it contains knowledge, skills, artifacts (templates, checklists, forms, documents), and solution profiles that can assist you with entering the project rescue environment quickly, silently, and with purpose since one of the most important features of a good project whispering engagement is the minimization of time at the client site due to the potential damage your presence and subsequent remediation activities are likely to cause. Trust us, no one likes the PW or the foreboding you will bring. You are not going to be liked, asked out for coffee, or treated nicely. You are the hired gun, the ‘grim reaper,’ the angel of death all rolled into one. If this is not to your acceptance or liking, find another professional specialty.

The makeup of the PWT in generic terms and descriptions has four major components or parts. Some are professional attributes that you will possess given your experience, training, and knowledge while others are things you will accumulate over your career as a PW. However, your PWT will be unique to you, but it should contain some essentials components such as:

  1. Knowledge components
    1. Expert knowledge of project management principles: scope, time, cost, quality, and risk
    2. Expert knowledge of project performance analysis and evaluation techniques
    3. Working knowledge of quantitative and decision support techniques
    4. Working knowledge of human capital environments
    5. Working knowledge of business analysis principles
    6. Working knowledge of organizational behavior and psychology
  2. Skillset components
    1. Expert communicator – speaking, writing, and listening
    2. Expert investigator – not easily swayed or given to emotions
    3. Expert researcher – fast reader, online searcher, and documenter
    4. Highly proficient computer users – power user
    5. Highly proficient and logical decision maker
  3. Experience components
    1. 15+ years of successful project/program/portfolio management
    2. Project manager on at least 5-7 failed projects (yes, we mean failed!)
    3. Certified project management certification holder (PMP®, PgMP®,PRINCE2®, FAC/PPM) – credibility
    4. 5+ years as a trainer, coach, or mentor
    5. Multiple industries and venues: financial, government, manufacturing, service, industrial, petrochemical
  4. Artifact components
    1. A confidential pen and ink log book suitable for legal presentation
    2. A netbook or tablet with keyboard with image and video accumulator (with client’s permission)
    3. Pre-engagement checklist: what the organization needs to do to prepare for a project rescue
    4. Project member and key stakeholder rosters with work history and organizational position information
    5. Initial on-site checklist: first visit with project stakeholders, then project team, questions, and surveys
    6. Communications and documentation recovery and review checklist
    7. Primary constraints review: scope, time, cost, quality and risk plans, updates, and modifications
    8. Change management review: process audit, and change request approval/rejection log
    9. Project schedule review: initial and subsequent ‘tweaks’ to schedule
    10. Project progress reporting and tracking review: EVM, ES, deliverables status, and performance metrics
    11. Project team interview checklist: meeting with each member individually and confidentially
    12. Project key stakeholders checklist: meeting with project sponsors, users, and managers
    13. Organizational management members questionnaires
    14. Project progress gap analysis model: comparison between planned project and current project status

These are the generic contents of our PWT plus a few specific items that we have discovered during our many years of actually doing project whispering. You will also begin to accumulate your own ‘special tools and techniques’ as you do more and more project remediation. Remember you do not have an unlimited amount of time in which to effect the rescue. The longer you take the more you will disturb the project environment and provide opportunities for the team members to contaminate both their memories and the project documentation. You need to work swiftly, quietly, and objectively – skills that are not normal for most project managers or business analysts. However, organizations need to either develop their own project remediation processes, or as we suggest, bring in a disinterested third party to effect the rescue. Time is ticking – do not let projects that can be salvaged continue to decay. Wasted time and resources on floundering projects takes critical support from those projects that can be saved.


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