Don’t “reinvent the wheel”

I read an interesting blog posted today on the Association of Project Management site, entitled “Cycle of success” by Andrew Hubbard.

Andrew starts his post with one of my favourite Winston Churchill quotes “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”. And then sets the tone for the post “Change often, it sounds simple enough. As project managers we change projects all of the time – deliver, reset and go again. But are we edging toward perfection by changing our delivery often enough?”.

Andrew has an interesting point.

As project managers we direct and expedite change; but in order to do this we must also learn and adapt effectively.

Projects are not Business as Usual (BAU). BAU is those normal or routine operations that organisations use to run their business activities on a day-to-day basis.

Projects are what organizations use when they need to do something different (out of the ordinary routine operations that is BAU); a change to the norm, going beyond what they do today. Once the project has rolled out its deliverables they may become the norm, and the deliverables fall into the realm of BAU. But remember projects are not BAU, they are outside the normal operations, therefore they involve greater uncertainty and change.

In a BAU world there is a possibility of “edging toward perfection by changing our delivery often enough” through continuous process improvements, but the very nature of projects mean that this “perfection” is highly unlikely.

The end result of a project is a change to the “status quo”. Projects enable organizations to pioneer innovation and introduce new organizational attributes, such as infrastructure, products, systems, procedures, other unique requirements, etc. all in a controlled manner. For this very reason projects have inherent characteristics, such as uniqueness (organizations may have run or, in future, may run many similar projects but there will always be some attributes of the project that will be different that make it unique), uncertainty (not business as usual nor the same as previous projects, some attributes of the project are new, untried and the outcomes are unclear), cross-functional (specialists from all areas (cross-organisation, internal, external) brought on-board to affect the change), temporary (deliver the outcomes and then project team disbands). Each of these characteristics requires the project team to learn and adapt.   Irrespective of the sector we work in, a project team takes a number of raw elements, will work rigorously to adapt them over a predetermined period of time (involving numerous inputs, resources and skills to shape the “work in process” into a deliverable(s) that the customer requested), lastly releasing the deliverable(s) to the customer for their use.

Throughout this process, change is the key factor. The end result is a changed state (new product, system, procedures, etc.). In the interim the result is constant flux, the changes necessary to enable the final end result.

The project management process is about efficient adaptation in order to effectively enable successful change. Consequently, if project managers don’t adjust and tweak the various elements of the project over the life-cycle (especially when something is not right or something isn’t working as expected) then the project will fail or fail to deliver what was expected. This continuous improvement is essential and experienced project managers are efficient in making necessary tweaks to the project on a daily basis.

Although this works for projects in flight, many organisations fail to pay attention to the lessons experienced during previous projects or those many trials and challenges solved through the talent and creativity of the team. Too many projects start out as a “blank canvass”, despite there being historical projects in the organisations previously delivering similar solutions that they could learned from.

Also too many organisations don’t actually conduct a lessons learned assessment at the end of a project (or at regular intervals during a project), so the useful experiences gained vanish with the disbandment of the project team.

Others organisations perform an assessment, but really as a “tick-box” exercise and don’t utilise the valuable output (occasionally the lessons get written up, but it can sit on file server somewhere, never to be read).

As project managers we must learn and adapt effectively. Not just during the life-cycle of our project. Project managers must learn and adapt each time they start a new project, work with a new team, engage with different stakeholders or suppliers, or face some new challenge. As project managers we should endeavour to find out what has gone on before, uncover lessons learned from previous similar projects or activities, in an effort to ensure our project starts off and continues with the combined learnings of those previous endeavours.

Project managers must also foster a culture of learning and adapting within the team. Encouraging team members to uncover lessons learned from previous similar projects, focusing on areas relevant to their specialities and apply them to the project.

Above all don’t “reinvent the wheel”, instead take advantage of the best practices and experience of other people. You will be more productive, able to utilise your time on something more challenging, complex and even more fun (especially if you are the first to solve it)!

But will this enable us to edge toward perfection? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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