“…so to summarise, your project team is failing to demonstrate key competencies and as a result I can not expect it to achieve its objectives on time or to the quality expected.”  After delivering this shit-o-gram I wasn’t expecting a round of applause. Everyone in the room was glancing at each other, waiting for someone to speak. The reddish looking project manager took a deep breath and opened his mouth, but his programme manager jumped in. 

“Remind me, what is your background?”  Odd. He didn’t seem to care when he thought I was going to start heaping praise on him and the team. 

“Computer Science degree. Project manager in NHS and government. PMO in banking. Currently assigned to Assurance.”

“So you’ve never delivered a project like this?”

I glanced at the summary table on the front cover of the report. Nearly all competencies scored Red. “No, I am certain I have never delivered a project like this.” 

The implication flew over his head. “So, how can you really be confident in your results?”

“Well,” I glanced again at the report, “you know how the test rates Planning?”

“The plan is fine. Just needs updating.”

“It needs two months worth of updating.”

“But surely,” his voice starting to raise, “our ability to hit the go live date is the test. Right?” He glanced around the room for support. He got a few nods. 

“On that basis, it wouldn’t be possible to test and assure your project until after that date. I’ve not been asked to do a post implementation review -” I was so close to calling it an autopsy, “I’ve been asked to give do an independent assessment of the project’s likelihood of success – and I do not have confidence in it.”

“It wasn’t a fair test!” The project manager joined in, “We weren’t given notice.”

I shrugged. Not sure this guy knew what a random spot check was. “Wasn’t my choice – I was told to assess immediately. That’s my job.” Should I have reminded him that his job involved delivering the project in a professional manner? Tempting…

“I didn’t even know there was a review,” stated the programme manager. 

“I was interviewing your team for a week.” I picked up the report, ” I think I mentioned failings of stakeholder engagement and comms in here somewhere.”

You may think I was being deliberately provocative and borderline rude with the team. I had just delivered some bad news. The report was scathing, but did include positives where I found them. Recommendations had been made. However, the team – notably its leadership – had behavioural problems. Assurance had suspected that they had bullied the timid PMO that was embedded in the project to the extend she was no longer giving any true insights to the progress and management of the project. The team had rejected the advice and guidance offered to them a few months previously by the Head of Assurance. They scraped through a stage gate about a month ago, showing enough red flags to encourage Assurance to do a review. 

The findings weren’t good, but were fixable. But the real problem was an unwillingness to take advice and – now – to take criticism. I later steered the conversation back to the recommendations, but firstly they had to know they’d been failing and had been caught failing. This was the reason for my bluntness.  I don’t know if their show of confidence was genuine and that they really believed they were doing fine – but they had no evidence to support this belief. 

Despite an escalation of the report and concerns from Assurance, they again claimed confidence in their outdated plan. I’m not sure how, but they managed to convince their sponsor that all was well. The whispers of “politics” went round the office and the suggestion that some colleagues were untouchable seemed more plausible. 

As it turned out, when they finally got found to updating the plan they realised enough small changes had occurred to require a major replan and change request to amend the target dates of a number of key milestones.  Somehow, despite the extra cost and time, the only person to get penalised was the timid PMO. I can’t say I enjoyed the feeling of vindication at her leaving drinks. 

Written by Stuart Taylor

Born and raised in Walsall, West Midlands; currently living in Buckinghamshire; career in project management; runs a lot but isn't getting any slimmer...

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