Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 37;   September 13, 2017:

Paradoxical Policies: II

by

Because projects are inherently unique, constructing general organizational policies affecting projects is difficult. The urge to treat projects as if they were operations compounds the difficulty. Here's a collection of policies for projects that would be funny if they weren't real.
The Penrose triangle, an impossible object

The Penrose triangle, an impossible object. First created by the Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvärd in 1934, it was independently devised and popularized in the 1950s by psychiatrist Lionel Penrose and mathematician Roger Penrose (father and son). Visual paradoxes such as this often appear to be internally consistent at first glance. Only after closer examination does their impossibility become evident. So it is with paradoxical policies. They seem to be sensible and constructive at the time they are devised. Only after the people of the organization interact with them in a variety of situations do their inherent internal contradictions become evident.

Image (cc) Metoc courtesy Wikimedia.

The tension between the inherent uniqueness of projects, and the need to formulate policy that applies to all projects, makes governance of project-oriented organizations challenging. For every policy proposed, it's easy to construct rare but potentially expensive scenarios in which compliance with policy leads to consequences that conflict with policy objectives. Here are four such scenarios, actually captured in the wild.

  • A fast-moving desktop application software company with a fairly formal software development process acquires a smaller, entrepreneurial company with a hot product for mobile devices and a very informal development process. The acquired product team is directed to follow the acquiring company's formal process. It must develop a test plan, but it lacks the staff to do the work, and its request to hire three additional testing professionals has been rejected. To ensure compliance with the mandate, the acquiring company then assigns someone who knows little about testing mobile device software to write the test plan. The result is as horrendous as it is predictable.
  • The project hasFor every policy proposed, it's
    easy to construct rare but
    potentially expensive scenarios
    in which compliance with policy
    leads to consequences that
    conflict with policy objectives
    been slipping, and another slip seems likely, but not inevitable. To avoid being forced to announce another slip, on Wednesday afternoon Management orders an emergency project status review (EPSR) to be held at an all-day Saturday meeting. All work halts immediately, as everyone fires up PowerPoint to prepare slides for the EPSR. The loss of three days of work makes another project slip inevitable.
  • To monitor project health, bi-weekly status reports are required for all projects that are approved for spending against a budget. This includes some projects in which little activity occurs because they're waiting for some other effort's deliverables to arrive. In fact, the only activity that occurs in these projects is writing the bi-weekly status reports, which only adds to the data blizzard that buries the people who must review the reports, making it more difficult for them to monitor the health of projects.
  • To reduce expenses, the company decides to run "lean and mean." It tracks skills utilization data to ensure that people with skills that are in high demand — and who are therefore compensated at rates above market — are actually using those skills in the projects to which they're assigned. Consequently, people with high-value skills are usually allocated to several projects. Those project managers must then coordinate schedules to avoid over-allocating people with high-value skills. But projects rarely keep to schedule, because, um, they're projects. When schedules change abruptly, the people with high-value skills become bottlenecks, and project schedule chaos ripples through the organization. These delays can cause significant lost revenue opportunities, vastly larger than the savings that were supposed to come from running "lean and mean."

Finding these situations is easier than avoiding them when we devise policy. Simulations can help. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Comfort Zone Discomfort  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A checklistKeep a Not-To-Do List
Unless you execute all your action items immediately, they probably end up on your To-Do list. Since they're a source of stress, you'll feel better if you can find a way to avoid acquiring them. Having a Not-To-Do list reminds you that some things are really not your problem.
Wildflowers in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National ForestsRenewal
Renewal is a time to step out of your usual routine and re-energize. We find renewal in weekends, vacations, days off, even in a special evening or hour in the midst of our usual pattern. Renewal provides perspective. It's a climb to the mountaintop to see if we're heading in the right direction.
A pair of adult trumpeter swansFinding Work in Tough Times: Marketing
We aren't accustomed to thinking of finding work in tough times as a marketing problem, but it helps. Here are some suggestions for applying marketing principles to finding work in tough times.
An F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter test aircraft AA-1 undergoes flight testing over Fort Worth, TexasThe Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration
Much of what we call work is as futile and irrelevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend task duration.
A typical standup meetingMeeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.