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

Paradoxical Policies: II

by

Last updated: February 16, 2019

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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 bear trapThe Mind Reading Trap
When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: II
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool called the Johari window.
Christ's Indian PaintbrushFour Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: I
When layoffs are necessary, the problems they are meant to address are sometimes exacerbated by mismanagement of the layoff itself. Here is Part I of a discussion of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
Winslow Homer's painting, BlackboardFill in the Blanks
When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
The business end of a spark plugCreating Toxic Conflict: II
Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use that make trouble.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Delicate Arch, a 60-foot tall (18 m) freestanding natural archComing November 20: Paid-Time-Off Risks
Associated with the trend to a single pool of paid time off from separate categories for vacation, sick time, and personal days are what might be called paid-time-off risks. If your team must meet customer expectations or a schedule of deliverables, managing paid-time-off risks can be important. Available here and by RSS on November 20.
What an implicit interrogation can look likeAnd on November 27: Implicit Interrogations
Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers

On 14The Race
to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

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.

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.