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

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

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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