Continue in 2 seconds

When Technology Projects Break Down and What to do About It, Part 2

  • August 31 2006, 1:00am EDT
More in

This is the second in a series of columns that presents a methodology for recognizing and resolving technology project breakdowns.

In my previous column I discussed the fact that the most effective and efficient way to find out if an initiative is working or not is to attend the project management, review and working meetings, beginning with the most senior and formal staff review meetings and drilling down to the most junior and informal task-oriented meetings. That column provided a methodology and a sample checklist for assessing the state of a project based upon the meetings associated with it. This column will talk about why meetings are the place to go to find out if your project is succeeding.

Conversations, Actions and Physics

All technology projects consist of three fundamental domains: conversations, actions and physics. No matter how complex the project, at the end of the day effective project executives, managers and stakeholders want the answers to five questions:

  1. What did we want in the past, expressed in physical results that are measurable?
  2. What actions did we take in the past to get what we want?
  3. What physical results did we get in the past?
  4. What do we want in the future?
  5. What actions are we going to take to get what we want in the future?

Arguably the most complex technology project ever attempted was the effort to land people on the moon. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke before a special joint session of the United States Congress and said, " I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Kennedy's declaration is a classic mission statement, because at a very high level it said clearly what the purpose of the project was in measurable terms, who was going to do it and how long it was going to take. On July 24, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and the three astronauts were safely recovered, fulfilling the conditions of the mission statement. The cost of the entire Apollo program has been estimated at more than $25 billion 1969 dollars and involved the work of hundreds of organizations and thousands of people.
Despite the enormous challenges, complexities, distances and dollars involved in this or any other technology project, in the end there are three fundamentals: conversations, actions and physics. Said another way, all IT projects are based upon our commitments in conversation, what we do based upon those commitments and the physical result. When projects succeed they succeed in all three of these domains, and when they fail they fail in at least one of these domains.

The Weekly Project Review Meeting

My claim is that any IT project that has broken down can be turned around over time by a rigorous weekly or biweekly project review meeting attended by the right people who ask and answer the five questions shown above and document the answers to those questions in a clear, complete, consistent format that is made available to the right people at the right time.

It is my experience over the past 20 years in the IT field that a project team needs at least one week to take significant action and document it - daily review meetings stifle initiative and creativity. On the other hand, if you allow project teams to work for more than two weeks without review, the first thing that happens is that people begin to lose sight of what was promised and documentation of what was actually done and what results were produced suffers.

I invite you to test my claim by focusing on an IT project that you are associated with that is in breakdown. I submit to you that one or more of the following conditions are present:

  • There is no rigorous weekly or biweekly project review meeting.
  • If there are project review meetings, key people are absent on a regular basis.
  • In the project review meetings, the following five questions are not answered every week: W hat did we want in the past, expressed in physical results that are measurable? What actions did we take in the past to get what we want? What physical results did we get in the past? What do we want in the future? What actions are we going to take to get what we want in the future?
  • If the five questions are answered, then they are not documented in a clear, complete and consistent format that is made available to the right people at the right time.

Review Meetings as Trim Tabs

Powerful project review meetings are the trim tabs of IT projects. On a large ship, the rudder weighs many tons and when the ship is moving, thousands of gallons of water surge by it every second, exerting a tremendous amount of force in the direction the ship is already moving. Most ships have a small rudder embedded in the main rudder called a trim tab. Turning the trim tab exerts tremendous leverage on the main rudder and makes steering the huge ship more effective and efficient. Aircraft also have a one or more trim tabs on the control surfaces of the wings and the tail assembly. On airplanes trim tabs are used to maintain straight or level flight while also taking pressure off of the rudder pedals or flight wheel, pressure that would otherwise need to be constantly adjusted and applied manually by the pilot.

Effective review meetings accomplish the same things for complex, large IT projects - they help to change direction, maintain direction, reduce pressure and eliminate constant manual intervention.

I look forward to corresponding with readers of this series and to an exchange of knowledge, experience and perspective. You can reach me via email at or at (314) 566-3603.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Information Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access