How Wrong Projects Get the Right Approval

Some ideas are ill conceived from the beginning, but somehow they make it through the layers of the approval process.
Then they become projects!

How can this happen? How can wrong projects get approved?

Unfortunately it happens all the time. Sometimes it happens more in mature and bureaucratic organizations such as automotive, chemical and Insurance, but every industry has its share.

Bad projects begin in many different ways. Sometimes they are proposed by a vocal, aggressive, and persuasive manager who has criticized existing processes. Finally after wearing everyone down the project is approved.   Sometimes they are proposed just because competitors have started similar projects. At other times they are proposed out of competitive pressure.  They also proposed by people who are overconfident in their ability to solve problems and jump in well over their head.  Occasionally they are initiated by people who understand the political process and create momentum that is too great to stop. They even begin simply because they come from higher up.

Once these project proposals take hold they are hard to stop.

But, there are indeed people who recognize that these project proposals are not the way in which to spend the organization’s scarce resources of time, personnel and money.  Why, then do they not speak up?   Why is there no one to suggest that the emperor has no clothes? Why do we all silently suffer?

One reason is that most people want to be part of the team. They don’t want to be considered an obstructionist.  Some call it the pressures of “group think,”  others may say that it is a very reasonable response to a social environment.
Another reason is that the culture may be such that it discourages dissent especially when the project has met the approval of higher management.  The consequence of speaking up may jeopardize promotions or even the job.
Still another explanation is that mature bureaucracies tend to protect themselves more than they protect their markets and customers. As a result they may play it safe and select projects that avoid being disruptive and require only marginal changes to its process, products and services. For these and other reasons many wrong-headed projects never get derailed.

Now, contrast a wrong project with a right one.

A right project withstands the brutally honest process of competitive data analysis and internal support. External data is collected and used to confirm the business objectives of the project.   Internal data confirms that the project team is capable, committed and has access to the resources necessary to succeed.  Finally the right project must stand on its own, and its objectives must be clear enough to motivate others in t he organization including top-management, project managers and project team members.

If a project idea can’t withstand these tests it may be the wrong project to initiate and if by some chance it is approved then it runs the risk of disappointing everyone from top-management to the project team.

The Waterloo regional Police services in Waterloo Ontario, put together a partnership of neighboring police departments to design and build an integrated police information system that would replace their separate and outdated legacy systems. Rather than purchase off-the-shelf-software they decided in favor of contracting with a software developer to create software capable of integrating the systems they currently used. Ten years later the system was still not operational. Meanwhile, many of their partners withdrew from the project.  During this painfully long development process even more third party software developers brought off-the-shelf solutions to the market. How did this wrong project get started? Perhaps the single most convincing answer is that the team was overconfident that they could tackle what turned out to be a very complex project in partnership with a less than cooperative software integration vendor. As a result the project charter and scope were both unrealistic and too ambitious.

One can only imagine what this project did for the career of the project manager!

The long term consequences of wrong projects.  While wrong projects can lead to disappointing results in the short run, a continued string of wrong projects has significantly greater consequences that can lead to a downward financial spiral.  In this spiral, wrong projects lead to disappointing results, which then erode the competitive position of the firm, and which can eventually lead to financial distress and business failure.    

Lessons Learned: When project managers are handed a wrong project they face major hurdles, most of which are not their own doing.  Rarely can a project manager turn a wrong project into a right one.

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