The Wac-a-Mole Guide to Project Managment

The investigation of the Challenger shuttle disaster initially focused on an “O” ring that failed shortly after takeoff. But a search for the real cause eventually pointed to management as much as it did the “O” ring. Then, years later the Columbia shuttle exploded over the United States as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere. Six astronauts died. Once again the investigation started with the technical problem but eventually it also pointed to bad management.

While the technical problems were quite different, it seems that the management problems were strikingly similar; the management problems identified during the Challenger investigation just “popped up” again in the Columbia project. Yes, they were addressed by NASA in response to the Challenger report, yet they were apparently too ingrained in the culture to disappear.

How about the radical project management changes that Boeing introduced during the 777project? These changes would include vendors and customers as an integral part of the design teams and create a project culture that encouraged communication both up and down the project management hierarchy. And it was successful. Boeing’s conventional, hierarchical, and closed culture gave way to a flattened organizational structure with an open management style. But, after the 777 was completed, these new changes failed to stick and old practices just “popped up” again.

Wait a minute!

Sound familiar?

It’s the Whac-a-Mole model of project management.

Whac-a-Mole, as most people know, is an arcade game in which the player attempts to bang plastic moles back into their holes using a soft and oversized black mallet. The game, in its full-size version, includes a large, waist-level, cabinet with five holes. A plastic mole hides just below the surface in each of these holes. After depositing 25 cents, a mole pops up at random. The challenge is to beat it back with the mallet before it disappears and another pops up in a different hole. The more moles the player beats back, the higher the score.

Bad project management practices are like the moles. Regardless of how quickly the player beats them back they resurface, when and where you least expect them.

Now, here is the challenge. For many game players and perhaps even a few project managers, beating back the moles is great fun. It’s even addictive! They can’t imagine life without the moles.

Rehabilitation requires that we see the whac-a-mole for what it is and turn our attention to one of the real “culprits.” In project management that culprit is usually the organizational and project management culture.

Culture manifests itself through the values, beliefs and practices that guide behavior. It becomes visible in the methodologies we follow, the tools and software we use, the way we communicate, the way we collaborate, the way in which we achieve our goals and the way in which we deal with problems. Research has taught us that appropriate project culture is fundamental to a continued series of project successes.

Here is the connection. When the project culture suffers, the same problems emerge again and again.

Unless you get rid of the moles there isn’t a mallet big enough to consistently deliver successful projects.

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