Published on: February 18, 2020
The most dangerous word in project management?
unique projects project management pmo

Unique is the most dangerous word in project management. It stunts our growth as a profession and starves us of learning lessons and applying continuous improvement techniques to project delivery.

If you are involved in Project Management, you will almost certainly have come across the word ‘unique’ being used to describe projects or their deliverables.

PMI describes a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result” (https://www.pmi.org/about/learn-about-pmi/what-is-project-management)

APM goes further, describing not just the deliverables, but the project itself as something unique. They define a project as “a unique, transient endeavor, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits”. (https://www.apm.org.uk/body-of-knowledge/context/governance/project-management/)

Unique is an anti-pattern

An anti-pattern is a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive. In the case of project management, the deep-seated obsession with the uniqueness of projects is in itself an anti-pattern that condemns countless projects to repeat the same mistakes as their precursors.

The pattern looks a little bit like this. Organizations believe that a solution to a problem or opportunity cannot be effectively be achieved within their operational delivery structure. Therefore they commission a project. At this stage, the solution is not ‘unique’, merely slightly out of alignment with the way the business works. It is a round peg in a square hole. Project Managers take over and begin to apply strategies designed for handling genuinely unique challenges. Uniqueness is something that is assumed from the start, and unlike other assumptions, this one is rarely validated adequately. Lessons from the past are frequently overlooked because no one can believe that they would be relevant to this particular project. Soon the project is making the same mistakes as other projects that have been run by the same project manager or by the same organization or within the same sector, or by using the same technology.

In order to be successful, we need to spend less time focusing on what makes our projects unique, and more time understanding what makes them ordinary.

Runners, Repeaters, and Strangers

Runners, Repeaters, and Strangers, is an approach used in Lean Manufacturing. It can also be applied to categorizing projects in a portfolio. As you would expect, the technique sorts projects into one of three categories: Runners, repeaters, and strangers.

RUNNERS

The runners are the types of projects that you see all most frequently. In large offices, these may include department moves or user technology upgrades. In event management companies, running regular meetups or breakfast seminars may be considered runners.

REPEATERS

The repeaters are the projects you see regularly, but not all the time. Maybe significant CRM upgrades would qualify, or the introduction of new product lines.

STRANGERS

The strangers are the infrequent projects that we rarely see. Perhaps your company has been bought by a competitor, or perhaps you are developing a truly unique product that has no frame of reference or comparison.

In most project organizations, the number or ‘runner’ projects are likely to be high, whilst we would expect to see few, if any, strangers. Rather than treating runners and repeaters as unique, effort should be made to codify them as much as possible and build competence in delivering them. For the true ‘strangers’ we should consider whether they are strange everywhere, or just in our organization. If the latter is true, then efforts should be focused on learning from other organizations and suppliers.

Analyzing the distribution of all three categories of project will help the organization develop process-oriented methodologies to deliver effectively with constant feedback loops ensuring sustainable processes are continuously refined as lessons are learned.

MORE ABOUT RUNNERS, REPEATERS, AND STRANGERS

Check out this three-minute video to learn more about runners, repeaters, and strangers:

Lessons Learned

If projects are unique, then there is little to be learned from them – or to learn from previous projects. But if we side-step the anti-pattern of uniqueness, we see rich seams of data and insight opening up all around us. In Toyota manufacturing plants, lines have something called The Andon Cord. Pulling the cord stops the production line and lets everyone know that a critical issue has occurred, requiring an immediate response. Pulling the cord is not something restricted to managers: everyone has the authority to pull the cord. Once it has been pulled, the team works to resolve the issue and, crucially, prevent it from happening again. There would be little need for this approach on truly unique projects, but with our runners and repeaters, this approach makes sense. A slight delay on one project to resolve an issue and prevent it from happening on future projects would save the organization time and money in the long run.

Even if stopping the manufacturing line feels too extreme, lessons learned can be powerful and can save huge amounts of waste. Techniques such as Call3 can be deployed within organizations to bring lessons learned processes to life rather than simply filing lessons away to gather dust and be forgotten.

Continuous Delivery

As more organizations experiment with agile approaches, we see more of them adopting a Continuous Delivery approach. In these kinds of environments, the traditional approach of forming a team to deliver a project is reversed, and project work is instead drip-fed into highly flexible, permanent teams who deliver whatever is prioritized by the business. Such approaches are common in software development environments but are also gaining traction in other areas such as Marketing.

Embarking on a Continuous Delivery journey allows even more opportunities to improve and optimize. Not only do we get to challenge the uniqueness anti-pattern, but we also remove the concept of projects being temporary structures. Pulling together a project team is usually a hugely inefficient process. Time and energy are invested in helping a team move through the phases of forming and storming to get to a position where they are performing at a level that may be considered ‘normal’. Rarely do project teams stay together long enough to reach the ‘performing’ stage. But with Continous Delivery, we can keep teams together and bring the work to them. This approach opens up more possibilities for standardization and applying lessons more than ever before, and is well worth considering if you have a high number of projects that require common skills and capabilities.

The role of the PMO

The PMO has a crucial role to play in breaking this anti-pattern that continues to hold delivery back. Here’s my checklist for PMOs who are keen to break with uniqueness and massively improve project delivery in their organizations:

  • Classify the projects in your portfolio as runners, repeaters, and strangers.
  • Work with Project Managers to codify runners (and then the repeaters), so they have standardized project plans, checklists, pre-populated risk logs, pre-populated stakeholder maps etc.
  • Provide training in delivering your runner projects, building your capability and skillset to deliver rapidly and consistently.
  • Act as a hub for lessons learned, deploying Call3 to ensure no project starts without learning the lessons of the past.
  • Consider whether a Continous Delivery approach could work for your organization and what steps you could take to turn it into a reality.
  • Measure success. In order to improve something, you must measure it. Ensure you have the right metrics to track delivery improvements across projects to see how your changed approach improves delivery. If you are working in a Continous Delivery environment, start tracking cycle time and use it to demonstrate process improvements.
  • Look outside the organization. Projects that are strangers in one organization are not likely to be strangers in all organizations. Use your peer and supplier networks to benefit from the lessons of others.
  • Educate. Spread the word that if project delivery is going to improve, we need to stop thinking of our projects as unique. By dropping this anti-pattern you will pave the way for more project delivery improvements than you could possibly imagine.

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