Over a decade ago, Tom Peters wrote in the popular article The Wow Project: “In the new economy, all work is project work. And you are your projects!”
As a writer, speaker, and coach, I am definitely my projects. Over the course of some twenty-five years, I’ve experienced the myriad of ups and downs, ins and outs, and fits and starts of projects. During that time, I discovered the Seven Laws of Projects:
A major project is never completed on time, within budget, or with the original team, and it never does exactly what it was supposed to.
Projects progress quickly until they become 85% complete. Then they remain 85% complete forever. Think of this as the Home Improvement Law.
When things appear to be going well, you’ve overlooked something. When things can’t get worse, they will. (Murphy’s Law says, “If something can go wrong, it will”—this is a corollary).
Project teams hate weekly progress reports because they so vividly manifest the lack of progress.
A carelessly planned project will take three times longer to complete than expected. A carefully planned project will only take twice as long as expected. Also, ten estimators will estimate the same work in ten different ways. And one estimator will estimate ten different ways at ten different times.
The greater the project’s technical complexity, the less you need a technician to manage it.
If you have too few people on a project, they can’t solve the problems. If you have too many, they create more problems than they can solve.
Why do these laws exist? Mainly because our eyes are bigger than our tummies. We have delusions of success. We take on more than we should, routinely exaggerating the benefits and discounting the costs. We over-scope, over-scale, and over-sell. At the same time, we under-estimate, under-resource, and under-plan.
Why? Maybe it’s our Yankee pioneer genetics. Call it a bias for optimism. We have a tendency to exaggerate our own abilities. We have tendency to take credit for success and blame failure on external events. We also exaggerate the degree of control we have over events. (Ever read an annual report? A boom year is chalked up to managerial brilliance. A bust year is due to events beyond management’s control.)
Projects—even small ones—are complex and challenging. Interests often compete and conflict. Individual performance varies widely. Continual shifts in direction and frequent stalls that slow momentum demand constant planning, adjustment, and improvisation—skills that only come with battle scars.
The rules of projects are made to be broken. In fact they must be broken for the WOW project to be successful. The Mars Pathfinder mission points out how.
In 1995, the Mars Pathfinder team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory had to meet a new NASA mandate. Their challenge was create a state-of-the-art, low-cost, remote-control, all-terrain land rover that could reliably beam back images, collect samples, and return scientific data on Mars. They had to do it in less than half the time and at a tenth of the cost of the previous Viking mission to Mars. NASA wanted things faster, better, and cheaper.
Talk about a WOW project! Three key strategies emerged.
The NASA goals drove new thinking. The challenge drew the most creative and talented staff members to the project. A 25-year-old new school design engineer came up with the breakthrough idea of using airbags to replace complex, expensive propulsion landing systems which had been prone to failure.
The team obsessed over testing. Using airbags meant the Pathfinder would be bouncing when it landed. The team conducted dozens of tests using helicopters that dropped the airbag-wrapped Pathfinder hundreds of feet onto a Mars-like surface. Each test produced an important new refinements.
The team designed in speed and flexibility. There was no way to fully prepare for the challenges of operating a rover on the Mars surface, so they employed a “gremlin” to come in at night, while the rest of the team slept, and deliberately monkey with something. When the time came to land on Mars, the team was prepared for just about anything.
The entire project from concept to touchdown was completed in forty-four months—less than half the time of Viking. The project team numbered just 300 members—a contrast to the 2000 workers assigned to previous Viking mission. They also met their fixed budget of less than $200 million, instead of the $2 billion price tag on the last mission.
On July 4, 1997, the Mars Pathfinder landed successfully on the red planet, and the tiny Sojourner rover started its now famous trek across the surface of Mars.
The moral of the story: If you want your project to be a WOW, first know the Seven Laws of Projects. Then break them.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.