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Look out for “Best Efforts” Projects

Today I am going to talk about something that will likely occur in every project manager’s career, usually without realizing it. These are projects that I like to call “best efforts” projects.

Best efforts projects most often come from 3 different sources:

  1. The boss’s pet project;
  2. A project that was failing; and
  3. “Abandon the plan” mode projects.

They hit you unaware. They quietly creep up on you while you are busy.

Related Article: Why Projects Fail: A Root Cause

Let’s discuss the sources.

The Boss’s Pet Project or The One that is Failing

These types of best efforts projects often started as a request from a senior person: “Mark, you’re the guy who seems to always get things done – can you take on this project for me? It has failed so far, and I really need someone I can rely on to get it going.”

You usually are a little chuffed that you have been asked. You think to yourself – “Yes, I know I could get this done. It’ll be close to impossible to achieve in the three months left, but you know, I’ve done things like that before. I can do it. Besides, this is obviously an important project – everyone knows it because it’s the boss’s highest priority. I will be able to get lots of help. I probably don’t have the budget available to throw resources at it to get it done, but hey I’ve been asked to do it at the last minute. I know everyone will rally behind me, remove the blockers, make budget available – we can get close to that target! The boss won’t mind if we are a bit later than that target because they know that it’s almost impossible.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s not uncommon for these projects to be “death march” projects. It has failed a number of times. Perhaps the concept is flawed, team members are not capable of doing the work, the work is too innovative, or to deliver the boss’s vision is just plain impossible.

Instead of taking stock and proceeding carefully you optimistically revise the plan, then ask for help and input from everyone; but no one really wants to help. They don’t care that the boss has asked for it: “It’s impossible to get it done in that time,” Or “The idea is simply not capable of being done.”

The main thing here is that with best effort intention we think “No matter, the boss will understand if it’s a bit late; the boss knew it was tricky – so they will cut me a bit of slack.”

But it does not work out that way.

The boss complains that the project is running late almost from the get go. You try and show that your people are working on it, putting in extra hours, trying to get it done using heroic effort. But still the boss is not happy – in fact, it seems no one is happy.

The boss still wants the project done in the original time and scope. They are frustrated, the team is frustrated, and mostly the PM will be seen to have failed. Why? Because the boss made the assumption that when you rescued the project you could still get it to come in on time, and/or budget and with the same quality and scope.

The problem with these projects is that you assumed that “best effort” would be well received because of the circumstances. This is not project management; it is wishful thinking.

“Abandon The Plan” Projects

The next kind of project that ends up as best efforts projects are those that start out with a plan, but as things start getting behind or things start getting tricky, the plan is forgotten while everyone hunkers down to get the “real work” done.
Sadly, this is probably the most common sort of project!

You start a plan with good intentions. Things don’t go to plan. Things get desperate as delivery time looms. PM’s think “let’s just get on with the work, put in lots of hours, (heroic effort), then everyone will understand we have done our best. The boss will understand we are all working so hard – staying all night to get the deliverables done.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

They won’t understand. This is not project management; it is project heroics based on wishful thinking.

If you find yourself needing to always put in heroic effort to complete project deliverables or interim deliverables, then there is something wrong with your planning.

You might think it is the nature of a highly innovative project, the skill level of your team, the team’s inability to deliver to the plan or the acceptance level of the change that are contributing to the variations to the plan. In the end, though, especially after delivering the first couple of deliverables of your project, you should be examining what it is that is creating the need for the heroic effort and re-planning the next iteration or stage to compensate.

Have an agreed and deliberate intentioned alternative plan.

No matter what happened, most projects that fall into these buckets are still expected to be delivered or at least partly delivered close to the original time, scope and budget unless you have an agreed and deliberate intentioned alternative plan.
Never assume that people will rally around and the boss will “forgive” changes to targets.

Whenever you are asked to come in and help, think to yourself that this is a problem child and needs careful consideration BEFORE committing to anything. Gauge the level of acceptance of change. Ask the question “What’s the most important thing – the target date, the budget, or the scope?”

By asking this up front you are inspiring confidence immediately, and knowing the answer will enable you to re-plan accordingly.

So what steps could you take?

The best approach to this is an alternative plan – or as the popular PRINCE2 project methodology would call it – an Exception Plan.

To develop an alternate plan consider reducing scope, breaking deliverables into smaller achievable chunks, or employ an agile delivery model but mostly consider a plan to deliver a little a lot.

It is amazing how such a simple philosophy can fix so many potential problems!

By delivering a little a lot you can achieve a sense of accomplishment from the team’s perspective, and a sense of delivery from the boss’s and the customer’s perspective. Also, you will be able to see issues emerge early, and therefore be in a position to consider changes in direction without too much sunk cost and wasted effort.

Get “skin in the game” from the team.

Many projects got into abandoned-plan mode when the team was not consulted in the development of the original plan. They have no ownership of the plan hence will undertake “best efforts” to get work completed – whatever that means to them – simply because it was not their plan.Make sure as a PM you work to get realistic estimates from the people who will actually do the work – that way there is a level of ownership and “skin in the game”.

Agile (Scrum) planning has a really useful process called “planning poker” as a fun way to involve the whole team in effort estimation that can be adapted for any style of project. Check out planning poker from Mountain Goat Software’s site here or Planning to learn a bit more.

Develop a realistic plan to complete the work – but develop it as a variation to the original plan so everyone can see how things will change. Make no assumptions about the budget, resources, or time left – work out what is really needed to get the job done. Do not depend on “heroic effort” or “best efforts”.

Once the plan is reworked, work out the new cost, the new time, the resource requirements and options for different mixes of scope, cost, resources, and time. Remember to plan to deliver a little a lot.

Present this to the boss with a recommendation – only after the team have all agreed it’s workable. The boss might want some further compromises, but be clear, be intentioned – show how the changes will impact the project. Give yourself time to think – don’t commit to something without the team’s input.

If this was a troubled project, the real trick is in seeing it for what it is when you are asked to take it on. Don’t just think of being a hero. Be a realist and you are more likely to be thanked. You will be thanked for telling the truth up front. If the project is cancelled after telling the truth, you will be respected for it.

Best efforts projects are not obvious. You can simply roll into them without realizing it. Look out for abandoned plan mode.

Despite taking on a difficult project where you expect best efforts and heroic efforts will suffice, that will not be enough. Return to fundamentals such as scope, time, quality and deliverables. Work out a way to deliver a little a lot – it will demonstrate achievement and relieve pressure. Develop an intentioned alternative plan based on input from the team.

You can be the hero without working yourself and your team into the ground. Keep your radar out looking for heroic effort and team members working best efforts and disregarding plans. It may be symptomatic of a struggling project. Catch it before it causes pain for everyone involved.

Happy projects.


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