Skip to main content

Author: Kevin Huther

After long, varied roles in air and space systems engineering, software engineering, and information and business technology consulting across telecommunications, banking, insurance, transportation, energy, and education, Kevin Huther now advances digital solutions in the financial services industry. His professional mission has been to "shape the new and novel" to improve organizations’ readiness to move to the next level. He has helped large multinationals to small startups and government agencies navigate their landscape with value-added solutions. Kevin values servant leadership as a premier means of advancing organizations' goals. He is certified as a Scaled Agile Product Owner and Scrum Master, and as a Project Management Professional (PMP®).

A Tale of Three Initiatives: Project Management Lessons from the French Revolution

“I.T. was the best of times, I.T. was the worst of times, I.T. was the age of wisdom, I.T. was the age of foolishness, I.T. was the season of light, I.T. was the season of darkness, I.T. was the spring of hope, I.T. was the winter of despair…” 

– Apologies to Charles Dickens

The structured thought processes of the conventional information technology initiative make it most difficult to fathom the chaotic conditions under which some initiatives have been forced to exist and progress. Accounts follow of three real-world transformation initiatives observed in their respective environments, with subsequent analysis and introspection, however difficult, in the months and years following each initiative’s protracted imprisonment in its own Bastille. Perchance posterity can, from considering these telling accounts, be forewarned, find shared experience, be nourished by hope and so see their initiatives and organizations recalled to life.

Anarchy Amid Revolution – the First Initiative

Market-driven, shaped with individuals rather than processes – using tools of expediency, hopeful underestimation, and organizational self-protection, Initiative One brought together several worst practices at the most interesting of times.  The tiny, explosive seeds of its revolution had been planted.  This revolution, though, with upheaval arising from every corner, seemed more like several simultaneous revolutions cast to play out their history together:

  • Wired and wireless network upgrades, including for the first time, mobile image transmission
  • 3G network product launch
  • Corporate introduction of more mature software management processes
  • A languishing business environment and sector
  • Organizational realignment
  • A large cost challenge to the Information Technology organization.

These would culminate in eight months in a massive nationwide, next-generation telecommunications product launch.  To compound matters, this 3G launch, with millions of dollars in mail, print, and television ads attached to a fixed rollout date, had Initiative One’s product – pictures over mobile phones – as its centerpiece.  However, at the peak of development, the time when all proper projects should round out their design phase, Initiative One dropped its refined and well-mannered Victorian demeanor.

In mid-stream, Initiative One recast itself – its governance and solution – with only four months left until nationwide launch.  To have a tractable time-bound solution, the project would now be managed out of the Mobile Devices group, and image hosting would be outsourced to vendors.  The cross-functional project team fashioned agreements to have the Mobile Devices group supply regular daily status, to report and act on issues in a timely manner.  These agreements were not adhered to, leaving Product Development and Project Management without substantive feedback for effective decision aiding and management.

Product Development then “delegated” to Information Technology a twisted project management role, as an information hunter-gatherer to find and broadcast test results coming out of the mobile devices group. This is best described as a large test-and-fix marathon – mobile phones not talking to mobile phones, mobile phones not talking with networks, and networks not talking with vendor websites.  Not under software process control, load after a load of handset client software marched forward into the group, fixing some problems while undoing or nullifying fixes others had previously made.

With good project management practice resident in organizations other than those that performed the work, no reliable schedules, target completions or effective mitigation plans could be identified.  One group withdrew their post-launch implementation support at the eleventh hour, leaving a new process to be created and integrated.  The scenario played out as expected, with product time-to-launch measured relatively in progressively smaller and smaller units.

[widget id=”custom_html-68″]

Aristocratic Correctness without Redress – the Second Initiative

Initiative Two was a program that sported the familiar central repository theme updated for 21st-century use – a “directory of directories“ joining all company customer information at central access and synchronization point.  In one felled swoop, address multilevel identity and security, Internet and wireless customer privacy, a positive customer experience, and future marketing information needs.

This was an innovative infrastructure program – but issued out of the product development group – a square peg, as it were, barely understandable to confused stakeholders who viewed it as a product and kept inquiring “where does the revenue come from?”  New project advocates therefore could not be recruited for the same reason, hindering the development of critical mass.  Requirements became delayed due to project product manager resource issues.  After onboarding a directory and identity management consulting firm and conducting departmental education sessions, the program burned dollars with little earned value. With the product manager’s exodus to new business, a formal leadership vacuum existed on several levels.  The IT-based project manager filled the vacuum during this time with the necessary stimulus and control to keep moving forward.

Creeping up on Initiative Two, though, was a much more formidable sponsorship vacuum.  Eminently evident through various presentations was the fact that the sponsor’s version – that is all it was – not merely intersected with Initiative Two but competed for its design and development.

In a defining moment in a stakeholder review, Project Two came under guerilla attack from its own sponsor.  To augment “vision” the sponsor wanted the strategic project in his division, using his approach, a semantic Web 2.0 to tie together all customer information, without proven software.  Like binary stars, each organization played the sun, periodically drawing the other organization out of its intended rendezvous with the enterprise.  Without nurturing from a bona fide and engaged sponsor, or countermanding of the sponsor from leadership, the project could no longer execute.  It would come under alternate organizational control or would fail.

Control under Revolting Conditions – the Third Initiative

Oriented toward a massive upgrade of over 1000 servers throughout an enterprise, Initiative Three was a program charged with renewing obsolete server infrastructure for a government-mandated strategic modernization.  Under the surface, however, inter-organizational conflict was brewing.

Because of outsourced roles, responsibilities differed from what the client organization was accustomed to, and work done by certain internal groups was now done by other internal groups.  Nor was the program communication structure streamlined.  Program organization had several layers, with a Big Six consultancy contracting in a quasi-oversight program capacity between the company’s senior executives and the contracted project management group based 800 miles away in the vendor’s facility.  Project execution was in one place and program reporting in another, with no face-to-face cross-collaboration.  Despite these red flags and in favor of getting the 12-month program rolling, guidance and communications needed for proper enterprise rollout were not provided to the affected masses.

Over three or four months, the program consulting group began to lose control over the several dozen individual projects comprising the server upgrade program, and the program soon earned Red status.  Consequently, attempting to focus attention on the project managers rather than themselves, the consulting group sought to manufacture evidence of project manager nonperformance by doling out exhaustive status reporting assignments to the project managers with increasingly short response times, some that were due only hours later.  Despite reporting status weekly in a high-power enterprise project management tool, the consultants directed project managers to track detailed project status daily with crude Excel milestone spreadsheets of over 20,000 cells.

As time went on, it was apparent that senior management’s feedback and direction to the project managers did not match the data the project managers had reported.  The intermediary apparently was telling a different story to senior management to throw vendor project managers “under the bus”.  When this consulting treachery was confronted by one project manager, the consulting firm’s technical lead responded with “I like to have my cake and eat it too.” – an ironic twist on Marie Antoinette’s famous declaration “Let them eat cake”.

Reapplying Lessons Learned – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The difficult circumstances of Initiatives One through Three required thoughtful, yet diverse short-term solutions to ensure an immediate degree of success in each.  Longer-term, applying organizational and management models that are more preemptive in nature can avert the occurrence of such circumstances with built-in safeguards.

Initiative Three required aligning the parochial objectives of the “middleman” to the strategic objectives and execution of the organization. This was accomplished through frank conversations with executive leadership that resulted in shifting consulting personnel to other duties.

Initiative Two had been proposed 18 months earlier to IT, who declined it.  With sponsorship so important, one thing was clear.  With the right home, the initiative could thrive. At the onset, the mission had seemed bold and right but became one of navigating home.  To counteract the effects of the square peg and the competing sponsor, new project ownership advocacy began.  The project would move to Enterprise Applications where it first emerged, the right move for company shareholders.  After a three-year circuit Project Two and was successful, albeit in different technical form.

The Initiative Two injustices were dealt with through repeated escalation to senior leadership levels, after project and reputational damage had been done.  Sponsorship and governance at their worst are never passive, and at best the sponsor is a champion for all the initiative entails and for its success. A prerequisite to assuring project success is understanding the sponsor’s mission, stance, and engagement. It behooves organizations to clarify the product development/project management relationship so that pure infrastructure is never cast in a product light.

The anarchical rather than hierarchical structure Initiative One had, combined with the “tyranny of the urgent”, brought with it a displaced-control, fragmented change of command, inability to react to project risk events, and 100-hour workweeks for some.  The refusal to provide 10-minute daily status between departments was overcome by embedding the project manager in the Mobile Devices group for four hours each day, effective but costly.  Later addition of more mature software management processes, such as an IT project office and an enterprise Business-IT account management organization undoubtedly helped to prevent similar abuses in subsequent initiatives.

What is advocated here is not tearing down authority but replacing antiquated, ill-applied structures and methodologies, introduced for well-intended reasons, that during their tenure constituted “aristocracies”.  However, independent of what revolutionary project governance may be instituted, human nature dictates that aristocratic practices will always lie on the horizon, co-mingling with the project and its performance, to be dealt with as Providence dictates.  Fortunately, doctrine and apparatus are available to mount campaigns to enhance our initiatives’ probability of success and return on investment (ROI).

LIBERTY – Respond to Chaos with Effective Structure

From the seeds of early management practice, through the work of Frederick Taylor, Henry Gantt, and others, modern project management practice emerged in the 1950s as a way to control large projects, especially in the space and defense systems arena.  Using structured, rigid techniques, they were forced to handle greater complexity from cumbersome military standards invoked to overcome Vietnam war failures.  Invoking heavy management and coordination processes, the practice was unable to respond to increasingly rapid business environments propelled by computing technology and the Internet.

Classical software development life cycle (SDLC) methods and Project Management Offices (PMO) have a place. Without the liberty to adapt project or program structure to business circumstances, though, they constrain the ability to succeed, evidenced by low project success rates over several decades and subsequent introduction of Agile.  Increased adoption of existing methods and applying newer strategies such as benefits realization have improved success rates moderately.

Craft your organizational manifesto, governance, and initiative methodologies so that each class of initiatives has choices that promote success and manage them as a system of systems (people, process, and technology).  At the enterprise level, a mix of execution frameworks and methodologies such as Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) and others allows portfolios to be managed flexibly for type, size, structure, and partnerships, for delivery in the manner needed for their context.

EQUALITY – Committed Citizenry Over Self-importance

Organizational myopia, parochial agendas and turf battles rob the organization of focus, time, and resources, limit employee engagement, create fissures in the organization, and in the worst cases can lead to schisms and costly failures. Quality and return on investment take major hits as well.  Preemptive leadership commitment and direction in these areas can stave off the drag that can result from practices that run counter to high-performing teams.

On the technology side, many project delays and failures are due to scarce resources performing development tasks in narrow time windows.  An enterprise agile framework can bring business and technology groups closer together, promoting citizen access and citizen development that can democratize business improvement, placing the work where the business expertise lies.  Because it distributes work, it contributes to leveling resources across the enterprise.  Ensure as well that policy is in place for cloud and on-premise applications that benefit from citizen application development.

FRATERNITY – Good Will is Everything

Project 3 suffered from overzealous ambition and expansionism of hired consultants.  It is excellent collaborative teamwork that creates the “ROI of Working Together©”.  Every negative project and program collaboration, whether misalignment, unintegrated processes, or the more personality-based, such as turf battles, hidden agendas, personal incentives, or threatened responsibilities carries with it lost opportunity cost that organizations and teams might have realized by working together for the good of others using evidence-based management.  The “helicopter mindset” seeks the perspective and the good of entities one level higher than that being evaluated, rising above horizontal concerns to see the more encompassing view.  For Project Three, this was company shareholders.

Fraternity is not limited to teams and organizations, though.  When we design processes to work together rather than opposed, the “fraternity of process” results, and the road is smoother. Ensure also that vendors have your organization’s interest at heart and are accountable contractually for deficiencies they may demonstrate. Expertise-driven Product Development (XPD) is a helpful procurement framework employing proven tools for procurement and project delivery, organizational change, and benchmarking.


We think and act as if we are in the Information Age when really, we are in an Age of Interactions ensuring volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Even so, we are more empowered than ever to organize for victory.

Doctrine, in the form of pillars, values and principles, and battle gear, in the form of processes and interactions – are readily available to mount effective campaigns to enhance our initiatives’ success and ROI levels.

Engaging our revolutionary armies to act strategically and responsibly in the areas below by will set in motion advances that ultimately will help us topple reigning negative cultural and process dynamics and align our organizations in better ways to deliver responsive, customer-centric, value-focused, and permanent business transformation:

For smaller companies seeking the next level (especially startups with ad hoc processes):

  • Align business and project delivery processes to corporate mission and business objectives.
  • Create a culture of cross-enterprise teamwork – People are your organization’s lifeblood and your finest resource. Autonomy and committed teamwork can improve motivation and help deliver real business value.
  • Implement Business Analysis, two-prong portfolio management (standard/fast-track), and associated governance.
  • Institute DevOps – Continuous exploration, integration, and deployment helps drive quality and value in deploying and releasing software and network functions, by automating build and test.
  • Alternatively, commit to implementing appropriate agile methods and organizations that are scalable across the enterprise (SAFe®). Pockets of agile in an organization derive limited value.
  • Research industry activity and trends for proven best practices and apply the best judiciously at all levels.

Additionally, for mid-sized companies seeking the next level:

  • Create and inculcate open, rapid communication feedback loops. Enable the workforce to keep leadership well-informed, to react quickly to threats to progress, and to warn proactively when necessary.
  • Codify simplified corporate policies governing project/program investment selection and prioritization.
  • Start a portfolio-managed PMO, with appropriate lean-agile constructs. SAFe® agile trains allow agile to scale.
  • Embrace business value streams and digital transformation that enable rapid business value delivery.
  • Institute Enterprise Architecture for consistency and control of technology infrastructure and data.

Additionally, for large companies seeking the next level:

  • Ensure you have a three-year strategic roadmap capability with enterprise interdependency management. Management, instrumentation, and discovery servers discover business asset dependencies automatically and map relationships.
  • Advance digital transformation – Implement an operational backbone, a coherent set of enterprise systems, data, and processes supporting core operations, from which successive digital business can be built.
  • Take advantage of citizen development opportunities – Disperse workloads and democratize control by introducing applications and services that enable “citizen development” by business users as initiatives arise.
  • Embrace the benefits and returns available when companies employ design thinking. A 2019 Forrester Research study identified its benefits to the process, project results, and organizations, average per-project ROI of 229 percent and average organizational ROI of 85 percent from mature design thinking practice at scale.
  • Institute a well-placed independent Business Architecture group in your organization. This will provide definition, consistency, and control of complex business value streams.