Slow Down, You Move Too Fast – The Simon and Garfunkel school of Project Management

Homeward Bound

My secret to success in creating blog posts is to spend a couple of hours Googling variations of “project management [topic concept],” getting frustrated at the lack of quality articles, giving up for about a day, and browsing reputable news sites for something unrelated. A snazzy-looking article crops up, you read it, and you think, “Hey, this actually is a lot like what we’re learning about in class!” Fire up the ol’ word processor, channel your muse, and hey-presto, you’ve got yourself a topic!

This off-the-wall article I found in my search earlier this month is an unassuming little piece from titled “Find it, fix it: solve it like a boss.” The content of the article is about what you’d expect, given the title. You learn about the struggles of a Microsoft executive in bridging a communications gap in his division, and how he concocted a process to right the ship. Some of the things the article shares with the reader include identifying a problem, seeking the optimal solution, planning for multiple outcomes, being ready for failure, making a tough decision, and using processes to find solutions.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

I’m always fascinated by the things being positioned in media and journals as world-beating concepts. So much of what they come up with seem to be fairly fundamental concepts by MBA standards. I found this article to be no exception, but I thought it was really interesting to realize how interchangeable project management skills are with leadership skills. It was a bit of an Aha moment for me, and I think it might be one for you, too.

I Am A Rock – which is not always a good thing

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been paying especially close attention to the lessons taught by our illustrious professor. I mean, don’t get me wrong. The how’s and why’s of creating a project team, defining scope properly, and everything else we’ve learned is so crucial to having a strong project. But me, I like to think about what happens when things go wrong. The timing of this article and recent class content has been very interesting, given something I’m digging into at work.

For those of you who didn’t get a chance to read my original best-seller (M&A and Project Management, check it out at a computer or phone near you today!), one of the things that I’ve come to realize is that my company uses a matrix approach to project management. That’s driven in part by limited resources, in part by the pace of cultural development, and in part by high concentrations of SMEs. As such, the processes used in projects tend to vary, as do the results.

One project that was implemented this year was the adoption of a consolidation of all frozen purchases in the state of California into a hub-and-spoke model, which would service the rest of our continental US warehouse network. You see, shipping frozen products is an expensive and relatively risky endeavor, and when factoring in both the miles and the relatively small PO sizes, a shift to a hub-and-spoke model seems to be quite the layup.

Scarborough Fair(ly well botched)

Unfortunately, the project team was managed in cells and was heavily favored by our supply chain department. This resulted in a project moving all the way to implementation without feedback from critical groups, Pricing being one. The consensus was that general analysis showed the model to be favorable, and we were committing to not impacting our customers’ pricing during the implementation. Because due diligence didn’t take place, the pricing for both the initial inbound POs in California and the transfers to the spoke DCs in the East were never adjusted, driving a six-to-seven-figure variance impact to certain P/L lines. What’s worse, the fact that pricing wasn’t adjusted means that there is the potential to unknowingly pass through some of the variance on the project, which would leave the company with a six-figure hole short-term and some very uncomfortable conversations with our customers long-term.

Had the team taken their time and exploring the possible outcomes, this entire thing could have been managed within the scope of the project and been addressed accordingly. As it is, there is now a fairly real financial exposure, the need to correct the issues in the midst of heavy on-boarding and integration activity, and a fundamental question of whether or not the model will generate the same level of savings as it initially touted. There is no fallback plan in place, and for the moment a fairly uncomfortable shadow hangs over what was supposed to be a prominent accomplishment for the company.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

I stumbled upon this while doing entirely unrelated work last month, and I was able to frame it out in about an hour. If it was that easy for me, it should have been even easier for them to spot. But that’s the kind of stuff you miss when you’re looking to force a project through come hell or high water. Just like the article states, you need to take the time to consider all outcomes and plan for failure. You’ve got to slow it down, then all will be groovy.

8 thoughts on “Slow Down, You Move Too Fast – The Simon and Garfunkel school of Project Management

  1. Great article and eloquent summary, Mark. I can relate to the example you provided because I’ve seen similar project results during the past year or so. Basically, a couple of key projects were pushed through only to achieve less than modest results. If the privates or sergeants see the cracks, then how can we help the captains and generals view and appreciate the same concerns? We also utilize a matrix approach, have limited resources and a high concentration of SMEs. It makes me wonder if the cause of the problem is simply not enough resources to go around? That issue is prevalent most everywhere. How can projects be managed better with strained resources? Slowing down would definitely help.

  2. Great article and excellent delivery. In both my last job and my current position, we utilize a matrix type structure for account management. The key resource in play was time and it was often insufficient. I would often find myself, and still do, being pulled in multiple directions at once, which can make time allocations and organization a challenge. The most important step we took to address this issue was to clearly define what tasks each person was responsible for with each account and to then make sure that each person’s responsibilities had a significant amount of skill/resource overlap, so that way they did not lose valuable time having to switch gears.

  3. First of all, great delivery on the blog post! This seems to be a medium you are well suited for. Second, I completely agree with you point on the advantages of slowing down a project. It sounds like the team from your work example was too eager to start executing the plan that they skipped most of the planning process. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. It sounds like a PMO office would be a big benefit to where your company is headed. This project sounds quite large with many stakeholders and not having specific fulltime project managers can lead to a bit of chaos. Hey, with all of your PM experience from this class, maybe you could advocate to step into this role…

  4. Great job on the post! In my place of work, many times projects need to be done on a tight deadline and as a result the planning stage is sometimes overlooked as people are eager to start the project. As a result there are many starts and stops and essentially we need to stop and re-plan losing valuable time. I agree completely with Jessica here with putting the cart before the horse. The more stakeholders and resource allocation the more planned and thorough a project should be, but that is not always the case. Slowing down and planning is a great way to start any project.

  5. I really liked the post, thank you. I especially like the comment about thinking about what happens when things go wrong. I feel that is something my company and PMO simply tend to gloss over on most of the smaller projects, especially ones that do not involve a major IT change. They have a risk assessment ‘in place’ but as the PM they are trying to stay positive for the group, and ‘we do not really need to worry about this do we?” comments come out early in kick-off meetings while trying to get the team motivated and engaged in the success of the project. If we actually took this advice and really slowed down, at least initially on the projects, it may help the team be able to ‘fail well’ as the article points out. When there are really not any good solutions to problems, I feel our PMO tries to stay too positive and continue down the path of the project. No one wants to be associated with a project that essentially failed or was cancelled, however that may end of being the best outcome for the company in the long run. If we could be realistic on the failures and issues of a project early on rather than simply managing to an expected successful outcome rather than what we discover by slowing down on the project, I feel we would make better, earlier, decisions with our projects. Thanks again for the post.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post! The references to Simon and Garfunkel songs kept interest high for me! You should consider shopping this to other professional publications.

    In todays high tech world, speed is always an asset in the minds of the powers that be as well as the stake holders of any organization. Sometimes, though, you can save time by slowing down in the begining. I appreciate your stance and statements on this. The ultimate question would be “How do you convinve stake hoders that the slower start up time for any project will lead to a faster turn around time in the end”?

  7. Thanks for the article and summary Mark. Perspectives are so interesting and divergent. I tend to have the opposite experience where I feel like all we do is talk about risk and plan for the worst. My business is different since we are service oriented but we are still developing products (new investment strategies and funds) and running them through our internal launching process. I can think of two situations where I think if we had just been able to move to the market a few months sooner our jobs of raising the capital to invest in them would have been more successful. Like with so many things in life, I think finding the right balance between risk assessment/management and moving forward to hit a deadline is key to a successful outcome. And a little luck never hurts either.

  8. First, Mark, you’re a really good writer. Everything flowed so well and your post was really easy to read. Next, I can say that I had a similar (actually, multiple) experience to yours. My previous job was in the biotechnology field, so project management was in charge of getting certain products onto the market before our competitors. We had three products occurring at the same time, meaning three different projects. Because we were racing against our competitors, we were shooting for FDA approval within a year. With our resources remaining the same, it was very straining on us. The company was so focused on beating their competitors to the market that they would often overlook certain warning signs. By the time the FDA came, we had so many errors in our documentation and processes. We had to go back and redo them to FDA standards. Not only did this cost us time and resources, but it cost us a lot of money and distrust from our investors. The saying “Right the first time” is really key when a company is trying to win a race to market, and I think sufficient planning and risk management would have really benefited the company.

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