As project managers, we’re often compelled to get roadblocks out of the way as fast as possible so the team can continue to progress.
Therefore, we’re quite often in problem solving mode, trying to resolve issues that arise, avoiding and mitigating risks. A useful thing to keep in mind is to always consider whether we are really addressing the issue or only a symptom of the issue. Is our quick fix action aimed at the root cause of the issue or is it a step in the right direction as we fix the symptom? If yes, that’s ok and we shall apply the quick fix. But it’s not always the case…
This post is inspired by a training session I organized and attended for the management board of the PMI France-Sud non-profit organization a couple of years ago. Jerry Brightman, a renowned leadership expert and President of a company called The Leadership Group, was kind enough to facilitate this session.
Let’s take an example to illustrate the topic: a team member comes into your office to announce a probable delay on one of his deliverables. I propose that we walk through this case to better understand what could be happening.
The way it usually starts:
I.e. by definition of a symptom: « a sign, indication, manifestation; something caused by and indicative of a certain disease or disorder. » In this example, a team member signals that he may not be delivering his part of the project on time.
2.We apply a quick fix.
This deliverable is on our critical path, we propose to provide some additional assistance to the person to get the task completed on time.
Let’s assume that indeed this fixes the symptom. In our example, the task is back on track.
However, are we sure to have
a) addressed the root cause of the problem and
b) assessed the potential side effects of the quick fix we applied?
Let’s see what too often takes place after the initial quick fix.
3. The quick fix addresses the symptom but it has some side effects.
For example, the additional help provided provokes a delay on another task from which we pulled some resources, or it generates requests from many others to get more resources, or it demotivates team members who were going the extra-mile to be on time, or…
4. These side effects will manifest through new symptom
Bad morale in the team, threats of delays in other parts of the project, absenteeism…
5. We’re tempted to address these new symptoms with more quick fixes.
The loop goes on. The initial quick fix may have placed the entire project at risk.
So, what to do? How do we break the vicious spiral?
The proposal is to try by all means to avoid entering into this spiral.
In step 1, when we see the symptom (the threat of a late deliverable that is on the critical path), we take a step back to understand why the symptom is there and what caused it. We will want to ask a few questions such as:
- Were the estimates incorrect?
- Did a risk materialize that we had or not accounted for?
- Were there changes to the requirements and how were these managed?
- Were some resources not available when they should have been?
- Was the learning curve incorrectly appreciated?
- Did we encounter technical issues?
Revise and apply the fix
We see that the answers to the above questions may drive us in step 2 to a completely different quick fix that should be better suited to address the primary/root cause and avoid or anticipate some of the side effects.
As Seth Godkin highlighted it in of his posts: Bear shaving will not resolve global warning.
Or what my first aid teacher repeated to his students: « Do not put a Band-Aid on a non disinfected wound. »