My friend Michelle is a very good project manager. She has nerves of steel, a genuine affection for MS Project and can be counted on to act like a lady in even the most disgraceful circumstances. So when we met for lunch recently, not far from the retail HQ where she works, it was a little distressing to hear her describing a current project in extreme terms.  “This thing is a cluster fu*k! No, it’s worse. It’s a train wreck. Wait, no, it’s worse than that; it’s my first marriage,” she sobbed.

Michelle’s epically bad first marriage usually makes it into extinction-level-event conversations, so this project must be in trouble. Either that or it’s cheating on her with its chiropractor. “It’s a goddamn roller coaster,” she concluded before ordering a triple-shot-extra-hot-non-fat-soy-something to go and lurching off back to work cursing and burning her hand repeatedly.

I never did find out what the project in question actually is, but I started thinking about why so many of them end up in such bad places. It’s the roller coaster. Projects are supposed to be trains but most of the time we build roller coasters instead.

The cool thing about roller coasters is that even the fairly tame ones can be thrilling. When you’re at a theme park, the intersection of fear and anticipation is thrill. When you’re at work, it’s called planning. Roller coaster designers succeed when they can make the anticipation last a little longer and the fear a little more sudden. Project managers, on the other hand, are all about managing anticipation and removing fear. It’s about scheduling, predictability, a lack of nausea. It’s about trains and never about roller coasters.  Trains are a lot less fun than roller coasters but have the distinct advantage of ending up someplace other than where they started. So how do we end up building project coasters so often? Three reasons.

1.      The Euphoria of Encouragement:
Much like standing on a noisy midway with your friends daring you to try the scariest coaster, marketers are suckers for a shiny new project. The bigger, higher and more upside-down the better. We’ve got our eye on that commemorative Lucite chunk awaiting us at the end of the ride.  All it takes is a taunt or a challenge from some bozo in sales and we’re ready to risk it all.

2.      The Delusion of Scrutiny
This is where it all goes to hell in my opinion. We’ve all stood there waiting our turn in line, sizing up the safety bars, assessing the structural integrity of the frame, wondering how trustworthy the crusty old carny operating the thing really is. We scrutinize the faces of the riders as they exit (in corporate terms, this is reading a vendor’s case study). Of course it’s safe. They wouldn’t run it if it wasn’t safe. And about the time you start wondering if a chili dog was a good idea for lunch, there you are, strapped in and looking brave.  But here is another critical difference between coasters and projects: coasters are a lot safer. That’s because someone competent is actually assessing it. We call them engineers.  In projects, we mostly make it up when it comes to risk assessment.  We get mesmerized by the Gantt charts and endorphin-laden brainstorming sessions. Sure, we list all the risks on the left and come up with mitigations for each on the right. Risk: Sales might not use the new tool. Mitigation: Make them watch The Land Before Time parts 1-34 over and over until they start using it.  Problem solved! Risk: The software may not integrate with our existing IT infrastructure. Mitigation: If you hit it hard enough, it’ll snap right in, just like a jigsaw puzzle.  And so it goes. The Hand-Wringers wring and the project managers worry and the rest of us put our hands in the air and start screaming before we’re even out of the boarding area.  Now all this would probably be fine and we’d spend months happily zooming around our roller coaster with no greater loss than a bunch of money and a few meals except for the third factor…

3.      The Profound Discomfort of Others:
Even your most stupid friends will eventually notice the folly of something and pull you back from the edge. And this is true of projects as well. Except the people pulling you in aren’t stupid and are no longer your friends. It’s really a crap shoot who will crack first on the discomfort thing. Finance is likely to blow some kind of sphincter as your costs rise and your results fail to materialize (unless it’s their project, in which case they just steal opex from HR and keep egging you on – see step one), legal can sometimes be counted on to stop the madness but more often their role is about mopping up the mess on the ground afterward. Corporate Overlords can be convinced for ages that the whole thing is a brilliant idea and will result in Lucite.  But the groups who are actually involved are not so easily swayed. One by one they start asking questions, actually reading reports, quietly jumping off the coaster until one day the only one screaming is you. And this is where the Cluster Fu*k happens.  The ride grinds to a halt, and the wobbly-kneed survivors start throwing funnel cakes at each other while the project manager, whose discomfort was ignored and discounted the most, quietly documents the damage and needs to be taken to lunch.

So what do we do? We learn to love the trains. When we let our Project Managers build trains, all the process, consent and ownership issues are taken care of before the journey even starts. No room to improvise, no need to apologize.  When we act like grown-ups around the risk and actually acknowledge that there are bad creatures who want to kill our project (often for good reasons), we can deal with it. Trains expect to run over skunks, shopping carts and research consultants and schedules accommodate such minor setbacks. As grown-ups we also accept that there are catastrophic circumstances in which our train will need to stop. Like broken rails, natural disasters, Overlord Whim or lawsuits. 

When we look at projects as if they are trains, the key considerations become more about being on time, not falling off the tracks and not adding so many cars that the thing can’t move (I love that this is called scope creep). When we look at projects as trains, we are apt to create protected crossings and rights of way that let them run unimpeded to their destinations. And when you get there, you still get the Lucite.