Mission Control: How to Ensure Project Trajectory

Communication is critical to a project’s success, but many factors can get in the way.

by Wade Cameron

On September 23, 1999 NASA lost contact with the Mars Climate Orbiter.  The satellite had been launched in order to orbit the red planet; providing data collection about the Mars surface and to serve as a relay station for communications with the Mars Polar Lander (which was scheduled to land in 2001).  It was clear within 30 minutes of losing contact that the orbiter had dipped far lower than planned and burned up in the atmosphere.  $125 million…up in smoke.  During the ensuing investigation, NASA found that spacecraft engineers had failed to convert vital data from English measurements (inches, feet, pounds) to metric.  The error occurred before the orbiter even left the launchpad.  The vendor had built the craft one way. NASA had designed for another way.  Both sides had no doubt worked diligently on their piece of the project but neither of them took sufficient steps to make sure everyone was on the same page.  The results were disastrous.

Communication is critical to your project's success.  This isn't news.  But if the importance of communication is generally understood, why do we allow it to lapse?  The reasons can be complex and nuanced but most of these reasons can be traced back to two root causes: fear and lack of perspective.

Fear is always powerful and sometimes useful.  It can evoke your fight or flight response; which is great when you're being attacked by a bear but it is much less useful in your everyday office environment.  Fight or flight in the office usually looks like someone doing whatever they can to undermine a project or someone uninvolved because they are actively searching for another job.  Here are some of the primary reasons for fear in the workplace:

Job Security

Special projects are almost always aimed at doing what is best for the business…not the employees.  A real or perceived threat to job function or job security will often lead to conflict.

Technology

When I say technology is a typical fear, that is not exactly true.  The technology by itself is benign.  The threat lies in what that technology means for the worth of the individual or team.  New technology can mean two things to the average employee: 1) the old technology (where my skills and comfort lie) is no longer needed…does that mean that I am no longer needed? (see Job Security) and 2) learning the new technology will likely take time, which means the time and effort it takes to do my job could increase (at least in the short-term).

Failure

Most of us have a point at which the idea of failure is terrifying.  No one likes to lose, particularly when "losing" could mean your job, your security or your well-being.  Change represents an opportunity to fail, even if the status quo may also lead to failure.

Everyone has a perspective.  The question is whether or not that perspective is A) informed and B) able to adjust based on new details.   If one or both of these qualities are not present then there is a lack of perspective, and a lack of perspective is worse than fear.  Fear tells you to be on your guard pending more information.  Lack of perspective results in assumptions such as:

Everyone sees things the way I do

When this is your perspective, you assume that your experience is the correct experience.  In our NASA story, this is the type of assumption that ended up crashing the satellite.  "This unit of measure makes sense to me so of course it is what the customer is using." This type of perspective bias can be difficult to identify because it can be proven, at times, to be correct.  If the engineer assumes that he should use the metric system and that meets NASA's expectations then the mission is a success and we're not talking about it.  However, when this perspective is found to be at odds with the views of customers, other stakeholders or project members Lookout!  Your project may become a battleground for ideology or a victim of information overlook.  It should be noted that in most cases, this assumption isn’t made with any malicious intent.  Even the most skilled and knowledgeable person can make this mistake.  No one can have experience in everything.  The key to avoiding this assumption is continuing to seek information and the input of others instead of letting yourself become so attached to your point of view that you avoid the input of others.

My project is the most/least important

This is a perspective with the issue of position.  It can be easy for a project manager or team member who is spending all of their time on a project to see the project as being the most important thing going on in the company.  They may even have the support of a leader in the organization.  Stakeholders on the other hand may very well see this project as being the least of their worries.  Either could be right depending on who is setting the priorities of the organization.

So with all of these thoughts and factors swirling around in your organization, how do you move forward and ensure that your projects are communicating effectively?

Educate Your Employees

Both of the root causes outlined above thrive on a lack of information.  So communicate. Communicate continuously and relentlessly what projects are important and why.  Create a robust communication plan that includes routine progress updates, training sessions and/or materials and a timeline of when changes can be expected.  Provide opportunities for your stakeholders and team members to give their feedback and use that feedback to build a stronger solution and to communicate more effectively.  The more clearly you can communicate your purpose and priorities throughout your organization the easier it will be for your people to manage their expectations and to align with your vision.  Make it possible for them to receive training within the organization and empower them to seek their own educational opportunities (Conferences, Seminars, Continuing Education, etc.).

Create a Culture Where Innovation and Iteration are Welcome

My colleague John Godwin wrote a post a while back about how culture eats strategy for lunch.  He's right.  If you want your strategy to be realized then you must create a culture that values creativity and allows failure to be a part of the development process.  If people in your organization feel like they have permission to fail in their pursuit of a better way to do business, they will be more likely to think creatively about how to solve the problems they encounter every day.  Encourage your employees to weed out the bad habits that lie in the "that's the way we've always done it" mentality.

Engage. Your. Stakeholders. (Now!)

From the beginning, your stakeholders should be included in helping to build your solution.  They don't have to be in the room for the entire build process but they should be consulted on the solution.

After all, they are the ones who will have to actually use the solution that you implement.  Getting stakeholders involved early will help them be more committed to the solution design and with any luck they will become advocates for your solution.  They can also help you to see the problem and your design from a different point of view.  They can either validate or disprove assumptions that you have made in your design.  Often times, your stakeholders are going to be able to provide a broader view of the context around your solution; changes in the organization, changing needs of the customer, competing or complimentary projects, etc.  This input will prove invaluable as you get closer to delivering the solution.

Need help crafting your communication plan, engaging your stakeholders or getting your strategy and culture to mesh?  Let's talk. 

Wade Cameron
Wade Cameron
Senior Consultant
Contact Wade

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