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Epic Fail – Chapter Four


EpicFail-Header-art_2015-11-12_1307Chapter Four – The Working Environment

By Phillip G. Perkins, ACUMEN Corporation, President and CEO


We’re going to spend a bit of time in this section talking about the working environment that helps prevent an Epic Fail situation. I have to warn you that this may be the shortest chapter in our little series. But in my opinion it delivers a message that is quite important in trying to insure your projects against failure. Let me start by sharing a 20 year old story from the archives of our company ACUMEN Corporation.

We had worked for months on securing a contract with a large manufacturer. While we certainly had visited the plant on more than one occasion, many of the discussions were held via teleconference.  After completing our discovery and contract negotiations, we were ready to launch the project. In the first wave two of our professional consultants were deployed to kick off the project. The following is an excerpt from a real email sent by my project manager:

“After we met with the team leader here at the plant we asked to be shown the project room, expecting to be ushered to a secondary conference room or unoccupied office. Instead we were taken to a corner of the office area where various crates and boxes were strewn about and asked to set up shop there “for the time being”. Phil, I am not exaggerating when I tell you we are now sitting on boxes with packing crates holding our laptops and paperwork.  I sure hope this is temporary.”

Yes, this is an absolutely true story. I have to say that as good as we are at digging deep to find the needs and goals of each and every client, we saw nothing during pre-contract that would have prepared us for that reception. Had this situation continued it certainly could have led to a sluggish if not impossible project. Why? The physical layout of the “project area” was indicative of some real core problems:

  • Clearly very little planning had gone into accommodating the human resources that would become a key extension to the manufacturers staff for several months … and that is a sign of lack of project planning in general by our new client.
  • It indicated that implementing an information system was deemed less important than other functions proceeding in more appropriate settings. (Obviously business must carry on but once a decision is made to invest in new technology it seems wasteful not to integrate the correct implementation of that technology into the daily fabric of the business.)

Offer a nurturing environment

This story ended up having a happy ending, but only after our project manager sat down with the internal project sponsor and had a heart to heart discussion about the unworkable environment. While the client never intended for the situation to continue they had yet to identify a solution that could be implemented in the short term. With a little nudging a more appropriate work area was identified and our team moved.

So after that rather extreme example let me spend a few moments on an ideal project environment, one that promotes productivity every day. In our methodology much emphasis is placed upon teamwork. A  large general project team is identified and made up of client and ACUMEN resources. Then smaller workgroups are formed populated by people in key business areas such as accounting, sales, inventory management and production. We call these stakeholder teams.

In order that a team dynamic is promoted the teams need to meet as a group on a routine basis. Obviously most, if not all, of the members of the various teams need access to the software product they have selected and an environment where they can work collaboratively as they explore the new capabilities.

So we always recommend a conference or training room with terminals or computers for each member of the team meeting during that period. A white board or multiple flip charts helps the team enumerate and record ideas and issues as they occur and keep them in front of the group. After all, most of us react best to visual representations. Other creature comforts may be added (perhaps a dedicated coffee maker) to simply make the experience more palatable. After all, learning a new technology can be challenging and tiring.

In addition we encourage our clients to provide, if not an office, at least a desk where our project manager can work when not in meetings with the teams. Beyond the comfort implied by that arrangement, it gives the client team(s) the sense that our folks are part of the landscape. It also gives them a place to stop by with ideas or concerns. This certainly isn’t mandatory, but it sets the scene for productive interactions during the course of the project.

Projects can fail in many ways. Most projects take on a life of their own. Given a nurturing environment project teams tend to flourish and be more creative and productive. That always accrues to the benefit of the client company. Given an austere and uncomfortable environment a project team can become disillusioned based upon the perception that the company is undervaluing the activity.

You need not give up the executive suite to your project team, but providing a comfortable, well-appointed working environment can go a long way towards preventing an Epic Fail.