Draining the Project Management Swamp: The Second Mistake

This article is a follow-up the article titled “Draining the Project Management Swamp: The First Mistake.”

In the previous article, I discussed the way in which I attempted to drain a swamp that was expanding around my cabin. My mistake was that I focused on the outlet of the swamp, ignoring the inlet where water was dispersing in multiple directions. I related it to project management and how trying to eliminate large amounts of work from the beginning is not always the best move. The project may appear on schedule, when in reality, the project is just stagnating. In this article, I will discuss the second mistake I made – focusing on the inlet.

The water coming into the cabin property from the fence line had no path, and was meandering everywhere. Focusing on the inlet, I dug trench to direct the inward flow of the water into the original stream bed. After several hours, this was proving to be successful. However, when I walked downstream, the outlet that I had carved was clogged and the area surrounding the cabin was flooded even worse than before. At the inlet, my digging had disturbed the soil, letting tremendous amounts of silt, sticks, and pine needles collect at every turn and eddy, filling the stream bed with debris that eventually dammed all the water at the outlet.

In project management, focusing on the “inlet” of work can similarly “swamp” the team. This happens often with project managers who get ahead of themselves, having high prospects for a project that has not been planned out. It happens when a project manager focuses on the little things that are irrelevant to the primary goals of the project, such as gear swag, company parties, and pay bonuses. Everyone is probably guilty of this in someway or another. In fact this is often a problem I face. When once managing a small project at a retail store, I was convinced, before I even started the work, that I would do double the amount asked of me. So, I worked harder and faster, but I was soon overwhelmed. Pressing the comfort zone is good of course, but sometimes the work is pressing enough already.

After trying both the inlet and the outlet of the swamp, I failed, and the ground was so soggy that the deck of my cabin was breaking. With further effort, I discovered that the only way to drain the swamp was to slowly dig the trench along the path of the original stream, digging away only small bits at a time. It was more about tracing the path of the stream again and again rather than cutting large chunks from the inlet and outlet. By doing this, the water was funneled into a single path, and I was actually able to direct the flow in a way that the water’s very movement would help naturally carve the ditch deeper and carry out the debris building up.

Similarly, in project management, the methodologies used ought to be naturally effective, carrying the project with its own momentum. Focusing on the inlets and outlets of a project can be extremely counterproductive, and it can provide misleading information on project status. Like the work at the swamp’s outlet where I thought I had drained everything, an improper methodology or tool (or an unfit project manager) can make the project appear to be finished. And, like the work at the swamp’s inlet where I thought I had channeled the flow, inefficient project management methodologies and tools can make the project appear as if it is going as planned. In reality, all the labor at the outlets and inlets is just keeping the project and its team members “swamped.”

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