Getting to the Bottom of Project Troubles


It's amazing how many projects, already in a hole, keep sinking deeper. When team members and staff don't have the insight or objectivity to turn things around, an independent consultant can help—or not. In this column, a leading industry consultant gives you "the straight dope" on what to watch out for.

Have you ever said to yourself, "I'm in a hole and I can't get out"? It's amazing to me how many projects, in a hole already, keep sinking deeper. Is it because the only tool available is a shovel? Sometimes it's helpful if someone who is not in the hole with you gives you a hand. Can a project review by an independent consultant help? That depends. You say you've had some awful experiences with consultants brought in to review your project? I believe you. Here are four factors that will help make sure your independent project review pays off.

The Consultant's Independence from Solutions
Effective review of a project depends on the consultant's independence from possible solutions she might recommend. For instance, if you hire a consultant who is in the rope business, she will most likely recommend throwing you a rope. If she is in the business of providing programmers, then she'll recommend more programmers. Ideally, if you select a consultant who is in the business of recommending solutions but does not make a living from delivering the recommended solutions, then you will get an objective project review and helpful recommendations. This type of consultant will provide information about how your project got into its hole and useful recommendations for how to get out and stay out.

The Consultant's Experience 
A consultant's experience with recognizing what contributes to software project successes and failures is key to a successful review. A project's problems are often presented as strictly technical in nature or the fault of the technologists. But in my technical, management, and consulting experience, there are many factors in addition to technical ones that contribute. Projects are complex human systems in themselves. They involve business needs, technologies, processes, and people in a unique combination that is influenced by a company's culture, environment, and business objectives. Projects require executive sponsorship, project management, business-functional and work-process design expertise, technologies, infrastructure, and most of all, people. Project troubles typically involve all of these areas interacting with one another. And when executive sponsorship and management issues are strong contributors to the problem, the people down in the hole are reluctant to talk about them. If you're going to hire a consultant, be sure she has the courage to identify and address these issues with the executives who hired her.

The Client's Willingness to Look in the Mirror
The effectiveness of a review depends heavily on the organization's willingness to face its contribution to the project's trouble. No matter what the consultant recommends, if the organization wants to keep its head down in the hole, it will. If your organization is not ready to face its own contributions to the problem, then no amount of consulting will fix the problem.People's Willingness to Disclose
Project members' willingness to tell the consultant about their issues definitely affects the quality of the review. The consultant has no way of living through the project the way they have lived it. If the consultant is worth her salt, she will advise the client about matters of safety needed for people to speak freely. If people believe the review is about "finding and punishing the guilty," they will not express their thoughts, opinions, and concerns. This in itself might be the biggest problem the project has. If so, the consultant should be able to figure this out. Consultants are often listened to more than internal project staff because they are from outside the organization. They are being paid to look with different eyes. They are being paid to speak the unspeakable. If people view the consultant as the enemy rather than a helpful ally, they may withhold valuable information and perspective. Later, the same people may complain about the consultant who didn't really get to the bottom of their troubles. But don't expect the consultant to simply be your mouthpiece or management's patsy. The consultant adds value by applying her own experience and skill to your situation.

Sure, there are inexperienced, biased, and maybe even spineless consultants. But those who are not can be the objective eyes you need. And if the people on your project, including your executives, are willing to act on solid recommendations, you just might lift your project out of its hole.

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