Beware of Totoolitarianism

Beware of Totalitarianism

Doug De Carlo writes for – a Ms.Money partner.

Dan was pleased with himself. I could see it from the expression on his face as soon as I walked into his office. It was Monday morning and my man Dan had spent most of his weekend putting together the timeline for his project. With the aid of Microsoft Project, his trusty software tool, he had planned his project meticulously, down to the gnat’s eyebrow.

Dan was taking full advantage of the project management software. The project had been broken down into five phases and a total of 973 tasks that were to be accomplished over a four-month life-cycle.

All the predecessor and successor tasks and links had been identified. Further, Microsoft Project enabled Dan to take a task and break it down into a task within a task, within a task, etc., up to seven levels of sub tasks. Task duration? He was able to specify time in months, days, hours — and yes — even minutes if he wanted to.

What Will Heather Be Doing?

Dan could tell you that, two months down the road, on Tuesday, May 7, Heather would be spending 12 hours testing Module 17A of the new software application. Dan felt good. He had it all laid out. I felt sick to my stomach.

Dan’s team was creating a new computer-aided design and engineering software application, among the most complex software to develop. They were working with leading – if not bleeding – edge technology, which would undergo constant change throughout the project. Not only was this a highly complex project, but also he had a formidable deadline: 120 engineers had to be up and running on the new application to meet the demands of a big contract his company had just landed. And one other thing: His organization was overrun with projects, so team members were constantly being pulled from one project and reassigned.

In summary: a complex project, rapid change, a very high percentage of unknowns, a volatile team, a tight deadline. This was the project from hell.

But Dan was in heaven. He knew what Heather would be doing on May 7, two months from now. He had it all figured out. On paper.

Are You a Totalitarian?

The brochure is not the vacation. And the Gantt chart is not the project. Would you try to improve the look of a travel brochure in the hope of having a better vacation? Are you using your favorite software tool and laser printer to produce better and better looking Gantt charts? Are you practicing totalitarianism?

With the capabilities built into today’s software tools, you can easily get trapped into endlessly improving and tweaking the project plan–and fall prey to the illusion that you are actually in control of things.

The Big Trap: Planning the Unplannable and Then Committing to the Fiction You Just Created

Life (and your project) happen while you’re making plans. In the kind of high-velocity, unpredictable project environment Dan was experiencing, the world never unfolds according to plan. Dan’s plan was fiction, worthy of the Dumbbell Prize.

To exacerbate the situation, when it dawns on us that the world is not working out according to plan, we and our management often figure that our plan is not tight enough. So we add more layers of detail and tasks, and institute more controls, trying to keep reality in sync with the plan. By doing so, we become rigid in a world that is fluid, locking out unplanned options that could get us to our goal. As a result, the plan becomes self-defeating and likely to distance us from the goal, putting the project at risk. Reality has its own plan.

Help Stamp Out Totoolitarianism

Pull out a copy of one of your current project plans, and answer these questions:

  • Have you planned at a level of detail greater than you can manage to? Remind yourself that the goal is not to maximize use of the software tool. Just because it lets you do it, doesn’t mean you should do it.
  • Are you managing at a level of detail greater than necessary? One of the most successful project managers I’ve ever met kept a Gantt chart with no tasks on it. Instead, it showed only the 30-some deliverables to be produced. Even if you’re good at keeping on top of 547 tasks, you’ll lose the war if you lose sight of the deliverables those tasks are intended to produce.
  • Do you have a process in place that enables you to deal rapidly with unpredictability and take advantage of surprises and change requests? Software tools are not substitutes for having basic guidelines in place that enable you to evaluate unforeseen events and regroup quickly.
  • Have you predicted and committed to the unpredictable?

But it looks soooooo good on paper. is the leading Web-based resource for people who manage projects and teams. It provides access to practical information about project and team management skills and processes; forums where participants can interact with peers and experts; and comprehensive guides to tools and other project management resources.