Imagine the scene. It’s 22:30, and an aircraft is preparing to take off for a long haul flight. In the cockpit, the captain and first officer are busy carrying out their final pre-flight checks. They check the weather, the fuel levels and a whole range of technical dials and indicators. They start to map out a detailed flight plan.
All of a sudden, the CEO of the airline bursts in through the cockpit door.
“What the hell are you guys doing? I want this aircraft in the air ASAP.”
The pilot looks aghast: “But sir, without sufficient checks and up-front analysis…”
“I don’t care for checks and analysis. I want to see action”, the CEO interjects. “Yes, I know analysis is considered ‘best practice’, but we’re in a hurry and don’t have time for all that ‘textbook’ stuff you guys insist upon. I want to see PROGRESS. NOW.”
The pilot and first officer shrink into their seats. “But we haven’t even planned our flight route.”
The CEO isn’t listening. “And why do you need so much fuel? I’m taking away half your fuel budget. And I’ll expect to see the aircraft landed at London Heathrow in precisely 4 hours, not the 7 hours you’ve scheduled in your flight plan. Do I make myself clear?”
The CEO storms out of the aircraft, back out onto the runway.
The pilot and co-pilot look at each other, knowing they’re departing with insufficient time, insufficient fuel, on an unknown flight-plan and without carrying out their normal safety checks. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
You wouldn’t overrule a professional pilot… So why overrule a business change professional?
The scenario I’ve painted above just wouldn’t happen in real life. There is no way that a CEO would question the expertise of a pilot, and they certainly wouldn’t take away their fuel or half their flight time. However, do you recognise any similarities between the challenges made to the pilot, and those challenges that are faced on projects? I would hazard a guess that everyone reading this article has been asked by a sponsor or senior stakeholder to reduce an estimate to make it ‘fit’ a project plan, or start a project without carrying out sufficient up-front analysis.
As Business Analysts, we advise organizations in our capacity as experts in change. We should expect healthy challenge from our project and business colleagues, but we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge them back. It’s imperative that we act as a “critical friend” to the organizations in which we work – supporting them, but also being brave enough to ask the difficult questions and expose the cold hard facts. When it comes to change projects, we’re firmly on the flight-deck. If a red light is flashing, it is our obligation to escalate it. We should do everything within our influence to stop a project plane crash by pointing out the risks and enabling informed decision making to take place.
So what are the warning signs?
- No flight path: If a project is lacking direction, there’s a severe danger it won’t land where the sponsor expects. It’s worth pausing to understand why the project has been initiated and what goals and objectives it needs to achieve.
- Insufficient fuel: If there isn’t sufficient resource, a project is likely to crash and burn. This needs a clear and honest conversation: If the project isn’t important enough to resource properly, perhaps it isn’t important enough to progress at all.
- Unrealistic flight-time: Encourage the project team to be realistic about delivery timescales. If there isn’t enough time to “land the project” then you might end up having to land abruptly, perhaps jettisoning some desired functionality along the way. Better to know this sooner rather than later, as it might change your approach.
- Lack of contact with air-traffic control: A plane needs help navigating the congested skies. Organizations need to make decisions over competing projects within congested portfolios. Our equivalent to air-traffic control is the project sponsor. He or she should provide oversight, take accountability and be available. If they are absent, this is a severe warning sign!