You Could Have Stopped the Contagion!

July 16, 2012
How to prevent the onset of project disease.

If you were a patient of Dale Packer, M.D., you would see him lug his hated, oversize laptop into your examination room to take notes and punch in codes, just as he does with dozens of other appointments every day. By the time the last sniffling, scratchy-throated kid has stuck out his tongue and said “Ahhhh” Packer is usually ready to heave his electronic companion into the red waste bin reserved for contaminated substances.

It’s not the laptop that exasperates the good doctor; it’s the electronic medical records (EMR) system that he hired a consultant to implement some 18 months back. A year and a half into this process, the project is like a drug-resistant staph infection: the consultant keeps layering expensive Band-Aids over the painful spots and nothing works.

How could Dr. Packer have halted this loathsome, expensive and painful progression? Were there early symptoms? Physicians aren’t known for their project-management savvy, but what about you? Can you recognize a malignant project that will grow worse over time and steadily become more expensive to cut out? Projects don’t have to be at the disaster level for them to be poor investments.

There are three in-progress barometers that you can use to monitor the course of your initiatives. These are the business equivalent of the periodic blood tests that reveal whether your new diet of spinach-wrapped liver burgers is boosting your iron levels.

1. Your project’s midterm goals are being met. Dr. Packer should have (but didn’t) build in goals along the project timeline that would let him know the EMR project was headed in the right direction. For instance, by the end of July, insurance submissions being handled in less than two hours a day, or all the nurses being trained on the new system within 90 days of implementation.  Do your initiatives have clear, midterm goals? Are you keeping track of them?

2. The leading indicators of success are showing progress. Leading indicators are not your goals, per se; rather, they are signs that your goal will materialize. You might view rising purchase intent as a leading indicator of higher sales, or the number of pregnancies this year as a leading indicator of whether your town will need a new elementary school before the decade is out. For Dr. Packer, he could have been tracking whether the wall of manila patient folders with the colorful stickers was progressively disappearing after six months, or whether it was taking steadily less time to enter examination notes. Do you know what the leading indicators of success are for your project? Are you tracking them?

3. Your project is meeting its original timeline, with few unforeseen bugs or hiccups. Dr. Packer’s project missed every deadline the consultant promised in the beginning. I know, because once the project launched Dr. Packer grew increasingly overwhelmed and started missing our weekly hockey games. (Sign of a smart businessman: he hangs out where the need for his services are created.) When timelines slip, are you just accepting the new dates or are you investigating whether the project should be rethought, restaffed or even halted?
On the upside, these signals tell you exactly the state of the project when you look at them. They are as unequivocal as clear x-rays. The downside is, however, that you don’t know about the problem until it hits. Of course, you’re better off knowing a project is headed south before it shows up as missed milestones and sub-par performance. As Ben Franklin, who was everything other than an M.D., sagely noted, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are at least 10 symptoms that will give you advance warning of a project in need of an injection of new thinking and, potentially, a new consultant on the case. Three of these symptoms are:

  • Not everyone who is required is showing up at project reviews and meetings. When crucial stakeholders or supporters start letting other priorities trump your project meetings, you need to finish up fast or make some changes.
  • The project manager frequently asks the project sponsor for permission, direction or support. Dr. Packer’s office manager was supposed to lead the EMR implementation. Her increasingly common requests for the doctor to intervene with their hired consultants should have triggered a full project review and, most likely, some surgical realignment of the project team.
  • The project team is experiencing attrition or turnover. There are always legitimate reasons team members could be replaced – they rotate onto another assignment or leave the company or snore loudly during project meetings. No matter how reasonable the reason, whenever the team composition changes, that’s a watch-out for your project. Particularly if the change happens on the consulting side.

The seven other project health indicators are listed on this downloadable Project Health Checklist, which you can easily adapt to any project. If you set up the health checklist at the start of your project and check it regularly along the way, you will be able to cure most project maladies long before they become acute.

David A. Fields,managing director of Ascendant Consortium, helps companies find, hire and get great results from outside experts. His book, The Executive’s Guide to Consultants (McGraw Hill, 2012) can be preordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected].

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