15 July, 2019

Impossible Project: 8 Principles ​to Take it on and Deliver it

Do you need to take on an impossible project: something nobody thinks can be done? Or maybe a project no one thinks should be done!

You need to convince people that it’s worthwhile and then deliver it against the odds.

I’m not talking about mega-projects or crazy-ass stupid ideas here. Just your common-or-garden every day impossible project. That is, a project that you know makes sense, but nobody else believes in. And I’m going to have to trust you here. This is a good rule to follow:

Don’t do stupid things on purpose.

Some of the very greatest achievements have been made by people taking on what others considered to be impossible projects. Those people had vision, conviction and, above all, commitment to their idea. Peter Thiel is the founder of PayPal and a serial investor in major tech start-ups. One of the questions he asks would-be entrepreneurs is:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

The Right Thing to Do

As a project manager, your job is to make those visions into a reality. Yet sometimes, you feel that you can see more clearly than your colleagues. No one else thinks you can do it, but you know just one thing: you have to. It’s the right project and you need to pursue it.

Eight Principles for an Impossible Project

Impossible Project - 8 Principles to take it on and deliver it

So, for when that’s the case, I have 8 principles to offer you. For each one, I’ll break it down into:

  • The Fundamental Principle
  • A Pragmatic Elaboration
  • An Advanced Approach

Here then, are my 8 Principles for Impossible Projects

  1. Commitment
  2. Control
  3. Decision
  4. Scope
  5. Rate
  6. Stakeholders
  7. Team
  8. Brilliance

So, no waffle: let’s dive straight in.

Commitment to Your Impossible Project

The fundamental behavior at the heart of this principle is perseverance. Stick with your idea until either:

  • you win through, or
  • the weight of evidence tells you everyone else is right

One member of our OnlinePMCourses community told me:

I proposed such a project in the past and it took me 5 years before getting all the green flags to start the project that finally resulted in the discovery of a first in class asset!

L, a member of the OnlinePMCourses community

In fact, she was the person whose response to me, on the most difficult project challenges, prompted me to write this article!

Pragmatic Step: Build a Concrete Plan

Not only does a well-crafted plan show your commitment; it also creates a reality. It demonstrates that your project is achievable, and how. This is important, because any sponsor, investor, or supporter will need to see this before making their own commitment.

But I’d like to sound a note of caution (and we’ll come back to it when we look at getting a decision for your impossible project. Sometimes a plan can look good, but be riddled with complications and flaws. Take the time to iron those creases out of your plan. That will help you to be sure your project is sound, and also be valuable in putting a concrete plan before your decision makers.

Recommendation: Read our article, ‘12 Project Planning Mistakes… and How to Fix Them‘.

Advanced Tip: Pre-commit to Your Idea

Sometimes the best approach is to get started and build something.

You Can’t Build a Reputation On What You’re Going to Do.

Henry Ford

Getting started has two strong impacts for you:

  1. You create some ‘ground truth’ that people cannot deny. So, therefore, you change the presumption from ‘it cannot be done’ to ‘it’s been started’.
  2. You strengthen your authority. Anyone can promote an idea with words. But the ‘do it then say it’ approach shows greater integrity

Impose Control on Your Impossible Project

There’s nothing a project manager craves more than control Our whole process is designed to create control of a messy, complex, uncertain mess. And the place to start is the fundamental concept of control: preparation.

There are lots of variations on the British Army saying that:

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Preparation comes before planning. We need to consider:

  • What you know
  • Who you know
  • What to plan
  • How to plan
  • How to monitor your plan
  • What could go wrong
  • How you’ll handle those problems
  • How you’ll handle the people

Pragmatic Step: Build Rigorous Control Mechanisms

First, preparing a set of rigorous project controls will give confidence to doubters of your so-called ‘impossible project’. But, more practically, you’ll need them when you get started. If people do consider your project to be impossible, then there’s a good chance that, at the very least, it will be tricky. Robust monitoring and control will be vital.

We’ll pick up on a number of vital project controls (like scope and control of change) later in this article. Here, I’d like to emphasise the importance during your early preparation of key definitioal factors like:

  • Risks and Issues
  • Assumptions
  • External Dependencies
  • Constraints

Be sure to identify these and build processes that allow you to track changes to these and act rapidly to address the implications they throw up.

Advanced Tip: Contingency

Of course it should not be an ‘advanced’ tip. Every project manager should know the imprtance of:

  • Budget contingency
  • Schedule contingency
  • Scope flexibility
  • Supply chain contingency
  • Contingency planning

But, too often, these are honored more in the breach than the observance… We talk the contingency talk. But sometimes we fail to walk the contingency walk.

Too often, contingency plans are honored more in the breach than the observance. We talk the contingency talk. But sometimes we fail to walk the contingency walk. Click To Tweet

And our doubters and sponsors rarely wan to pay the cost they imply.

So, what do we do? We cut the cost to make our project an easier sell. It seems more compelling if we trim the costs and the timelines to the bone. But the smart investors and clients will spot this and say ‘that’s impossible’. And, it will be. Because without sufficient contingency, you really do have an impossible project.

Get a Decision on Your Impossible Project

The fundamental tool that we use to drive a decision to go with a project is a Business Case.

We have a full detailed article on Business Cases, which I recommend: ‘Great Big Guide to the Project Business Case‘. We use them to gain agreement and justify the decision that we want.

But a good business case won’t be simply a piece of advocacy. That could lead to bias at best and manipulating a decision at worst. Either way, that’s not good governance. Your business case needs to offer options and evaluate them with objectivity and fairness.

My tip would be to show only the one, two, or three most compelling reasons to support an option. More than that, and you’ll diminish the impact of your case. On the other hand, do document all of the cost, risks, and reasons not to do your project. This approach works for two reasons:

  1. If your top three reasons outweigh all of the downsides, your case is compelling. And, if they do not, then minor additional benefits are unlikely to tip the balance. Your project will always remain marginal at best, and impossible at worst.
  2. If you do get approval to run your impossible project, then it’s likely that things will go wrong along the way. What you don’t want is for your stakeholders to lose confidence and even throw recriminations at you: ‘Why didn’t you tell us… ?’ If you articulated all the negatives before they made their decision, you are covered.

Pragmatic Step: Construct a Robust Governance Framework

Once your impossible project is underway, create a robust governance framework. No project needs this more than one that has some serious detractors. You need to be able to wrap strong controls around all future decision-making, to ensure that decisions are both solid and auditable.

Advanced Tip: De-bias your Decision-making

There are a lot of reasons why people make bad decisions. We succumb to a number of biases. Yur job is to highlight the risk of bias and present the decision in as neutral a format as you can. Some of the important project biases to be aware of include:

The Sunk Cost Bias

‘We’ve spent so much time and money, we really ought to comlpete the project.’

Well, no. If the cost of completion outweighs the value of the completed project, then you’ll just be pouring away good money after bad.

The Gambler’s Run Bias

‘We’ve had so many problems that our luck is bound to turn soon.’

Not so fast there, tiger. Two things militate against that conclusion:

  1. Those problems may highlight a systemic issue that means you need – at the very least – a shift in direction
  2. Random events don’t know about the past. After tossing 5 heads in a row, unless the coin is weighted (see 1 above), then the chance of another head is still 50%.

Framing Bias

‘How you ask the question can influence the answer’.

For example, people prefer low risk and status quo options. When you impose a bias on how you state a problem, you undermine the whole decision-making process.

Precision Bias

We tend to mistake precision for accuracy. Therefore, we give undue credence where we see a lot of detail.

These are just a few of my favorite examples of decision-making traps that arise from innate and learned human biases. I feel a long article coming on…

Get the Scope of Your Impossible Project Right

The fundamental idea behind this principle is to minimize the scope of your project to make it as possible as you can. The Agilists may have come late to this particular party, but they aren’t wrong. Those of us working on planned projects, using predictive methods, have been starting small since the dawn of man.

It doesn’t only make great sense to reduce the scope of a seemingly impossible project. But you can also reduce its complexity – and therefore risk – by breaking it into a number of smaller projects. There are few interdependencies within the project and this will make it simpler to manage and easier to control.

Pragmatic Step: Keep a Firm Hand on the Scope

Good Scope Management and a robust Change Control process are both necessary components of good project control.

We have written two important articles that I recommend you read:

Advanced Tip: One Thing at a Time

I’m not really arguing that you cannot run parallel tracks of activity on a project. Multi-tasking may not work for us as individual human beings, but that’s the power of having a team and a work breakdown structure!

But you can improve your ability to control a difficult or ‘impossible’ project by sequencing your activities to avoid multiple deadlines in a short period. By focusing your team on one significant milestone at a time, you boost their motivation, reduce management complexity, and make the control of your project easier.

Control the Rate of Progress of Your Impossible Project

The starting point for this principle is to start your project delivery with a pilot or prototype of some kind. This will give you and your doubters a clear idea (and some solid evidence) of just how possible or impossible your project is.

If things do g wrong, they will do so in a controlled and safe way, from which you can learn. That knowledge will feed nicely into your decision-making process.

And, f things fgo well, you have the perfect PR material to enthuse your stakeholders and confound your doubters.

Don’t think of prototypes as a purely Product Development tool. And don’t leave pilot projects only to the realms of public service and not-for-profits.

Pragmatic Step: Make use of Stage Gates

Stage Gates are the perfect way to control the pace of your project, by subjecting it to good governance. They de-risk your project and create clear accountability. Read our article: ‘Why the Stage Gate Process will Make You a Better Project Manager‘. It doesn’t just give you the ‘why’; but also the ‘how’. In the meantime, if you’re new to stage gates, take a look at this short video:

Advanced Tip: Create Buffer Zones to Prevent Over-running Your Schedule

A technique I borrow from critical chain planning is to divide my project delivery into phases, and create a contingency period at the end of each. This gives me a hugely enhanced ability to meet the milestone at the end of the phase. I call these buffer zones ‘Islands of Stability’ and they act somewhat like firebreaks. If you have delays in any activities on your critical path, the contingency available in your Island of Stability means that the delays cannot jump across to the next phase. Unless, that is, that the delays are too big.

Engage your Stakeholders Positively

The fundamental strategy of any project must be to align your stakeholders around the goal, objectives, and approach of your project. This gives you the support you need. And the secret is very much to win over your key stakeholders one at a time.

There is no difference here between an impossible project and an outright easy project. It’s just the impact that doing so – or not doing so – will have on your day-to-day life. We’ve written a lot on stakeholder engagement, but I’d particularly draw your attention to the first articles in my list:

Pragmatic Step: Take Control of Your Message

And no, I do not imply any form of lying: by omission or commission. But you do need a positive stakeholder communication process, and excellent formal project reporting.

For more advice on great communication, take ua look at our roundup of Communication Skills for Project Managers | The Best Books.

And, if you need more guidance on Project Reporting, we of course have valuable articles:

Advanced Tip: The Story

To win over stakeholder and believe that the impossible is not only possible, but desirable, you’ll need to weave a compelling, persuasive, and powerful narrative. The past is often the best predictor of the future. So, you’ll need to show either:

  • how past experiences endorse your argument that this project can succeed, or
  • why the evidence of past experience is not credible or not relevant to this case

Gather a Top Team for Your Impossible Project

It should go without saying that, for a near-impossible project, you’ll want an experienced team. The more capability and relevant knowledge you can gather together, the better. Do take a look at our article on Human Resource Management: ‘Project Human Resource Management: A Complete Primer‘.

Pragmatic Step: Work Stream Leaders and Team Allocation

My preferred approach is always to appoint the best people I can find, to lead my workstreams. And work with them to plan those workstreams and specify the ideal resources to allocate into the roles. Ideally, they may know who to go after and have the charisma and connections to attract those people and then secure their participation.

Advanced Tip: Motivate Your Team

It’s not really an advanced tip to say ‘motivate you team’. D’oh.

But it is an advanced project leadership skill to be able to do so – especially when you meet the issues that a nearly impossible project will throw at you. So, do take a look at a few of our articles on team motivation and leadership:

Give Your Impossible Project a Touch of Brilliance

In my book Brilliant Project Leader’ (US|UK), I talk about brilliant tactics and behaviors that create a brilliant project. This is a project that potential team members want to join in, and current team members enjoy being a part of.

Let your impossible project sparkle and shine.

Show how it may be challenging, but it is tremendously wort while. And create a real buzz around it by articulating a copelling vision that gets people talking about your project.

Pragmatic Step: Brillant Team

Build a team that will do justice to your compelling vision. And treat them exceptionally well. Go back and read some of the articles on leadership I listed a few lines above. This stuff is important: VERY important!

Celebrate your team’s successes and give recognition for group and individual contributions. Make it your job to catch people doing their job well, and encourage everyone to cheer them on.

Advanced Tip: Brilliant Behaviors

Here’s a quick-list of brilliant behaviors that role-model the kind of environment you want to create for your Brilliant Project:

  1. Always smiling, confident, optimistic, and undaunted by setbacks
  2. Keeping focused on outcome
  3. Being collaborative, generous, and supportive of your team and your stakeholders
  4. Giving people the opportunity to succeed and shine, and to develop and grow
  5. Approaching setbacks in a courageous way, and displaying passion for your project
  6. Demonstrating values-led decision-making and maintaining 100% integrity at all times

What are Your Thoughts about Making Impossible Project Happen?

Do yo have insights to share or questions to ask?

Please do use the comments below, and we’ll respond to every contribution.

By the Way…

Many years ago, I was recommended a book by one of the finest project management thinkers on the web, Glen Alleman. Its title resonates with this article and it’s full of good advice. The project it documents was, for sure, a ‘mega project’. But the lessons it gives you will apply in any context. Please do take a look at ‘Making the Impossible Possible’ by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine (US|UK).

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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