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
What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
As a project manager, your job is to make those visions into
So, for when that’s the case, I have 8 principles to offer you. For each one, I’ll break it down into:
So, no waffle: let’s dive straight in.
The fundamental behavior at the heart of this principle is perseverance. Stick with your idea until either:
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!
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
Recommendation: Read our article, ‘12 Project Planning Mistakes… and How to Fix Them‘.
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:
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:
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
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.
Of course it should not be an ‘advanced’ tip. Every project manager should know the imprtance of:
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
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.
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 a
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.
There are a lot of reasons why people make bad decisions. We succumb to a number of biases.
‘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.
‘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:
‘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.
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…
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.
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:
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
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 knowl
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.
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:
A technique I borrow from critical chain planning is to divide my project delivery into
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:
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:
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:
It should go without saying that, for a near-impossible project, you’ll want an experienced team. The more
My preferred approach is always to appoint the best people I can find, to lead my workstreams. And work with them to plan t
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:
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.
Show how it may be challenging, but it is tremendously wort while. And create a real buzz around it by articulating a
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.
Here’s a quick-list of brilliant behaviors that role-model the kind of environment you want to create for your Brilliant Project:
Do yo have insights to share or questions to ask?
Please do use the comments below, and we’ll respond to every contribution.
Many years ago, I was recommended a book by one of the finest project management thinkers on the web, Glen Allem
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 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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