Thursday, March 10, 2011

Learning From A Project "Post-Mortem"

(this is a required post for my MS at Walden University. We were asked to reflect on a project from our personal or professional history that was unsuccessful or didn't reach the desired outcomes and, after reflecting, analyze the project's success or failure and discuss how project management could have helped.)

Since this is a public blog, I am uncomfortable talking about the failure of past projects--it seems like a good way to expose myself to liability. I don't really want to start my career as an instructional designer by being indiscreet! But since the assignment is a mandatory one, I've chosen a project from my personal life that, while not a failure, did not achieve my desired ends. There are other examples of projects that went poorly, but none that I feel it's appropriate to discuss in public.

Setting the stage
I live in a somewhat isolated rural community near the Canadian border in New York. I grew up here and, like most of the smart young people raised here, I moved away. I moved back after my post-college year in Scotland (studying bagpipes on a prestigious Watson Fellowship) because it wasn't possible to apply for jobs from Glasgow, and I needed some temporary work while I was figuring out where to go for my Ph. D. in Robotics and Machine Learning. As such, I'm in the real minority of local young people who had the opportunity to "get out"... and didn't.

Potsdam has four universities within eleven miles, so it's hardly a provincial backwater, but most of the young folks graduate and move immediately away, diplomas and brain cells in tow. There aren't too many jobs available here; there's also a strong perception that this is a bad place to be a young professional person. No youth culture, no dating scene, no social life, no nothing. Ain't nothin' here but the bars and the churches. (As with most broad-brush statements, this one is inaccurate... but widely held.) It seemed like there was a real desire to have a wider menu of social opportunities for smart, educated young people.

A few years ago, a number of us decided to do something about it, and we created an organization for young professionals. We collaborated with the county's chamber of commerce and a variety of other employers, we worked together to find interested stakeholders, and there were some meetings about what needed to happen. We planned our first real "meetings" to happen as "happy hour mixers" at local restaurants and taverns, and sketched a plan that involved slowly accumulating members and gaining critical mass as time went on.

The issues
We did a great job at achieving our main objectives: we got lots of young professionals to come out to the mixers. The organization stands, today, in pretty good shape: the monthly get-togethers are well attended, and there's a central core of people who keep the ball rolling. In summer months, there's often a potluck picnic with beer and wine, or a cocktail hour on the porch of a local restaurant, or similar events.

But for me, the project was a failure, and I no longer participate--or even really consider myself a member. I think project management habits of mind would have really helped here, because we would have clarified everyone's expectations at the beginning of the process. We did a great job of working together to create something, but it turned out that the "something" wasn't what I had been looking for. You see, we created an organization that primarily succeeds at getting interesting young people to hang out with each other at bars. That's great, and many people love it--because going to bars is something they enjoy. They viewed the role of the organization as helping them to find more people to hang out with at the bars, with some light professional networking on the side... so for them, the project was successful.

My take is different. I wanted an alternative to the alcohol-centered social scene, and it never really materialized--and after a while, it became clear that most people simply weren't interested in that. I thought we had been working together on the same project, but it turned out that some important assumptions about the goal had been left without clarification, and that meant the project failed for me.

How could project management have helped?
I think there's real value in the kind of focusing discussion that happens in the planning and evaluation phases of project management. If we had been thinking in those terms, we might have thought to talk about what everyone's real goals were--and how we would know when we had reached them. That would have helped us to make clearer plans about who would do what, which would have prevented a lot of frustration. I think those discussions would have also helped us all to talk about our frustrations with the way work and decisions were happening, and clearing the air would have made it a lot easier for us to work together. While this wasn't really a formal project, I think it could have profited from project management.

As it was, I felt like we made tremendous progress as a team on "building a road through the jungle"... only, at the end of the project, I learned that we had been building in the wrong jungle. Our road didn't lead anywhere I wanted to go.


  1. Hollis, sounds like step three of the essential PM steps mentioned by Greer (2011) was missing from your project "Figure out exactly what the finished work products will be" (p5). If nothing else it would have brought to light that the direction the others were going were not the same as you and you would have had the opportunity to leave or stay.

    Greer, M. (2011) The Project Management Minimalist: Just Enough PM to Rock Your Projects!

  2. Hello Hollis, I think that this is an example of why even the most collaborative efforts still need a leadership component. The project manager supplies many capabilities including motivation and coordination of project group as well as identifying project goals and objectives.

    In informal situations it is tough sometimes to accept that a leader (PM) is needed, but even the most democratic of processes need someone to get a sense of what the group feels about an issue or how they want to proceed and the leader can communicate this back to them in a coherent way as an iterative process.

    Look at it this way, even if you haven't benefited, you did something good for others, creating a social outlet where none existed before.

    Murphy, C. (1994). Utilizing project management techniques in the design of instructional materials. Performance & Instruction, 33(3), 9–11. Copyright by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

  3. Hollis,

    I know it's frustrating when things go in an opposite direction. You stated in your post mortem that "...even the most democratic of processes need someone to get a sense of what the group feels about an issue..." and, of course, you are right. Perhaps, however, others felt the way you did, initially, but followed the path of least resistance in the end?


  4. Hey Hollis,
    It sounds to me that you had the correct ingredients to seize on an opportunity of creating a project which could have positively impacted the life of young professionals. According to Allen & Hardin (2008) the project management phases are (a) project initiation, (b) project definition, (c) project planning, (d) project tracking, and (e) project closeout. These phases appear to be present in your project, but I wonder how detail those phases were carried-out in your case.
    In any case, let’s start a franchise here in New Jersey, but we’ll keep meeting locations the same format.
    Allen, S., & Hardin, P.C. (2008). Developing Instructional Technology Products Using Effective Project Management Practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(2), 72-97.

  5. Andrea: Yep! Looking at Greer's postmortem guidelines (Greer, 2011, p. 43), I fell down on number 6: "Were our constraints, limitations, and requirements made clear to all vendors/contractors from the beginning?". I thought I have been clear in my wishes, but it turned out I wasn't on the same page as the rest of the team. Oops!

    Mark, you're right--the project had real value! It just wasn't what I needed. It was a very group-led process, and I think the group was fairly hostile to the idea of a "leader", at least at first. I think we would have done a lot better with someone to help us discuss things and come to consensus.

    Lisa, it's definitely possible that other folks were similarly disappointed--which nicely illustrates the principle that if we don't ask people for their feedback (summative assessment), we're unlikely to receive anything but silence in answer.

    Benny, I don't think we really paid attention to thinking of it as a project, and that's a big part of the problem. I would do it differently next time--good luck getting a group started in New Jersey!


    Greer, M. (2011) The project management minimalist: just enough PM to rock your projects!. Minneapolis, MN: Laureate Education, Inc.

  6. You wrote:

    My take is different. I wanted an alternative to the alcohol-centered social scene, and it never really materialized--and after a while, it became clear that most people simply weren't interested in that.

    I would think any place but the bar, Hollis, smile. Because......, business and drinks probably never mix, smile; not to say that's what also was going on. I think staying as far away from the bar would had induced a completely and successfully different result; exactly what you were looking for as an end result. You think?

    I Hope I read your post correctly, smile

  7. Hi Hollis, I think it wise for you to choose a personal, rather than professional example for this blog. You're already a step ahead of many.
    I'm curious why you chose a failure rather than a success. I like to believe that we can learn from both.
    In one respect, your project was a success in that it brought together a group of people who found something they needed from the gatherings. It sounds like your intentions were not met, which can be frustrating.
    I think you were right on by recognizing that a critical, initial step of the process was missed: clarifying the intent/objective. If you had created the group yourself, it would have been closer to what you had invisioned, but by including other people you invited a variety of perspectives, that without full disclosure and clarification, resulted in a variation of what you wanted.
    I'm sure this was a valuable lesson for you, and it will help you as you attack projects in the future, personal or professional.

    Good luck and Thanks for sharing,