(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.
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.