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Flail Leads to Fail

One definition of “flail” is, to move vigorously or erratically; thrash about. The title of this note could also be “Flounder Leads to Failure.” The point here is that loss of focus and inability to keep on track are two key causes of project and even company failures. While change is constant, no project or company that continually changes direction is likely to succeed.

Software developers understand there is a significant price to context switching … changing tasks too often. For the software developer, or for any profession where having a full grasp of the environment and influences on it, each context switch requires parking one task in a recoverable state, and then re-familiarizing with the state of the next task. This type of task hopping can lead to both tremendous inefficiencies and to significant errors. The inefficiencies arise from the acts of parking and recovering the state of the work. Errors arise from the loss of continuity, and the incomplete or incorrect parking or recovering of the state of the work. Anyone who has ever written code will be familiar with the question, “why did I write this function this way?” Often, the documentation accompanying a parked activity is not fully adequate. And even when it is, there is time required to review and reacquaint with the task.

Clearly, the type of work done by a software developer is not completely analogous to a company’s efforts to remain focused and true to a strategic direction. The lessons from context switching are, however, applicable, especially for smaller companies with resource constraints. Limited resources that are fully (or often more than fully) committed to tasks must perform a version of triage when asked to change tasks, add tasks, or otherwise modify the tasks currently in work. This can lead to flailing or floundering.

Tasks and projects can be spread out further in terms of target completion dates. However, with less focus time per project … attention is spread over more work. Not only will there be delays relative to original plans, but context switching, as noted above, can result in errors. Thus there is the risk … some would argue the likelihood of delay and lower quality. An alternative outcome is that some of the tasks can be parked and left incomplete. This may be acceptable in terms of a change in strategy or marketing conditions. That is, some work becomes obviated before it is completed and it is fine to shut down that project. However, all too often, the “flail syndrome” results in work that should be seen through to completion getting parked. This leads to wasted effort, lowered morale, and loss of company resources.

As a company changes directions without completing projects, time is lost, money is wasted, and progress towards success is not made. The reasons for floundering can be many. These include an incomplete understanding of the target market, inadequate resources to complete an objective within the window of opportunity, or the shiny object syndrome just to name a few.

In the extreme, FLAIL can lead to FAIL.

Don’t Be All Things To All Customers

The shiny object distraction is only one form of dilution of focus that can undermine a company. Making the next sale, regardless of the cost of the sale is another risk. While I am focused on small companies, there is no doubt this form of dilution of focus can impact any size organization.

I worked for a small company, many years ago, that suffered the pain of such distraction. While the ultimate demise of the company was more likely the advent of a venture funded competitor with significantly more resources, the cost of chasing the next sale was a major problem. At the time, commercial, proprietary versions of Unix were numerous. A software product vendor with a Unix based product faced the prospect of developing, testing, and supporting a different version of the product for each version of Unix. Some Unix platforms were truly small fractions of the market.

For the company at which I worked, the prospect of the next sale, regardless of sale size, was the primary if not sole determinant. No consideration was given to the cost of the sale, including:
- Gaining access to a development and support environment for the specific flavor of Unix. In many cases, booking time with a local office of the Unix vendor and traveling to that office, was the only recourse to accessing such systems.
- The time needed to bring up that environment, understand the nuances as they would impact the product.
- The time needed to modify and test the modified product.
- The time needed to train customer support.
- The time needed to actually support the product including accessing the environment, reproducing problems, recoding, retesting, and redeploying the updated product.

In this particular company’s case, rarely did another sale on the Unix flavor of the month take place. The company was left with a highly fractured product line, and the limited development, test, and support resources were kept busy with the niche customizations instead of extending the product features and capabilities. Sadly, the company ceased to be able to make payroll.

The lesson I draw from this experience is that a sale is another form of shiny object. A sale should not only provide short term revenue but should, in aggregate, be of net benefit to the business. A new version, a variant on a product, a one-off instance … these are sales that may make sense but must be assessed not only from the benefit of short term revenues, but from the full life-cycle of the product. The costs include:
- creation of the variant.
- support of the variant.
- distraction of resources and impacts on other strategic initiatives.

The Shiny Object Syndrome

In my last blog entry, I wrote about the need to focus as a project manager in a small company. Extending that train of thought, I want to muse about what I call the “Shiny Object” syndrome.

It’s very easy for an entire small company to fall prey to the shiny object syndrome … to shift focus from a committed plan by expending scarce resources on “a great idea” or “a potentially fantastic new deal.”

When a company has limited resources there is great risk to accomplishing agreed upon initiatives by investing time and energy in off-target projects and deals. Those off-target distractions may very well have tremendous potential, but if it means not remaining focused on committed tasks, there is huge risk of churn and effective incapacitation. With limited resources, failing to stay the course through to completion of committed tasks is a recipe for failure.

No doubt, the dynamic nature of business conditions can obviate an established plan. However, without a deliberate decision regarding the continued investment in a committed plan, the diversion of resources from that plan to chase the next shiny object is a form of self-inflicted sabotage.

I firmly believe that any small business that cannot keep the discipline needed to stay on course; that constantly chases the next shiny object at the expense of current commitments, is doomed to fail.

What’s the solution? Aside from a degree of self-discipline, from individuals and the team as a group, there is a way to limit the shiny object syndrome. The team … whether a product team or senior management … must adopt a review process whereby all potential changes in direction, all new opportunities, and all “shiny objects” must be formally reviewed. That process can be simple and short. There are a few simple questions that can be asked, the answers to which will provide the basis for making a decision.
- What is the potential benefit of the shiny object?
- Revenue?
- Strategic positioning?
- Tactical positioning?
- Timeframe?
- Does the shiny object extend an existing element of the corporate/product/service strategy or is this an entirely new area?
- What capacity do the existing team members have to take on another project?
- Does the team have the proper skill sets to take on the new project?
- Can existing projects and deliverables be safely delayed to take on this new project in parallel?
- What is the impact to customers, partners, and revenue of any extension of projects and deliverables?
- Can the company afford the above impacts?
- What is the actual impact to schedules, taking into account the impacts of context switching?
- Are any prior commitments being eliminated? If yes, what is the impact of such an elimination?
- Can the company bring in additional resources to support the new project?
- Would such resources be available? In a timely manner?
- What reallocation of resources would be required to balance the team(s) to support the existing and new projects?
- What would the impact of recruiting and training be on the existing projects?

Ultimately, any decision regarding a shift of attention to a shiny object should be made with the answers to these questions in mind. There is no guarantee the correct decision will be made, and emotion often is a major factor. However, without having assessed the impact, the pursuit of the shiny object is an invitation to failure.

Project Management – FOCUS is the Key

FOCUS:  Project management is all about FOCUS.  But we all know that in small companies there is a natural tendency to be battered with distractions.  Call it project management entropy.

Marketing and Sales will always have the next great idea, opportunity, partnership, … for which they want project managers and resources from projects to spend time supporting.  And indeed, any company survives only by getting new business.

So what are the keys to productively supporting new business development while maintaining FOCUS?  Certainly, there is no pat formula but here are some of the questions that can help triage the myriad of distractions that can undercut focus:

- Does this request fit with the company’s strategic direction?   If not, is the opportunity so valuable that it warrants an update to the company’s strategy?  An affirmative answer to the latter question should really prompt a separate corporate strategy session before project resources are consumed.

- What are the potential benefits of this opportunity to the business?  Some very simple, high-level assessment of the value of the opportunity should be part of the process by which a decision is made to consume otherwise committed resources.  It may be possible to create a simple check list that allows for a quick assessment.  Questions aimed at assessing potential for new customers (site visitors), increased profitability, and lower costs … all can help with the quick assessment.

- What are the costs of committing resources to investigating the opportunity?  What impacts on current deliverables are likely?  What is the cost to the business of those impacts?  Here too, quick, high-level assessments can help in the decision making process.

Overall, there must be a balance between business development and delivery of commitments for the existing business.  Churn, context switching, and general loss of FOCUS are a sure way to fail on existing projects.  Both failure to succeed with existing business and failure to ensure a flow of new business can undermine a business.  Project management in a small company involves supporting the executive team by helping to keep the right balance.

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