Control vs. Speed: The Debate Continues…

“Hell, there are no rules here–we’re trying to accomplish something”.  -Thomas A. Edison
So you are leading a large project, with an executive team that wants to move fast, deliver a positive return quickly, and not let “red tape” get in the way.  They have a rough idea of what they want, but the project has many potential directions, and the project team is located across the globe.  There is a large creative sub-team you are working with in China, who ultimately will have to find a “game changing” solution for your project to be considered successful.  Time is at a premium as competition is “eating-your-lunch”, and non-valued added tasks need to be ruthlessly trimmed.
You of course are trained in basic project management processes:  initiation, planning, execution, close and monitoring/control.  Each process has steps, inputs, outputs and controls.  Variation is the enemy, and you manage it as if it were a plague.  However, for this project you are told to “take risks”, move quickly, find a winning solution.  What do you do?  How do you find balance between controls and the desire to move fast?
The argument has historically gone that controls and speed are polar opposites.  One (control), gets in the way of the other (speed).    Project Management has always been about controlling chaos, bringing order, measuring, monitoring and tracking – it sounds kind of  “big brother-isk” and it is!  In addition, those who you sometimes need to go fast, are the creative types who are by their nature (see Carl Jung), hard to corral, and usually resistant to central authority and controls.
But, the traditional approaches are changing, and speed and controls can be friends.  In fact to survive, you must think differently.  As the speed of competition has increased, and project time windows have shortened, project managers have embraced “Agile” technics to help manage in this new environment.  The basic thinking is there needs to be minimal time invested in traditional project infrastructure, because changes (such as scope changes), will happen, and even will be embraced!  I guess the Agile people are descendants or follows of “Dadaism” from the early 20th century.  In the agile world, chaos is your friend, and structure creates unneeded barriers – as change is, and will happen.
So, you the project manager, what should you do?
First, understand the operating environment in your organization.  You quickly need to gauge the levels of controls that are necessary to fill your charter.  You need to look at the experience and composition of your team, th maturity levels of its members, and the potential group dynamics that will result from the high-profile nature and intensity that will surround your project.  The higher your comfort with your team, the fewer controls you might need to install.
Second, have all the facts about Agile processes before jumping in – this is an evolving area of project management, that is still being tested in high-speed industrys such as software development.  It may not be the right solution in your operating environment.  Collect all the facts, PMI has recognized the importance of Agile technics, and they are starting to offer training programs to address this area.
Third, make sure you have the support and sign-off of your management team no matter which processes you embrace.  They need to be on-board with your approach (for your own protection), so do not skip this step.
Finally,  most projects (Agile managed ones included), fail at the beginning, due to our inability to clearly define the project, the resources needed, and money to be spent.  Sometimes you have to, “go slow, to go fast” – I suggest you take time at the beginning of your project to get the start right, then you will be able to move quickly through the execution phase.
I believe there is a middle road between controls and speed.  I have managed many programs and projects where clear boundaries were needed, but the “need for speed” was prevalent.  To be successfull, I had to question many of my past practices, embrace lower levels of controls, and not resist the inevitable project changes that seem to occur in today’s projects.  There are many new tools to help you balance these extremes, you as a high-powered leader need to use these tools to be a star!
Make it a great day friends!

About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
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