Advance the Ball with EVERY Play: Managing Big Horrible Technology Programs – And Succeeding

Advance the ball.jpg

I have already talked about some of things that I have found help a large program or project be successful, these include:

  • The critical skills needed by the PM

  • My belief that you have to go fast

  • That going fast is best done with a small tight team

  • That doing fundamental change can be pretty challenging for all involved

  • Some people don’t like change, and actually, that’s okay

  • Focusing on a very specific endpoint – aim small, miss small  

I now want to move on to the nitty-gritty of day by day project success.

By now, I hope you have realized that there is a very messy underbelly in all large projects, if you haven’t got that yet, please go back to step 1 and read forward back to here.

In this article I want to start looking at what it takes to make progress on a project, and how to take advantage of opportunities to accelerate (there will be plenty of times a project tries to slow down, trust me on this one!)

In the process of planning and building a team, you will have developed some form of high level Gantt chart with major activities in it. The next critical activity is to understand, in detail, (I know, I hate those words), what the tasks are and what the critical path is through those activities.

Project Managers are often taught that there is a single critical path, which is theoretically true, but practically useless. In practice, in a complicated project or program the critical path may well be a bit of a spiders web of complexity, i.e. there are many paths that could become the critical path with the help of a tiny delay on the task and this can be the case many times over for many different paths. In fact one could easily argue that the more time intense the project, the more complex the “almost critical path” will be.

However aggressive the plan you have built, it should represent some form of reasonable reality, which may be stated as “with a fair wind and an assertive attitude we can do this”. Oh, to live in that world! As an experienced project manager you know that “fair winds” merely sits on a continuum that runs from calms to hurricanes, and every day on the project may bring different weather.

The point of Project Management is to be able to read the weather on any given day, and use the weather to maximize the chance of success, understanding that on larger programs the weather may well be different in different parts of the program. After the title of this piece being a soccer analogy, I will now switch to a sailing metaphor. What does becalmed look like:

·        You are struggling for sign off on requirements or deliverables 

·        There is political dysfunction making the destination unclear

·        Critical resources have gone AWOL

·        Supporting users have lost enthusiasm, objecting users are gaining strength

·        An external dependency failed to materialize

Each of these, and many more, can have a material effect on the potential success, but…

1.     If you are managing this project you probably had some warning signs

2.     You should have already thought through some contingencies

3.     You will have already made sure every member of your team has multiple layers of back up tasks, in case they get becalmed on task one, or two, or three.    

4.     You need to be prepared to get in people’s faces and make it work, this means using all of your psychological tools to get movement in your direction


5.     It is your job to find a way to make progress, regardless of the size and scale of the becalming.

What does that look like? It doesn’t mean just sit and hope, it means figuring out how:

·        The team can achieve the objective another way

·        The team can advance other tasks

·        The team can rest, knowing specifically that this calm means that a storm will come

·        You can get project executive intervention

·        You can walk the executive halls and be the intervention

·        You and the team can look for opportunities to make progress

These are critical times, if the team can manage to make a day’s work today, it doesn’t matter that it is made up of tasks the team was meant to do on another day, that just means that as the project manager you have to have flexibility and be able to rearrange the plan to still be successful.

Then the storm arrives…

Circumstances develop on the project that mean your only constraint is the availability of resources to do tasks. There is typically a hurricane just before a critical go live where all of the delayed deliverables magically turn up. Or where the consequences of previous becalmings cause a concertina effect on a major deliverable date. Hopefully you are in a position by this stage to take advantage of 5 things:

1.     The team understands that they are a team that stands or falls together, and that problem solving has been institutionalized as a team activity not a managers’ responsibility. Make no mistake, a project managers ability to bind together a team to respond to adverse circumstances is the crucial skill in delivering successful complex projects and programs.  

2.     The team already understands that flexibility and resourcefulness are key to being successful, because these have been used frequently in periods of becalming.

3.     The becalming periods themselves have been effectively utilized so that the hurricane is minimized even before it arrives.

4.     Remember that detailed understanding of the critical path and tasks I talked about, this gives you an ability to prioritize and focus.   

5.     These periods tend to be intense but relatively short, and it is a managers’ responsibility to encourage the team to do whatever it takes. If the team has bought in to the goal, and you as manager are a servant leader, the team will be able to push through and be successful.

I have been involved and seen teams do seemingly impossible things as a result of these abilities to handle hurricanes and storms.


A Project or Program Manager’s responsibility is to make sure that the ball moves forward with every play, inherent in that is the need for teambuilding around a common higher purpose objective, flexibility to respond to adversity and opportunities, and a stubbornness, to just make it work. The larger the project the more sophisticated the managers actions will become to achieve these goals.

Next: It’s going to get worse, then much worse, then stable, then better, eventually

Happy Projects, Comments always welcome! Kevin