Projects aren’t projects – Typology

Following on from my first post on ‘projects aren’t projects‘; one of the more established ways of describing projects is a typology that maps the interaction of uncertainty and technical difficulty. Knowing both ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’; or more importantly knowing how much you know about these two elements. The typology was developed by Eddie Obeng in the Project Leader’s Secret Handbook.

Project Typology

Project Typology

The typology asks two questions:

  • Are you clear about what to do (the outcome to be achieved)?
  • Do you know how to do it (processes, methods, experience)?

Painting by Numbers
Traditional project management works well when both ‘what’s to be done’ and ‘how to do it’ are well understood by all key stakeholders including the client and the project team. Closed projects (panting by numbers) can be fully defined, estimated, planned, etc. There are low levels of uncertainty and ambiguity, risks are largely known and manageable. Value is largely achieved by delivering the requirements on time and on budget.

A typical software project of this type would be installing a software upgrade into an office where the same upgrade had been previously installed in several other locations.

Going on a Quest
In these projects, the objective is clear but the way to achieve the objective is uncertain. At the end of the day, success or failure is clear cut; the objective has been achieved (or not). The challenge is optimizing the way forward. Process and system improvement projects tend to fall into this category. The objective is to reduce processing time by 20% – this is easily measured on the completion of the project. The difficulty is knowing what’s the best way to achieve the objective. Improving the user interface, simplifying the work flow, speeding up network traffic and processing times or a combination? Ambiguity is low – we know what’s needed, uncertainty is high – we are not sure how to achieve it.

Before committing major resources to the main work of the project adequate time has to be allowed to prototype solutions and test options before a final design solution can be determined and then implemented. The project needs to be developed in phases with go/no go gateways as the design is firmed up. There are risks associated with any creative design process and most software projects are ‘quests’ requiring creative solutions to identified problems to achieve the desired objective.

Making a Movie
In these projects the tools and techniques are well known but the final outcome is uncertain. Only after the project is complete can the results be measured and the success or failure of the project determined. Most culture change projects and marketing projects (and making movies) are in this category. The tools to be used including: training, communicating, advertising, etc are well known and the traditional (if not optimal) mix of techniques understood for most situations. What no one can predict is if the ‘public’ will acclaim the final result, merely accept the final result or dump the final result.

Traditional project management is not enough in these projects; there is a continual need to measure results, feedback information and adapt the mix of activities to optimize the likelihood of success. The key value measurement is attempting to answer the question is it worth spending more or should we cut and run? Efficient stakeholder communication and relationship management is crucial. Whilst there will be some outstanding successes (block busters) and some total flops most projects in this category finish somewhere in the middle. The art is spending just enough effort to achieve an acceptable outcome – dealing with shades of grey.

Lost in the Fog
I actually prefer Prof. Rodney Turner’s version ‘a walk in the fog’. This project is a journey towards a desired new state. No one is sure of the optimum outcome, or how best to achieve it. The only option is to proceed carefully, stop at regular intervals to check exactly where you are and re-plan the way forward. Exactly the way you navigate through a thick fog. Both ambiguity and uncertainty are high.

Project management is about making sure at each ‘stop point’ the value achieved to date is locked in and then refocus on the next increment. Agile software development is ideal for this type of project. Each iteration builds new capability and value and the learning provides a platform for the next iteration of development.

Management is both easy and difficult. It is easy because there is no point in setting fixed plans (you have no idea what to plan). It is difficult because decisions on value and whether to stop or continue are subjective and need to be made in a collaborative environment of trust. Traditional measures of success such as on-time and on-budget are largely meaningless; typically there are no statistics to base this type of measure on. Consequently these projects are the realm of cost reimbursable contracts and partnerships; stakeholder relationship management, and a clear understanding of value are the only effective tools for building to a successful outcome.

Two final thoughts
The skills required of a project manager change from largely technical if the project is ‘painting by numbers’ to almost completely relational to manage a ‘walk in the fog’. For more on this see: Tapping the Power Lines and The Accidental Project Manager – The Getting of Wisdom

Both the client/sponsor and the project team need an understanding of the type of project and agree to configure the project management processes appropriately. The more uncertainty and ambiguity, the more important the project  client is to achieving project success!

More later.

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7 responses to “Projects aren’t projects – Typology

  1. what a great concept. I’m going to start using this with our government clients.

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