Disappearing into the Zone

A number of years ago I identified the ‘Zone of Uncertainty’ between the strategic objectives of an organisation, as defined by its Directors and senior executives and the operational levels occupied by projects and programs. The ‘Zone’ can be metaphorically described as a highly complex and dynamic organism requiring agility and understanding to cope with the demands of its chaotic nature (for more on ‘The Zone’ see: The Paradox of Project Control in a Matrix Organisation).

More recently we have been focusing on two quite different aspects of project management, one has been looking at the business process architecture that supports an organisations ability to manage its projects and programs, the other is series of high profile project failures that can largely be attributed to failures in the organisation’s ability to initiate and effectively manage its projects and programs.

Mosaic’s White Paper, PPP Taxonomy describes the architecture and has links to more detailed White Papers focused on the key components.

Suggested PPP Architecture

However, the degree of general agreement and understanding is far from uniform across all of the elements. The three elements with very little appreciation and implementation, to the point where that are not even generally accepted terms for the work involved are:

  • At the executive level, the processes to frame an effective culture and oversight the capabilities needed to efficiently manage projects and programs.
  • The organisational capability to identify, qualify, quantify and propose future projects and programs that combines innovation with strategic objectives and a rigorous assessment process focused on feasibility, viability and value creation.
  • The organisations capability to effectively support and manage all of the projects and programs in its current portfolio of work, including skills development, sponsorship, making effective use of information generated by EPM (Enterprise Project Management) systems, motivation and discipline.

Connecting the ‘dots’ suggests the root cause of many of the headline failures I’ve commented on in the last year or so can be traced back to failures in the ‘Zone of Uncertainty’ highlighted in red. Some examples of the causes of project failures caused by weaknesses in ‘the Zone’ include:

  • If the project is selected for the wrong reason, no amount of skill in the delivery processes controlled by project/program managers will fix the problem.
  • If the organisations systems don’t develop the right people, with the right skills, supported by the optimum processes; the challenge faced by project/program managers is far greater then if they are working in a supportive environment. Really skilled people may succeed in bringing in their project, many will fail.
  • If the organisation cannot understand and deal with the uncertainty associated with projects and programs and seeks to avoid all risks and uncertainties the probability of failure is magnified because the opportunity to properly resolve the uncertainties is removed.
  • If the organisation’s management continually changes the scope and objectives of the project because it lacks discipline or simply did not take the time to understand it requirements the project will fail. It is impossible to fulfil requirements if the stakeholder’s don’t know what they require!

The language of ‘failure’ talks about project and program failures, but if the hypothesis suggested in this post holds true, many projects overrunning cost or time, or failing to deliver requirements are a symptom of other more fundamental ‘failures’ in ‘The Zone’. If this is true, the question is how can an organisation develop a mature and effective management structure to increase the success rate of its projects and programs from our current starting point? We don’t even have a generally agreed name for the project/program support capabilities that are failing….

Any comments or thoughts will be appreciated.


4 responses to “Disappearing into the Zone

  1. An excellent and thoughtful post Lynda, though in my opinion, a restatement of a common known problem, and one seemingly readily admitted to. Given that, why do so many organizations fail to take corrective action? You end on a comment that there isn’t an agreed upon name for this failing, but you list 5 variables, and there are more. As a PM software vendor, we like to claim that with the right application (ours of course…:>) ), all these are solved, but the fact is, a tool is only useful if used properly. It comes down to the human element, and the motivations that drive behavior, including political, financial, ego, peer pressure, etc. Perhaps, using a play on words, the term should be “Project Execution”, since in effect that is what is happening to these projects.

  2. I enjoyed this article. Project Management and System Engineering fundamentals, regardless of supporting tools, remains a important piece of executing and improving programs, projects, operations… etc. Program knowledge, diverse experiences and forward thinking leadership, supported by tools and common organizational / system processes produce the most valuable results that businesses / organizations all strive for. Thanks most for the observations of the “Zone of Uncertainty,” I am sure Project Managers related most to these obstacles of quality, schedule and budget and I think it reinforces our need to not only manage our projects, but to provide leadership and innovation to deliver unique and remarkable projects.

  3. Pingback: PDC = Project Delivery Capability | Mosaicproject’s Blog

  4. Pingback: PDC Value Proposition | Mosaicproject’s Blog

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