The Missing Question

How often do you ask this question: “What can go right on my project?”  My experience is that most people ask other questions in dutifully performing good project management:

  • What are we trying to accomplish to help our organization?
  • What work do we have to do?
  • How much can we spend?
  • When does it have to be completed?
  • How do we acquire what we need to do the work?
  • How will we manage our team?
  • Who needs to know what we are doing?
  • How do we make sure we conform to specifications?


  • What can go wrong and how do we mitigate these risks?

If you are an experienced project manager, you will note that these questions reflect the Project Management Institute’s 9 project management knowledge areas from the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).  The PMBOK, which I became intimately familiar with when I prepared for my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, is a great framework to understand the practices, tools, and techniques that support a well run project.  Not paying attention to the 9 questions will undermine your chances of success.  But, project managers can apply all the tools and techniques and still fail.  In my 30+ years as a project manager and project management consultant, I’ve tried to see what makes a project manager successful.  If I had to narrow it down to one thing, I think it’s the ability to see what can go right with a project.  And, it’s knowing which of the things that can go right must go right for you to be successful.

If you are still reading and think I might be on to something, let me tell you a story that illustrates what I mean.

In 1995 I left public service to become an independent project manager.  My first contract was to manage a project for a large financial company.  They had grown rapidly, built a beautiful new 15 story building for all their employees, and were realizing that their continued growth required further location expansion.  A reorganization and consolidation of a publishing component of this company presented this opportunity.  They bought a building across the street in order to move several publishing groups into a consolidated group that shared the expensive massive copiers and printers and skilled people required to produce their products.  The project was to prepare the building, re-engineer the publishing processes, help build a new publishing organization, prepare all involved, expand the IT infrastructure to the new building, and complete the transition smoothly so that clients continued to get their publications.

The IT director who hired me to be the project manager was nervous about owning this project.  The first words out of his mouth were “Nobody wants to do this.”  The different divisions in the company that had produced their own publications liked having their own people and processes.  No one wanted to work outside the beautiful new building.  It seemed to him that there were so many risks – so much that could go wrong – that his expectation of me was to just get through this without screwing up too much.  Being a new consultant, having a low standard didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Fortunately for me, whether I was purposefully looking for them or not, during the project I found and focused on the things that could go right.  When you are new to a project, and in my case new to being a consulting project manager, your initial impressions are burned into your brain and can stimulate clear insights.  I thought about “nobody wants to do this” and started to wonder what could cause people to want to do this.  I was on the right track because this was something that had to go right.  So, while I think I was a good project manager competently completing the 9 PMBOK practice areas, what ultimately made me successful was two things – a t-shirt and a 30 second speech.

The project team figured out that we had about 200 stakeholders within the company involved in the publishing processes.  If my boss was right, most of these people didn’t want to see this project happen.  We had to work with them to understand their processes, find new ways to do them, and find motivation for them to change.  This company was fast paced, so getting their time was difficult.  Once we found a few motivated early adopters, we worked with them to establish our method to understand old processes and define new ones.  I was very grateful for their participation.  In the 90′s, when you appreciated people’s efforts on a project, you got them a t-shirt.  But there was a barrier.  This was not a casual dress organization.  Wearing a t-shirt to work was not allowed.  But, the company was just starting casual Friday’s so there was an opening.  I spoke with HR and made two points – I needed more visibility for the project and I wanted to recognize early adopters.  I got the OK provided we used the correct logo and colors.  We decided to print “We’re On The Move” with the logo and the new building address on the shirts.  The 50 shirts came in and the next Friday a dozen people were wearing them.  My phone rang off the hook with “how do I get one of those shirts?”  Well, you have to be on the project.  How do I get on the project?  Well, if you are part of the publication process, we have to get your unit together, map out the current process, and put together a new one. I’m in, make an appointment.  The 50 t-shirts went out fast and we ordered another 100.  We even got HR to let people wear the t-shirts any day of the week.  Did the t-shirt turn the stakeholders from “don’t want to” to “want tos?”  Nope.  But it was a start.  Getting people to be “want tos” took a 30 second speech.

Our team leads – the IT lead, the facilities lead, and me – made an appointment with the company’s chairman and primary owner to talk about the new building.  The chairman was concerned that the work properly reflect the company’s position in the city.  We talked about the building renovation, people traffic between the buildings, and the project’s progress. I brought along a t-shirt.  He’d seen them and wondered what that was all about.  I gave him the t-shirt and said we were working on getting everyone to support the project as there were a lot of reasons that they may be reluctant to do so.  We needed them to buy-in, understand the changes to production processes, and to support them.  He said he would give it some thought.  A couple of weeks later, just a week before we were going live, the company had its annual report to employees.  We all boarded buses to a local theater and saw a great slide show featuring company and employee accomplishments.  At one point, the chairman reached into a bag and pulled out the “We’re On the Move” t-shirt.  In about 30 seconds he said that everyone wearing the t-shirt was a pioneer for the company’s future.  The company had to expand beyond its headquarters to grow and prosper.  People needed to accept changes and help the move succeed.  He appreciated their pioneering spirit.

The 30 second speech made the t-shirt a symbol of the future of the company.  We ordered lots more and got everyone to wear their t-shirt on go-live day.  We had gone from “nobody wants to do this” to “everyone wants to be part of it.”  It was the most important thing that could go right to make the project a success.  While everything didn’t go perfectly in the first weeks, everyone did their best to make it work, and it did.  I got another project with the company, and we got an award from the company later in the year for “the move.”

I think, on this project, the biggest factor in my success, whether purposefully followed or not, was focusing on what could go right rather than on the risks.  There was a risk that the project could encounter resistance.  The other side of risk was that everyone could support and embrace the project.  I think that looking for what could go right brought out more creative and positive outcomes.  It was more fun, too.

So, here’s my first post about finding what can go right on your project. The first step, next time you get the chance, is to ask “what can go right?”  Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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