Reducing Surprise: Another Feature of Good Project Management


The portions of projects that are not yet complete occur in the future. Since the future is an uncertain place, there will always be surprises. Some surprises are so obvious that they should hardly be called surprises at all. This is the kind of surprise that project management helps to avoid.

I am not a believer in astrology or fortune telling, but some things about the future can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. If I plant a field of bean seeds in the spring, I will probably get beans in the summer from that very same field.

Project trouble sometimes seems to “come out of nowhere” to those on the team—but, often, as wise man Jerry Weinberg says, “It’s not a crisis, just the end of an illusion.”

In the course of doing project reviews, I have had several occasions to review a year or more of project progress reports at a single sitting. Most recently, it was thirty month’s worth—about 750 pages—for a very large systems-integration effort. I suspect there aren’t many people who do this. It’s more interesting than you might expect and very educational, reinforcing good project management practices (and underscoring the danger of poor ones). Reading through 750 pages of status information in a day is like watching a grade-B horror film. The clues are often pretty obvious.

Psychological thrillers set the stage by introducing you to the characters and helping you empathize with the predicament in which they find themselves. The cheesy thrillers immediately start you wondering, “What the heck are they thinking? There’s been an escape at the local asylum for the criminally insane, and these morons are camping in the middle of nowhere with cars that don’t start reliably and friends too stupid to bring flashlights?”

In my mind, the equivalent for a project is the initial assessment of project risk. Set aside the formalities of risk management; let’s go with a professional gut check. Have this organization and team ever done anything of this size and complexity before? Are the technologies new? Is the management team new? Has the team worked together before? Are the processes new? Is the schedule aggressive? Is the project staffed appropriately? Are the quality goals understood? Are the requirements clear? Is the funding adequate? If the answers to many of these questions are ringing alarm bells, grab some popcorn and a Coke—there are going to be surprises (and likely not the “I got a puppy for my birthday!” kind).

Even great project management can’t spin straw into gold, but definition documents, early progress reports, and risk discussions should be pretty clear about the risks inherent in a high-risk undertaking if the project manager has a clue. Just like reasonable people cancel their camping trip to the creepy forest next to the asylum that can’t seem to retain its inmates, good project managers encourage organizations to take realistic—not suicidal—risks.

Getting Around to Action
I suppose my view may be a bit skewed. As a consultant, people don’t call me in because things are going so well that they want someone else to see and appreciate their success. It is surprising how often the cause of a project’s grief is there at the beginning for everyone to see.

One of the first progress reports of a project I recently reviewed noted, “The schedule is very aggressive.” Later reports echoed this sentiment, adding that critical project skills were in short supply and were likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Can you guess the kinds of “surprises” this project encountered over the next year? If you guessed schedule and quality problems, you’re either a good guesser or you are thinking more clearly than the people who were later “surprised.”

I once read a project concept that described the sophisticated data exchange that would be required to support migrating the target system from one complex operating environment to another as

About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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