Project Management by GPS

February 21, 2008 at 10:24 am Leave a comment

I’ve become a bit of a GPS addict. I now have maps for both all of North America and the UK and Ireland. I can’t imagine driving to someplace new, without the assistance of strange unseen satellites.

Despite the benefits, there is a peculiar downside to these navigation units. With a map, you always have some sense of where you are, with Mapquest type instructions, you have some sense of where you’re going… but with a GPS? You only have a moment to moment sense of where you go next. If (when… I have a story to tell the next time we meet in a pub) the device breaks down, you are completely, totally – almost permanently – lost.

Benefits and disadvantages aside, there are a few things we can learn about project management from the lowly GPS.

This is the very first ‘strange’ thing that I noticed when I first used the GPS. When you make a mistake and go ‘off route’ (or off plan if we’re replating this to PM), no matter how many times you make that mistake, the voice giving you directions remains calm, cool and unfluttered.

“Well of course it does!”, Someone mutters from the back of the room… “It’s a machine!”, and my response is, yes I know that, but when I make a mistake I’ve come to expect that the response will communicate someone’s displeasure. And, that expectation of a negative response to a mistake is the primary reason why status reporting is so difficult. We’re afraid of the negative response so we ‘shade the truth’ to make ourselves look better.

Constant Monitoring
I would not suggest for a moment, that your project is monitored as closely as GPS monitors your location, but the lesson is plain. Knowing where you are, is crucial to getting to where you need to be according to your plan.

Regardless of the effort it takes to where we are against the plan, it’s something we have to do. If it’s not done, then we’re not managing the project. I’m not sure what we think we’re doing, but whatever it is, it isn’t project management.

Track the project isn’t administrivia is the heart of the PM concept. To state it even more plainly; everything done in the name of PM, is done to make it possible to know where we are. To do all the difficult preliminary work and then not track our progress is a form of insanity.

Not allowing time in the plan to track and report progress against the plan, is to state publicly that our planning activities are a farce… something we do to merely ‘look’ like professionals. The solution is obvious; learn what we can from the GPS

Retracing vs. RePlanning
When you go off route with a GPS, it will, for a period of time, do nothing more than try to get you back on the original route. It’s do this, until you get so far off the correct path, that it’s better to replan the trip.

That’s a great PM lesson. If we’re off the plan, how long do we just try to get back on the original plan… before we sit do and replan the project? Frankly, not enough replanning is done, in it’s place there’s a lot of wishful thinking – we’ll catch up on the weekend.

Macro vs. Detail views
If you’re paying close attention to the GPS, and that’s what we usually do, you’ll notice that when the next ‘check point’ is far away, then it zooms out to an overview, but when the next turn is just a little bit ahead, the instructions happen faster, the map zooms closer, proving you more detail of what’s ahead.

Project management can emulate that approach. Having a project status report ‘every three’ months works reasonably well when the work between markers is much of the same… but when key deliverables arrive more rapidly, when they get bunched up on the Gantt Chart, then more frequent status updates are advised.

While this is a tongue in cheek comparison, there’s some truth here. Driving from Dublin to Sligo has much in common with a project where both the starting date and deliverables are known. One difference? There are more Pubs on the road to Sligo.


Entry filed under: Change Management, Communicating, Future, Leaders, Leadership, Managing, Problem Solving, Project Management, Technology, Time Management.

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February 2008
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