At Socrates’ trial, he apparently said the words
The unexamined life is not worth living
We suppose, now, that this is why he chose death over exile. He neither wanted to stay silent, nor leave his home.
When looking at today’s major projects, we might rewrite this as
The unexamined project is not worth delivering
Too many projects live because they are already living. They continue when the original aims are long forgotten, when the purpose is plainly no longer achievable and when the costs have far exceeded expectations and the benefits have long receded into the past. Like a town that was built because the railroad came through but continues long after the Interstate is built several miles away. negating the purpose of the town. The world has changed, but the sense of self-worth and self-importance doesn’t change.
These zombie projects abound. The only abject failure in government, particularly, is to admit defeat and take the write-off. Not so much Fear Of Missing Out as Fear of NAO and Fear of PAC. Never have I seen such terror in people as when there is a debate about whether to stop and take the hit, or find some more money (because, it seems, even in times of austerity, there is always more money).
Whilst working in and around government, I’ve played a leading role in stopping projects, taking the hit (and a material write-off). There are some, with long memories, who still keep score and ensure that I don’t get near their projects as a result. The three, for those interested, were
(1) the original Government Gateway – I inherited it when the Inland Revenue stepped in with some funding. It didn’t work out. Contract terminated.
(2) a programme called True North. Pretty sure I can say that this was mine from start to finish – from vision and approach through to, literal, execution. It aimed to give government ownership of a couple of data centres with one or more suppliers managing what was in them, the idea being that if government fell out with the supplier or wanted new ideas and capability, new suppliers could be brought in without needing to move the hardware (this saw new life with the Crown Hosting Service relatively recently). It, too, didn’t work out. Contract terminated.
(3) the e-Borders programme. I joined that about halfway through. It definitely didn’t work out. Contract terminated. Much was written about it.
Let’s call them character building. The scrutiny is tremendous. The flash to bang time, that is, the time from “we really need to do this” to “we’ve done it” is long and filled with lots of briefings, papers and more papers. I learned huge amounts from each and try, with every new project, to ensure we find new problems to fall over, not the same old same old; and I try, too, to anticipate every one of those new problems and think about what it will take to avoid them before they land.
Generally, once the old project is put to bed, more progress happens than happened before. New projects launch. People are re-energised. Ideas that were held back because there wasn’t capacity get explored. As long – and this in capital letters really – the lessons are learned. I don’t mean written down. I mean examined, understood and deeply explored, with necessary corrections made before starting again.
But today we still have plenty of zombie projects – ones that are sucking in people and time, preventing new ideas from surfacing and gaining traction and dragging people down with them. It feels like we have made little meaningful progress in the last decade. The lessons, despite endless independent reviews, PACs, NAO reviews etc, aren’t being learned.
Ask the obvious questions then
– Why this project, right now? Does it still make sense?
– Are the assumptions we made at the beginning still valid? Are we regularly testing those assumptions?
– Are we making progress versus our original brief or should we re-baseline?
– Is it right to continue? Or should we reduce scope, deliver early and move to the next thing?
– Should we continue at all? Are we clear what it would take to make this decision?
– What would make us change our mind?