About That Fine Print: The Hidden Context of Best Practice

One of the strengths of the project management community is that project teams consistently look at their history and draw conclusions about how to do things better the next time around – avoiding the issues, pitfalls, and obstacles encountered in previous projects. In fact, you could say that most project management systems and processes are the result of failures of the past.

In a sense, people capture best practice as a form of risk management: If a project fails horribly, they then decide to put a “best practice” or “work process” in place to prevent that kind of failure from happening again. And out of all the lessons learned and all the project post-mortems of the past, we now have a wealth of absolutes about how projects should be handled. For example, you should have X% of engineering completed before you can begin construction, you must not make any changes in your design beyond point Y in the project, and it should take Z amount of time to contract with vendors, perfect the data, complete the engineering process, etc.

Consider the analogy of legal contracts. I signed one just the other day, and it was full of “fine print” restrictions and caveats that didn’t apply to my situation at all. The many clauses went to great lengths to guard against certain possible consequences that simply weren’t a matter of rational concern in light of the circumstances. But I understood – as we all do – that the constraints were there because of a fear that bad results from the past might repeat themselves.

Of course there’s a certain value in vigilant thinking, and it makes sense to want to avoid the pain of past failures. But here’s the thing: It amounts to establishing best practices based on a fear of extraordinary failure, as opposed to a commitment to extraordinary performance. In fact, my observation is that the prevailing context of major capital projects is one of avoiding failure versus a context of extraordinary success. Can you imagine an NFL team playing to “not lose” versus to win?  Do you think they would make the playoffs?

There is a wealth of literature out there about megaproject failure, and about how to avoid it. But does avoiding failure deliver value? While it’s reasonable to have go-by rules, best practice tends to eliminate variability and is skewed towards doing things exactly the same way every time. Moreover, guidelines held out as absolutes can unduly limit people’s view of what’s possible, and how they might approach a project in a way that makes the most sense for the challenge at hand.

What would happen if we didn’t allow ourselves to be shackled by all of the best practice fine print? I’m not suggesting an outright irreverence towards best practice, but rather, approaching best practice as a set of guidelines from which we ought to deviate if circumstances demand it. Succeeding in critical endeavors is ultimately about not only avoiding risk, but also capitalizing on opportunity. Yet while risk is relatively easy to quantify and is managed rigorously on projects, opportunity isn’t – so the scales frequently weigh in the balance of mitigating risk rather than seizing opportunity.

Too often, my colleagues and I have encountered projects in jeopardy where people feel resigned because they’ve fallen too far behind the pace dictated by best practice and conventional wisdom. And if they follow all of the rules, doing everything in a precise order and keeping to established time frames, there is no way for them to succeed. People feel powerless in the face of the pre-ordered process, bracing for the horrible failure that best practices were designed to prevent.

The only way to succeed in such instances is to innovate, and to take next steps with freer thinking and greater agility. We have worked with clients who decided to veer from best practice in measured ways with risk awareness, and ended up delivering on time and on budget after all – even ahead of schedule and under budget. In one instance, the leaders of a capital project decided they could safely move into construction in certain areas before engineering was near the best practice percentage complete. In another, they allowed themselves the flexibility to make just a few – but critical – design changes late in the game in order to resolve unexpected supply issues. In another project, key players on a project cut the time frame for procurement by more than 50%, allowing the project to catch up to the pace needed to finish construction of a new energy plant on time, even after falling seriously behind.

In each of these cases, the unexpected best performance came as the result of people’s thinking and performance – not systems and work processes. It’s not that caution was thrown to the wind; not at all. But the people involved decided that a balance between risk management and opportunity is what would lead them to an unpredictable win, versus predictable defeat.

In the best of all worlds, you lay out your whole project inside your best practice paradigm, then you execute accordingly, without exception. In the real world, there are variables and unexpected challenges. Rather than be loyal to best practice rules to a fault – to an extent that we’re willing to fail – it’s important to remember that there are options. In fact, when we’re failing “on paper,” when our backs are against the wall, is exactly when many people rise to the occasion and accomplish things that observers didn’t think were possible. In such instances, “new practice” can win the day, looking above and beyond the absolutes to deliver the project after all.