Project Decision Jenga

You have probably played Jenga.  It’s a game in which players take turns pulling rectangular wooden blocks out of a stacked tower of such blocks until, eventually, one player pulls out the block that causes the tower to collapse.  They lose the game.  But there is a built-in, certain end to this game.  If you pull out enough blocks, the tower will fall down.  Each block you pull on might be the best choice you can make, but eventually the structure will fail.  Either by somebody choosing the wrong block or by a lack of skill in removing the block they’ve chosen or just because the tower eventually has to fall.

If you weren’t constrained by the game’s rules, and both players were considered losers if the tower falls, how could you make it a win? You could help each other hold up the tower while the other pulls out a block. You could decide together on the right block to remove.  You could build a cage around the tower to keep everything in place. You could superglue certain blocks together to provide structural stability to the whole and limit removal choices.  You can probably think of other ways as well.  Some of these ways modify the structure of the tower – what keeps it up.  Some of them address the decision-making process.

The same can be true with your project.  If you don’t have the right project structure, a cooperating team, and effective decision-making processes, your project will eventually fail or fall over.  Regardless of how good the individual decisions are.  In systems thinking this is called sub-optimizing the system.  I once assessed a project in which a handful of key decisions were made at the beginning of the project.  Each of those decisions seemed reasonable to the person making the decision at that point in the project.  Each decision could be justified.  Yet, because of their impact on the way the project was structured or the way it was executed, these decisions led to the same destiny as the block tower in Jenga.  The project failed.  The company eventually completed the project but with massive delays and a 300% overrun of the approved budget.  Part of this overrun was due to approval spin (read more about that here).  But part of it was due to these “reasonable” decisions.  It was not unreasonable to do what they did.  But it was unreasonable to expect different results than they got as a result.  This process of sub-optimized decision-making, in a project organizationally designed to fail, is unfortunately more common than it should be.  Projects are not designed for success because the emphasis of project management has been on tasks, forecasting, and monitoring rather than the design of the organization, the social system, that will be accomplishing those tasks.

If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, check out my book, Projects on Purpose 2.0, available here.

If you are are managing a project or projects and are interested in learning more about joining a project manager mastermind workshop – to gain continuing ed credits and work with other PMs and myself to learn to better overcome project challenges, email me at msteele@quintainprojectsolutions.com and put “PM mastermind query” in the subject line.