Communication Breakdown

Posted by Brad Egeland

I’m going to resist the urges to connect this article somehow to the famous Led Zeppelin song of the same name from their Physical Graffiti album.  Rather, what I’m referring to here is a breakdown of project communication that can be disastrous to your project.  Someone told someone something that should eventually make it to the project manager but never does.  A common scenario for this – and one that nearly cost me a major project – is when the project resource tells their direct resource manager a key piece of information but it never makes it to the project manager.

The breakdown

This very incident happened to me – so let me set the stage for you.  I was leading a multi-million dollar software implementation for my company and the client was a major east coast university in the US.  I had actually inherited the project a few months prior and we were winding down – still struggling through the next to last phase of the project performing some break/fix work on the module we were currently implementing.  Suddenly, my main developer tells me that he will be leaving the project the following week for three months because he is going back to India to get married.  Get married….yes, you heard me right.  Get married.  Now,  I have nothing against getting married…I think it’s a great move.  The problem was – this was the FIRST TIME I HAD HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT IT.  Seriously!

Apparently, this had been common knowledge in the development organization, but the development manager who had provided this resource to me and fully understood my project timeline had completely neglected to inform me of this resource’s impending complete lack of availability.  Yes, I was forecasting my resource usage out for the rest of the project.  Yes, I was giving that to senior management and the customer.  Yes, this development resource manager saw my resource plan on a regular basis.  No, he never raised a flag.

Can it be avoided?

In the three years since this happened on that project I’ve thought back to it many times to see if there was anything I could have or should have done differently to avoid that mess.  I scratch my head and realized there really wasn’t.  The lesson that comes out of this for all of us is this…you can follow the company processes to the letter, inform everyone of everything, and plan out your project and everything surrounding it to the best of your ability – to perfection even (though I’m certain I’ve never planned anything perfectly ever) – and it still may not be enough.  It will probably never be enough to avoid every situation.

The best you can do is to always try to incorporate best practices and always communicate well on your projects.  Something this catastrophic will probably never happen to me again … a complete breakdown like the one that occured is about like getting hit with lightning.

The resolution

So you probably want to know what happened, right?  After I found this out – on a status call with the customer also on the line, no less – I picked my jaw up off the floor and regrouped.  I consoled the customer and ensured them that we had other experienced development resources who had been working with this developer on the project and that I would ensure that one of them moved to the lead position.  I then got off the phone and took the issue jointly to the PMO director and the development resource manager who failed to inform me of this.  It was a painful discussion and they knew how upset I was.  Thankfully I had my pick of resources to help backfill my development needs.  Needless to say, resource allocation processes were enhanced from that point on to provide better resource planning oversight so that future projects didn’t meet the same fate as mine.  Lesson learned, catastrophe narrowly avoided.

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