SHOULD ONE STAY WITH OR BAIL OUT OF A "DOOMED PROJECT"

November 10, 1995

The statement that generated a lot of controversy was the one by John Hoschette, the author, that "fast-track engineers and managers have an acute awareness of when to get on a project and the ideal time to bail out". In particular, "If you see that the project is headed for disaster, the fast-track response will be to get off before the problems are discovered".

TT: Most of us who have been in Engineering a few years can name a few "Teflon" engineers/managers who always appear to have a knack for leaving a project at "the right time" just before the project goes into a tailspin that in post analysis can be traced to earlier poor management decisions. Business schools never acknowledge the existence of these managers, but we all know that in reality they exist. It is interesting in the following to see the reaction from management.

A Director of Engineering took exception to the comment, and typifies those who objected. He complained, "I was disappointed with **** article, 'How engineers get on the fast track and navigate their careers'. It is surprising that an engineering management report would support a book that recommends 'getting off' a project if the project is headed for disaster. We would terminate the employment of any engineer following this advice", he emphasized. "We expect engineers to complete their projects, and ensure a successful closure, not create a disaster, and hand it to someone else".

TT: this is the old loyalty to the company bit! More on loyalty later.

ENGINEERS SHOULD STAY WITH A PROJECT UNTIL THE END, BUT WHEN IT CONFLICTS WITH A CAREER, FAST TRACKERS OFTEN OPT OUT. In principle Hoschette agrees with the above Director of Engineering. However, based on his almost 20-year career in management and engineering management, Hoschette counters: "Fast trackers do not think like the norm and, therefore, look for a fast solution. Getting off the project is a quick fix that they think leaves them looking great. Based on my own experience and observations, fast trackers realize there comes a point in certain projects or certain companies when staying with them will only kill their career, and it is better to move on. The manager has a valid point about staying on the project. I would imagine that most engineering directors expect their peeople to solve the problem and not run from a project headed for disaster. Management would expect this from an employee regardless of whether it is good for one's career or not. They want the engineer to stay on the problem and fix it. That is the engineering manager's job".

"I also believe engineering managers and directors often try to get failure projects and poor performers transferred to other departments, if possible. Most managers, however, will never admit to this practice".

TT: From my personal experience managing projects that needed to wind down, I would personally bail out if management is less than upfront with me about the situation. I have been upfront with engineers on doomed projects and have asked them to finish it but have always have to work hard on placing them after the project. Loyalty is a two way street! Too often US Engineering Managers look at one-way street loyalty, employee->company. Japanese companies tend to believe in 2 way loyalty and thus have a more flexible workforce. We often hear of the Japanese manager being the last one to move on, while most often his US counterpart is the first to bail out. Any way, back to the article.

WHEN CAREER CONFLICTS WITH CORPORATE ACTIVITY, WHAT'S THE CHOICE? Hoschette continues, "However, I still stand on my point, and I don’t think I am alone. If I were an engineering manager and I knew that a project was going to end in total disaster and end my career, I would take steps to protect my career. There comes a time (in a limited number of projects) where the engineer or engineering manager must decide what is best for them and what is best for the company. And despite what some may say, the best for the engineer might conflict with the company norms."

BUT THE ADVICE IS STILL THE SAME: DON'T GIVE UP AT THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE. In the original article, however, Hoschette stressed that "engineers should stay on the project" and noted that "most promotions are the results of great performance on a project headed for disaster." In his book, Hoschette devotes an entire section on “what to do if the project is a failure." The advice he recommends, which many engineering managers will agree with includes:

YOUR FIRST RESPONSE TO A FAILING PROJECT SHOULD BE TO GO INTO A HIGH ENERGY AND HIGH OUTPUT STATE. Simply stated, Hoschette says, "it means making your efforts visible to management to show how hard you are working on the problem." This may mean approaching your supervisor and asking about working overtime to help. Another tactic he recommends, “When working late at the office, leave your supervisor a voice mail or electronic mail message just before you go home."

TT: in summary make sure that your contribution is visible to your supervisor.

YOU MUST ABSOLUTELY GET ORGANIZED. The engineer and engineering manager must present an image of being organized. First, generate a plan to include the steps you are going to take to solve the problem. Then develop a schedule for accomplishing the tasks and the anticipated results expected. Communicate this to upper management through a written plan.

YOU MUST COMPLETE A THOROUGH TECHNICAL ANALYSIS. First, identify the specific technical problems that must be overcome. Next, identify the potential solutions to the problems and determine both the good and bad points of each solution. Then rank the solutions, and finally, present a recommended approach. He warns, "The worst thing you can do is present all the problems to upper level management with no solutions. An engineer is paid to understand problems and identify solutions." He offers, "Even a project considered a failure will be looked upon as a success if you can explain exactly what went wrong and how to fix it."

YOU MUST ALWAYS BE PREPARED WHEN GOING INTO A MANAGEMENT MEETING. "When a project is heading for failure," says Hoschette, "there is often a series of meetings with management to ensure that everything possible is being done to make it successful." When invited to a meeting, he cautions: "Never go unprepared." Management meetings will be tough and stressful. "It is important that you be well prepared and have thought through your ideas. The objective is to prove that you have the technical knowledge necessary to successfully solve the problems and you are the right person for the job," he emphasizes. "The optimum career move," says Hoschette, "is to bring the managers down to the lab and let them see, handle, or run whatever it is you are working on. People are more sympathetic when they see firsthand how difficult the problem is and will naturally become involved."

TT: the header above can never be stressed enough. Never go into a management meeting unprepared. It is best to be able to present management with a set of options, with your recommendation for a particular option. It is a sad fact that managers are essentially paid to make decisions, not to come up with solutions. If you give them a set of options along with your recommended option, it gives them a chance to participate in the decision ... and will help you cover your butt later if the decision is to go a different route.

AT THE END OF AN UNSUCCESSFUL PROJECT DOCUMENT THE LESSONS LEARNED. Volunteering to write this memo is good for several reasons, he points out. First, management looks on this activity very favorably since it helps share with other groups those things that failed. Second, after you have written several of these memos you will have acquired an excellent library of things to do and not to do on a project. "This knowledge is power for future projects," he asserts. Finally, he strongly advises: "Don't fix the blame on any one individual, as the project was a team effort."

TT: In the US there is actually too much of this. I have seen high level managers awarded big promotions following a failure ... "because he has made this mistake and will never make it again!". True some people learn, but some never!

IT ALL COMES DOWN TO MAINTAINING THE PROPER ATTITUDE. Hoschette stresses that engineers and engineering managers should have an attitude that conveys an impression of always looking for solutions and volunteering to help. "Supervisors and upper management usually welcome someone willing to take on more work or to try out something new after hours," he explains. "Be willing to try out new ideas, even though they are not yours."

Often someone else will have a potential idea and need you to try it. Be willing to give it a try even though you may not agree with it, he advises. "Sometimes just following orders can benefit your career more than you realize."


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