7 aspects to get control back on your project

Projects and systems sometimes enter a state that we can quality as “unstable” and “full of black magic.” And at times, they even bite you: your career, your private life, your sleep, your sanity all can suffer from these monsters. Grabbing control back from the jaws of chaos will never happen by accident and do require a structured approach and a dedicated team. Everything unstructured and unfocused will only continue to keep the “monster” under life support with a huge number of time bombs ticking, waiting to explode at the most annoying possible times. That's Murphy's law and Murphy's law corollary: if you think that things couldn't be worse, you haven't seen nothing yet! This article outlines an approach that work for such situations.

You cannot control what you do not measure

In order to regain control, you need to be able make sense of what is in front of you. Let's be clear upfront: you may want to do things fast, and that's all nice and well. But you still have to be good. Fuzziness is not going to be your friend in this effort. Always keep in mind that taking shortcuts is what ended up creating the mess. Here are the 7 key aspects of the approach:

7 aspects to get control back

Aspect 1: Finding out what “the thing” is about.

Usually, this requires clarifying what the core concepts and constructs of “the thing” are. This will lead you to build backgrounders and whitepapers to explain them. Usually, there are studies mixed with “the meat of the thing”, these have to be segregated in their own area. Once all of this additional material is out of the way, you can get to the next step.

Aspect 2: Getting the lay of the land by slicing and dicing “the meat of the thing.”

This is to be achieved by modeling the system in order to create a solid backbone onto which to graft bones and muscles in an orderly fashion. This usually entails creating:
  1. a synthetic functional overview with a use cases model
  2. a controlled vocabulary with a rich domain model
  3. a capture of policy in business rules and business policies
  4. a view of system of systems when dealing with such things
  5. a number of key tracing relationships between the above elements
In structuring the system, clear boundaries have to be set on the subject of functional specifications, design, implementation, and operations. Mixing all of them in a huge “stream of consciousness” bundle is guaranteed not to work. It is worth noting that achieving such a feat does require motivated and competent people. Stressing the hell out of your people is the sure way to freeze them and get no real result. Research on what is called “neuroplasticity” shows that stress is in fact killing neurons in the brain. So, in the face of the challenge, and in face of the need to apply a new approach, what you need are brains that work at their full potential sorting out the mess. Not stressed brains spinning their wheels in first gear that do get dumber over time. This is where the true leader can make his mark: by being an avatar of the wanted behavior, taking a stand, and working with a time horizon that reasons based on TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and not the release of next week.

Aspect 3: Finding out the possible skeletons in the closet and putting them back to rest

Using the backbone defined above, you will look for the skeletons hiding in the closet by listing the key risks associated with the weak parts, the fuzzy parts, the parts that do not make sense. You will succeed by putting the top risks under drastic control. Risk control must be what drives your priorities.

Aspect 4: Planning for success

Failing to plan is planning to fail. This is a very dusty saying. But it is very, repeat after me, very true. Good. But how do you plan for success? Everybody can plan “tasks”, and “activities.” But a bunch of activities doesn't make a great plan. When you are “having a plan,” it'd better mean “having a plan that holds water,” not a plan to sink to the bottom. I do recommend that you work with important concepts from two project management methods that are proved to work: the Objective Breakdown Structure (OBS) from GDPM (Goal Directed Project Management) and the Product Breakdown Structure (PBS) from PRINCE2. There are a lot of other things in these, but focusing on the essentials, risk, objectives, and products make up the key elements upon which to plan work. The key advantage of the OBS is that you can structure them into:
  1. Enabling Factors: what you need to have available. Prerequisites, education, software, resources, … The objective is to get the enabling factors ready.
  2. Core: what you are caring about: the system at hand broken down into parts. For doing this, you'll use the PBS. The objective is to have every part understood and under control.
  3. Support Functions: what you need to put in place so that the system doesn't crumbles down in dust after the act. Documentation, support procedures, … The objective is to have the support function available in the organization and supported.
So, you will create an OBS for your system based on the structure outlined above. Then, you'll have to think about how to assign people on elements so that they will be able to be working towards objectives and product elements of the OBS and PBS. To help you, it is a best practice to establish a milestone plan. You'll assign objectives and core product bits to milestones. There is much more to say on this but this would lead us to a full treatise of project management. Let's keep that for another time.

Aspect 5: Getting the ball rolling

In order to get the ball rolling, you focus on getting all enabling factors ready. The key message to pass to the team is that what you expect is commitment, not mere compliance that will lead nowhere. Double-talk and “do as I say, not as I do” must be banished. It's really of paramount importance to keep resource allocation commitments and planned times for working. Having a communication infrastructure in place is a great advantage. This will help in putting together all findings with ease. The main challenge here is to overcome inertia, entrenched habits, and behave yourself to avoid getting back to old ways (that were incomfortable, but at least, they were known). Indeed getting better and improving is hard, committed work. Still, the rewards will be much more than the investment.

Aspect 6: Keeping a finger on the pulse: Tracking progress

Once the ball is rolling, it must not stop. Since you have a new OBS>PBS structure, you have something against which you can track progress. You measure progress through a dashboard. That can range from a crude spreadsheet to an advance project tracking package. What is important to remember is that the tracking tooling must be adequate for the endeavor size: no need to create another time black hole by choosing an overkill tracker. Also, you track progress based on the objectives. Each objective has several states (e.g. Identified > Described > Under work > Achieved > Evaluated). The point is to get the state of the objectives moving forward. That's what activities are doing: moving the state forward. Remember to keep track of risks as well. New risks do popup and special care has to happen, meaning updating the OBS>PBS and other elements. Also assess the quality of the work products on an ongoing basis. This must not be an obsessive thing but as described in the Hawthorne effect, results usually improve just because people know they are watched. Last but not least, take measures to ensure the growth of the skills of personnel along the way. This reinforces motivation, something you need very badly along such an effort. Indeed such efforts may be thankless for a while. But this is linked with the fact that one's need to integrate a lot of factors before making sense of all elements at hand.

Aspect 7: Continuously Improving

To ensure the best possible outcome, you must take care of the continuous improvement aspect. Merely applying a standard recipe never makes the mess go away. Instead you focus on dealing with the “bar” (like a bar you've got to pass in sports). First of all, the bar has to be understood. To that extent, you'll establish a set of criteria to evaluate its location. When establishing that set, bear in mind that establishing a set of criteria doesn't mean that you'd have to be perfect. This requires to understand the difference between the mindset of perfection and the mindset of excellence. Someone defined perfectionism as taking care of something in a way that left other equally important things in derelict. This view usually helps as a wake up call. What you are after is excellence: doing better each day than the day before. Also, quality assurance is your friend, not a foe. Like you do not take your speedometer responsible for the way you drive, quality assurance people are there to give you tools and measurements. You call the shots when it comes to targets and commitments. So basically tou'll find the following things to do when considering the bar:
  • understanding how to locate the bar position
  • qualifying your current position vs the current bar position
  • Passing the bar
  • Raising the bar
Let's look at these in turn: Understanding how to locate the bar position: means that you can set a number of criteria helping measuring where the bar is. Qualifying your current position vs the current bar position: means that you are performing an evaluation of the current state of affairs vs the current bar as defined by the criteria. This will basically help you come up with a global quality evaluation index along the following scale:
  • Zero: In limbo
  • One: Evaluating
  • Two: Improving
  • Three: Decent
  • Four: Good
  • Five: Excellent
Passing the bar: means that you are taking action to pass the bar. Once done, it will be time to improve. You do not want to improve before even trying to do a jump. This would amount to procrastination, which is the least thing you want here. Raising the bar: means that based on your last successful pass of the bar, you will decide on what to improve to do better the next time. When raising the bar, just keep the following in mind:
  • Do not attempt to jump into the stratosphere right away. Unrealistic goals are depressing. And never met.
  • Grow confidence through learning by doing. Do not become a castle in the sky builder. Rather, apply your skills on real cases and move from the pragmatic experiences.
  • Realize that the first steps are going to be hard but that things will go much easier quickly. Persistence counts!
  • Advance one thing by a mile instead of a lot of things by a notch. Otherwise, you are diluting your energy for no visible results. That's the power of focus.
  • Learn that there is a ceiling to


Taming the messy monster is a challenging undertaking. Nevertheless the benefits for all involved parties are immense when it comes to performance, added value, organizational dynamics, and innovation. By focusing on structure, follow up, and improvement you'll get a lot of added clarity that will improve the performance of your personnel by a very significant factor (I dare to say a factor of 5-10 when factoring in yearly costs of the messy situations and the opportunity costs). The 7 aspects will come handy when facing the monster.

Taking action today

Let's tame a beast!