Waterfall and the Illusion of Control

I recently overheard a PM at my client site say the following:

We’re great at delivering projects on time and on budget. We’ve delivered three such projects! The original project, the second project to address all the scope we cut in the first phase to deliver it on time and on budget, and the third project to address all the scope we cut in the second phase. By phase three we had finally delivered the original project!

This obviously was to a greater extent tongue in cheek, but it exposes a significant weakness in overplanning a project, which I think is Waterfall’s biggest problem. There are three variables in any project – Schedule, Scope and Budget. Any project managers job is to tame these beasts and bring them in line with The Plan. The problem with this is that adhering to The Plan becomes paramount in a Waterfall driven project because the Project Manager is held accountable to this. At a high level view, in my experience  most Project Owners when whipping the PM’s will measure them against (in order) Budget, Schedule and Scope. See what was last on that list? Scope – the useful bit of the project that the business actually use. But if they have managed to do the project (as an abstract concept, anyway) on budget and on time, they have delivered the illusion of control.

To me, any project should put Scope top of the list, as Scope = Business Value. Budget should be mapped to Scope areas so you can get value out of what you pay for. For example, if you have a shiny UI that is pretty much neutral in terms of benefit relative to cost, as soon as this starts overrunning, can it. If you have a core DW platform that has benefits that outweigh cost tenfold, then allow it to overrun, as long as you are still going to get payback. Schedule, is to me, irrelevant – it should be along the lines of “When do we want it? Now!” If you don’t want it now… well, why are you building it?

What’s the solution? I’m not going to jump up and start shouting Agile, but at least Agile puts Scope back at the top of the list. In big projects, it may not be the right approach – but it’s a set of processes to consider. Ultimately I understand the need for control to be in place – after all, the businesses wallet is not infinitely deep and managers rarely have the patience of saints – but I think overly planned approaches result in diminished delivered value.

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