It’s Like Optimizing a Team of 14-Year-Old Hockey Players

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It seems that most everyone agrees that selecting the right mix of projects and executing these projects to achieve the greatest strategic yield or business value is very important. It also seems that most everyone has a horror story to tell about a failed project that missed the mark on delivering the projected benefits to the business, cost a boat load more than expected and/or took way longer than expected to complete.

I read recently that 85% of companies either do not create business cases for their projects or only for select, key projects. The same percentage of companies are unable to realign their budgets based on changing business needs more than once or twice a year. If these two hurdles are impacting the majority of companies, it’s no wonder why close to $1 trillion is being spent on underperforming investments.

During one of my 14-year-old son’s recent ice hockey games, a fellow parent standing next to me looked away from the game and said, “Good grief! Is this the same team we watched last week? Last week they were moving the puck so much better. What changed? They are getting killed out there. Isn’t there some way we could get these kids to some level of consistency from game to game?”

Those of you who have had the pleasure of freezing in hockey rinks for 8 years straight can understand the frustration that was being expressed. The action on the ice is constant and players change on the fly. You would think there is a certain level of consistency from game to game to game, but there isn’t. In some games, the team comes together and performs like you have never seen. In other games, you wonder if it is the same kids on the ice. Effort, luck, who slept well last night, the opponent, the lines that are selected, the goalie’s performance, the referees and a thousand other factors determine the outcome of the game.

You can always point fingers. “If Johnny had just skated harder, we would have won. The referee lost us the game with that one bad call. The lines were all wrong … Johnny should have been skating with Jimmy. Walter doesn’t pass the puck.” We’re all guilty of trying to identify the one thing that lost us the game or one thing that would have won us the game if a change was made, but logic tells us that this is usually not the case. Logic tells us that the outcome was caused by more than one factor, and one change (in most circumstances) would not have altered the outcome.

The parent’s comments reminded me of conversations with companies looking to improve project portfolio management. Many companies take a SET-IT-AND-FORGET-IT approach. The project portfolio is set during the annual planning process and consists of what are deemed to be the most beneficial projects proposed at that time, but logic tell us that things will change and our initial predictions were just predictions based on limited information. Once the skates hit the ice and the action starts we need to be able to read the landscape and make adjustments. We can simply stick with the original game plan regardless of what happens on the ice, but all you get from this approach is a bunch if screaming parents and angry players.

The adjustments that are made during the game have a significant impact on the outcome of the game, and these adjustments need to be made constantly. Having a plan for change that includes a dynamic way of adjusting to changing conditions and new information is an invaluable asset.