The importance of focus for projects: Avoiding the turkey, the zombie and the blimp

Man standing in front of confusing arrows -- represents lack of focusI recently saw an intriguing LinkedIN thread relating to quotable quotes – or more specifically, quotes or proverbs that sum up an individual’s business philosophy.   I have been thinking a lot recently about my work in my ‘day job’ and also my voluntary work at IIBA UK, and a phrase that has been really resonating with me recently is:

 

“You can achieve anything, but you can’t achieve everything”

 

Being a stereotypical analyst, I’d be tempted to expand this statement to make it clear that it’s possible to achieve anything feasible.  Clearly, however much we try we probably can’t achieve time travel, teleportation or perpetual motion (yet!). Although that might not be a reason to stop trying…

 

However, the main thing that I take away from this statement is the importance of focus.  And in my experience, focus is crucial in just about any business and is particularly important for businesses that are progressing change projects.   It’s an under-rated adjective that is easily overlooked in some small, mid-sized and even multi-national organisations.  There’s always another opportunity, another idea just temptingly around the corner. Perhaps someone sees a shiny new solution that they just can’t wait to go out and buy… without truly understanding or analysing why they need it.  It’s extremely easy to get blind-sided by the solution illusion.  I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this pattern to some extent (I bet you have at least one ‘gadget’ collecting dust that seemed like a great idea to buy at the time!)

 

Sometimes the difficult thing is to pick a direction and stick to it until the environment changes (or until it’s necessary to make a conscious deviation). Laser-light focus, combined with the ability to read the business situation, get the data & know when to change direction is vital.

 

It’s better to do a few focussed things well than have 100s of half-finished products and projects.

 

A danger for project teams

 

There are a number of pitfalls here for project teams in this area, and I dare say that we’ve all seen instances of this.  Three patterns I’ve seen include the turkey project, the zombie project and the blimp project.

 

1. The “Turkey” project:  If the initial problem analysis stage of a project is rushed or omitted in a desire to ‘just get going’, and if insufficient information and data is gathered to understand and focus on the problem situation (as there’s a desire to quickly get onto initiating the next project…) then it’s likely that you’ll end up with a bunch of turkey projects.  They probably all sounded like a great idea at the time, but they aren’t going to deliver you the expected level of benefit.  It’s better to regain focus, axe those turkey projects early, and spend that resource somewhere more beneficial.

 

2. The “Zombie” project:  If turkey projects aren’t given the focus they need to bring them back on track (or axe them), then there’s a danger they’ll turn into zombie projects.  You know, the kind of projects that take on a life of their own.  They slog on, often for months and years, and nobody can actually remember who initiated them or why they are required.  They slip from the radar and slowly sap away organisational resources… scope and focus get forgotten. Perhaps one day they’ll deliver something.  These are often the ‘untouchable’ projects where it has become ‘unacceptable’ to probe or ask difficult questions.  Yet these are the exact projects where we should ask naïve questions, with rapport, to regain focus and see if they are salvageable.

 

3. The “Blimp” project:  I’m sure we’ve all seen ‘scope creep’ on our projects.  This can happen when focus disappears on a project, and every conceivable feature is packed in.  All of a sudden the budget is blown, timescales are extended, and the potential benefits are lost.   Prioritisation is a vital discipline to help avoid this, as is ensuring focus and alignment of features and requirements to the business objective and goals.  Sometimes we need to beat the hot air out of the blimp, and bring it back down to earth.

 

These situations can be avoided with proper pre-project problem analysis, so that business stakeholders truly understand what each project is going to achieve and so that project sponsors can make a focussed and informed decision about which projects to progress.  Early open conversations about business objectives and the required outcomes are crucial.  Once a project is in progress, these patterns can be avoided by working with the project team to ensure a consistent and steady focus on the project objectives throughout the project.  And if a project becomes a zombie, a turkey or a blimp… it’s time to take action!

 

 

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting. Have you seen the patterns mentioned above (or any others?) If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please keep the conversation going add a comment below. And if you like my blog, please subscribe.

 

 


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions

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