feeding my own misguided insanity

Avoiding Chronic Short-term Memory Loss on Large Projects

Before going on leave some weeks back, I managed to finish up a number of projects and hand them over to those who would act as custodians in my absence. I try to make the process as painless and informative as possible for those staying behind to man the walls. But in spite of my best efforts and clear communication, sometimes it’s just not enough.

Having concluded a long handover call where everyone was perfectly happy about the outcome and clarity of delivery, I was astonished to find my mailbox full of new emails with questions that were answered just moments ago as well as previous interactions (documentation, emails, calls, IMs). In this instance, I don’t think it’s anything to do with short-term memory loss but rather a case of last minute panic by people who previously took an arm’s length approach to the project.

People and Multimillion Dollar Projects

I’ve been around for long enough to realize that nobody is indispensable, important perhaps, valuable definitely — but most certainly replaceable. It would follow, then, that anyone handing over a project to other team members is only as valuable as the information they possess and how they convey it to those who might not otherwise have a similar level of intimate project knowledge.

Managing multimillion dollar projects with many moving parts, multiples of teams scattered across various time zones — each with their own cultural differences — is hard enough as it is. Add into the mix some unique African challenges and it all starts to resemble a prehistoric organism complete with bowel movements. As a Lead Architect, handing over such a project mid-stream is quite the task and can be stressful if pushed to finish quickly.

I’m no project manager, but my role already contains enormous amounts of this activity and is hard to avoid in any senior position. Although modern project management practices have an arsenal of tools and procedures to ensure most projects run smoothly, there are many instances where they fall flat on their face in dismal failure. However, the projects fail not because of the tools and practices but because of poor execution and adherence.

Maintain Project Execution Flexibility

Sure, there should always be a level of flexibility and an awareness of when to use what in order to achieve some end result. I wouldn’t expect a farmer to construct a Gantt chart to help him dig a hole for a tomato plant — sometimes there is no benefit to the overall project by introducing needless procedures.

Tools and procedures aside, however, what concerns me the most is the amount of time wasted on rehashing decisions that have been previously made and agreed upon. The higher the headcount on a project the higher the chance of increased discussions. More importantly, lack of project leadership and accountability for decisions only perpetuates endless discussions without any clear outcomes.

Make Decisions and Take Ownership

Decisions don’t just make themselves, there is usually a reason for having a decision-making discussion — they are important aspects of the project. A decision doesn’t need to be made right there on the spot either, something many people struggle with. It’s quite okay to give yourself and your team time to absorb the scenario and comeback with appropriate feedback.

Irrespective of the decisions or the time-frame in which they are made, it’s imperative that people take responsibility and ownership for the decisions. All too often decisions are made within a group without any one person taking responsibility or ownership. Typically, ownership would fall to the project or engagement manager, but in scenarios where they lack technical depth (or experience) it is easy for them to be coaxed out of a previously agreed upon decision by someone who doesn’t benefit from it. It’s not uncommon to see decisions made during one meeting be overturned a few days, hours or even a few minutes later.

Chronic Short-Term Memory Loss

These types of projects suffer from Chronic Short-term Memory Loss (CSML), a term I assign to any project whose members have destroyed, through voluntary or involuntary actions, any knowledge of the discussions and decisions made during earlier meetings. And believe me — senility has nothing to do with it since many CSML sufferers are youngsters barely out of university.

In that regard, I find that there are two types of people on any project, those who are CSML sufferers and those that aren’t. The healthy, genuinely want to move on and tackle the next set of problems without delay, while the first group struggles to regain consciousness from their daily episode of dementia. Their short-term memory loss only aids to put up needless roadblocks, create superfluous dialogue and adds to the level of frustrated confusion.

Keep Project Notes and Records

I keep meticulous project notes right down to the conversations I’ve had with people in passing as well as their outcomes. There’s not a detail that doesn’t make it into my project notes: emails, conversations, error messages, screen shots, reference websites, URLs, contacts, phone calls — including transcripts or snippets of text — I keep everything.

It requires a lot of discipline to put aside and note down each and every little activity throughout the day. Documenting so many undertakings can be tedious but the flip side is that at the end of a project I’m in a position to replay (almost minute by minute) what I was working on, who I was speaking to and what problems I faced This may be a hang-up from my science background but it’s an indispensable collection of data that has helped me defend quite a few decisions and set straight CSML sufferers.

I also use these notes to compile handover emails and documents since much of what happens on a project isn’t captured by traditional project management methods — considerable amount of information is held with the people on the project.

Ultimately, my goal is to disconnect from the project knowing that whomever will be taking over has all the information (technical, political and operational) to continue without losing too much momentum and allow me to enjoy my well-deserved holiday.

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4 Comments → “Avoiding Chronic Short-term Memory Loss on Large Projects”

  1. Nien B 11 years ago   Reply

    Good article Shem – a logical topic which ppl in IT seem to “forget” .. Thanks :)

  2. DouglasZ 8 years ago   Reply

    Great point about keeping project notes and records. It’s been my experience, too, that it’s invaluable and most efficient if we share these records and notes by storing them in accessible common project databases, like team rooms, Sharepoint, etc. Unless it’s confidential or private in nature, being as transparent and open as possible ensures that information is disseminated and not horded or only accessible by small numbers of people.

  3. Saad U 8 years ago   Reply

    Nice article, fun reading.

  4. Shruti Gupta 8 years ago   Reply

    Was so much fun to read! Keep writing. :- )

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