You Can't Always Get What You Want

By By Mike Aucoin

I wonder if Mick Jagger was ever a project manager. Probably not, considering how wealthy he is. But, he must have project managers in mind when he performs the Rolling Stones' song You Can't Always Get What You Want, because it captures perfectly the experience project managers face when trying to complete their projects with insufficient resources.

The inability to secure sufficient resources for their projects is a universal theme for project managers. While this is true with regard to funding and technology, it is most critical in terms of people. Organizations typically chase more projects than they can handle effectively, so the poor project manager is left to deliver on promises with too few hands. Sooner or later you'll find yourself in this predicament, and you're likely to feel angry about it. So what can you do?

First, don't feel singled out. Remember that everyone is short-handed - it's the nature of business in these downsized, accelerated and high turnover times. You can either stay angry about it, or focus on getting the job done. The former won't really help you, so you might want to try the latter.

Next, plan your approach to operating short-handed. Usually, people think they can handle resource constraints by working harder. While that may be true to a certain extent, it may only bring incremental change and quite likely will burn out your team. It also assumes that projects can continually operate close to the edge without a breakdown. Forget it - you won't be so lucky!

What you really need are breakthroughs, and you can bring them about with some radical thinking in perspective. For example, try exaggerating your constraints. At first this may seem crazy, but there is a method to the madness!

Exaggerating constraints helps in three ways: (1) it causes you focus on what's really important; (2) it helps you challenge assumptions; and (3) it forces you to unlock your creative energy. A number of successful landmark projects were accomplished with overwhelming constraints in staffing, budget and schedule.

What are some ways to exaggerate constraints?
  • Chop the schedule - Is your schedule already aggressive? Then accelerate the schedule some more - trim another 20 percent of the time off the schedule. The key benefit of doing this is to create slack at the end of your project when you'll really need it.

  • Play "mental catastrophe" - Suppose your office is hit by a natural disaster that put you out of commission for several weeks. What will you do to recover and complete the project? Your answers will start to reveal valuable shortcuts you can take.

  • Plan for team disruption - What if three of your top-notch team members leave in mid-project to form their own company? How would you find replacements and get them up to speed in a hurry? Solve this problem and you can sleep better at night.
If nothing else, exaggerating resource constraints will help give you some perspective that things may not be as bad as you originally thought - and some peace of mind that many options are available to you should you need them.

In the second part of the refrain to their song, the Stones masterfully capture the essence of this approach of gaining perspective:

You can't always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need.

Maybe Mick and the boys will finally get tired of playing rock 'n roll concert tours one of these days and settle down and become project managers. If they do, at least they'll still get to sing, I Can't Get No Satisfaction!

This article originally appeared in the Successful Project Management Newsletter, June, 2000, Pages 2-3.

Copyright © 2000, Management Concepts, Inc.

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