Balancing Management and Technical Priorities- Recognizing Problems before Projects Fail

Every project that has to deliver a working product has a tension between management priorities and technical integrity. This tension can promote creativity and efficiency, but if the balance is lost, a defective product results, sometimes with severe consequences.

Late Design Change is Cited in Collapse of Tunnel Ceiling
(NY Times 11/2/06)

This past summer, there was a fatal accident in a new tunnel built as part of Boston’s Big Dig project. A section of the ceiling collapsed, killing a woman. Although the collapse was attributed to a late design change, the origins of the problem were in the imbalance between project management priorities and technical execution.

As background, the original plan was to construct the ceiling of the tunnel using metal panels coated with porcelain. The panels were to be suspended from the tunnel roof using hangers. However, due to the high cost of the porcelain, designers substituted heavier pre-cast concrete panels. These heavier concrete were suspended with a hanging system that had a smaller margin of safety that was generally accepted in other tunnels. As a further compromise, where the tunnel roof had already been finished, holes were drilled in the roof and the hangers glued into the roof. Gravity won out and these hangers failed causing the fatal accident.

The report of the National Transportation Safety Board identified late design changes as the cause.

The Big Dig project was well known for being over budget, behind schedule, and technically challenging. However, the origin of the problem was that the imbalance between the political and practical considerations. This loss of perspective had happened years earlier and ultimately led to the defective work.

Management/Technical imbalances are routinely encountered in typical projects. Recognizing these situations can help prevent projects from losing focus on the product.

Recognizing Management/Technical imbalance:

1. The project is oversold beyond reasonable expectations.
All projects should be oversold to some extent. It is the challenge to reach a difficult goal that leads to efficiency and innovation. Some proposals are made with lofty projections and minimal feasibility analysis. However, without the input of the people responsible to identify, evaluate, and accept these challenges, the balance will be lost from the beginning.

2. Poor decision-making at the first difficult situation.
Almost all projects encounter a difficult situation, often within the first third of the project. (For the tunnel example above, the assumptions about cost were found to be inaccurate.) The path charted out of this situation is a leading indicator of the future direction. Signs of an imbalance are withholding information, changes which compromise the quality, stifling discussion, and management by decree on technical direction.

3. Responsibility for the product quality taken from the experts.
In every organization, there are individuals who understand the quality of the product and the consequences of design changes. They may often not be the strongest business people, but there is a general recognition throughout the organization that they know what they are doing. If they are ignored, it is a sure sign of an imbalance.

4. Personal ambition outweighs the product.
Certainly ambition is one of the most important motivating forces. At the imbalance point, decisions become geared to what looks best for the management at the expense of the product. This situation is summarized as a declaring the project a success and moving on before the deficiencies surface, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

A key step for a successful project is keep the managerial/technical balance in the project. If the symptoms for imbalance are not recognized, there is no opportunity to take corrective action. That train is headed off the tracks.

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