All Projects Are Imperfect

Paul Naybour

In the project management world we all like to talk about, and aim for, a successful project. We expend much of our time, effort and energy trying to manage risks, control change and monitor our schedule and budget. We deal with long lists of tasks with complex inter-dependencies trying to make everything perfect. But, perhaps, we should just accept that all projects are imperfect.
As a somewhat leftfield example, take a school production that I attended last night. My son, being in his final year of primary school was involved, with the rest of his class, in a comedy show that this bunch of 11 year olds had put together themselves. As parents we had instructions to just laugh (sometimes hard when it’s 11 year-olds doing the comedy sketches). It was actually a great night and very funny, particularly when a couple of boys dressed up as ballerinas complete with pink tutus.
But on the way home my own son was very glum even though the night had been a great success. The reason? For one sketch he and 3 classmates had forgotten to wear their hats on stage – the hats had been ready in the wings but everyone had forgotten about them. None of the people in the audience knew about the hats so they just enjoyed the funny sketch. We all thought the sketch and the whole show was a “success”. My son thought it was not – simply because of forgetting to put a hat on. If he had accepted that you prepare as best you can and provided the “stakeholders” are happy then treat it as a success he would have enjoyed it more.
And so it is with projects – we specify, we plan, we monitor and control but if some elements of the project are not perfect we need to remind ourselves that very little in life is 100% successful. Project management is not about achieving perfection it is about achieving success and the two are not always the same. If your clients are happy then you should be too because the reality of a project very rarely matches exactly with the plans and schedules.
Projects are run by people, for people; they are often complex and require unique problem solving. We rarely just repeat something we have done before so cannot always learn from experience because many projects are breaking new ground. So instead of dwelling on the imperfections, instead just accept that there will be imperfections, but that does not make a project less than 100% successful. If fact we shouldn’t be surprised when problems occur, the surprise is that some people still expect perfection.
Of course, expecting projects to be imperfect does not mean that we don’t have to manage them carefully because usually some elements of a project can be estimated, predicted and controlled precisely. So plan and manage well but accept that the reality will be different from the plan – be well prepared but also be flexible and believe that the project is successful if the stakeholders are satisfied; don’t beat yourself up about the few tasks that were not completed.

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