Change, Hard Truths, and Project Management

This is the fourth and final column of a series on the Ten Laws of (Legal) Project Management. This column covers the last four laws, followed by a recap of all ten.

7. The Only Constant Is Change, So Plan on It

In some ways, this law gets to the heart of project management. As General Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” (Different sources offer slightly different phrasings for this quotation… which I suppose is a type of change, too.)

Another project maxim suggests, “You can have it good, you can have it fast, you can have it cheap: Pick two out of three.” Most experienced project managers will amend that, by the way, to, “Pick one.” Because stuff happens.

In some hard-engineering fields, it is (sometimes) possible to nail down all three, because the tasks are extremely repeatable from project to project, and every single task is known. In erecting a building, say, we know the materials needed, the costs, the number of windows that can be installed per day – it’s all been done hundreds of times. There are even formulas for how much “slack” (margin for surprises) to build into the schedule. And yet…. Snowstorms shut down a project for a week because no one can get to work. Digging the foundation exposes archaeological relics that must be preserved. The crane fails.

Likewise, some legal projects – electronic discovery, for example – feel like engineering projects in that the steps are known and clear. Still, monkey wrenches get thrown into even these projects.

Most legal projects are far less known… and never forget that someone on the other side is actively trying to make your job harder.

The planning for change occurs not in your project plan, however you conceive it, but in your planning and discussions with clients, attorneys, and other legal professionals. Remember to include folks adjacent to the project as well – i.e., those whose own projects will be affected when the schedules of your project team are disrupted. Help those depending on your work to understand how and where things can go off track – and don’t make promises on which you cannot deliver.

The good / fast / cheap less-expensive equation should be discussed as well. If, for example, the deadline (“fast”) is a critical constraint, negotiate over the other two legs, such as the number of resources assigned (“cheap”) or the depth to which you will explore every possible legal angle (“good”). Don’t guess. Involve the client, and include firm management as appropriate.

8. Don’t Be the Star in Your Own Play

The legal matter at hand is not the star. Neither are those handling the legal matter (the attorneys). Nor is the project itself.

The client is the star of the play. How does everything you do serve the client?

And the supporting actor/actress is the firm, or the corporation, or the agency. How does the project work interact with their needs and goals as well?

In a movie, the big star’s name goes above the title. (Yes, that’s a thing agents negotiate over.) The major supporting actors may get their names on the posters and ads below the title, often in very narrow squished lettering. (The height of their name on the poster is a negotiating point. The width, not so much.)

The rest get listed in the credits scrolling endlessly as patrons exit, along with the focus puller, the best boy, and the caterer. You’re in that group, you and the project itself. If the focus puller doesn’t do the job right, the movie will be blurred and unwatchable, just as if the project manager does a poor job, the project will be late(r) and over budget(er). Your role as project manager is critical. But don’t pretend it’s the starring role. That’s not how you keep clients happy.

9. Bad News, Unlike Wine, Doesn’t Get Better With Age

When you know something’s wrong (or going wrong), tell people.

Do, however, take a little time to gather facts and seek at least one solution to offer in response. But only a little. However bad the situation may be, better that the client and practice management hear it from you.

10. Truth Is Hard, But Self-Deception Is Fatal

Law 10 is the other side of the Law-9 coin. Don’t hide bad news from yourself (or your team), either.

When (not if) things go wrong, own the problem. Acknowledge it. A project manager’s level of success is measured by how she responds to problems.

Your job is not just to minimize issues, but to minimize the damage when they do crop up. I’ve seen too many project managers hesitate to attack a problem because they haven’t acknowledged its existence, often seeing the problem not just as another task but as a reflection on their ability and self-worth. Don’t be that person.

In Review: The Ten Laws

  1. First Effectiveness, Then Efficiency
  2. The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
  3. When You Discover You’re Digging a Hole, Stop Digging
  4. Help Your Team “Make It Up” the Same Way You Would
  5. The Client Won’t Tell You the Real Problem
  6. If It Doesn’t Add Value, Don’t Do It
  7. The Only Constant Is Change, So Plan on It
  8. Don’t Be the Star in Your Own Play
  9. Bad News, Unlike Wine, Doesn’t Get Better With Age
  10. Truth Is Hard, But Self-Deception Is Fatal

Remember: While at some level project management may be a science, the effective management of projects is an art.

Lean into the art of Legal Project Management.

Comments are closed.