Thinking beyond the project

Focus on business, people, customers and then technology, in that order #HoskWisdom

when we focus on a delivering the project, we miss the goal of the project. Think beyond the project, focus on the helping the business be successful and use technology to help.


Projects involve people, time and expense, they take time and effort. The measurement of success becomes delivering the project and this becomes the focus of the project. Everyone focuses on delivering the project, forgetting the real goal of a project. Our focus becomes narrow that we miss the goal and are unprepared for the real problems that occur after.

Old tactics

In the book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War talking about how the marines focus on creating a beachhead.

“Once, while the groups wrestled with how to put a landing force on the shores of Iran, Boyd realized the Marines were placing inordinate emphasis on how to establish a beachhead. “That beachhead is looming bigger and bigger,” he said. “You guys are paying too much attention to terrain. The focus should be on the enemy. Fight the enemy, not the terrain.””

A beach head is temporary line created and then reinforced quickly with numbers, the attacking force can push on and take the beach. This is a world war 1 tactic where most battles were head on and wars of attrition.

John Boyd refers to this “Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle”

The goal isn’t creating a beachhead, the focus shouldn’t be on the terrain, the goal is to attack the enemy, beat the enemy and landing a beachhead is small part of the plan.

These are world war 1 tactics, they didn’t take into account the change in weapons, communications, the enemy or the situation. How many times do people try to run a project, just like the previous project.

In the article — Thinking beyond the beachhead it has this quote

“The main lesson at Normandy, I think, is relevant to the point that I am trying to make. Planners went into the operation focusing on getting on the beach, a task that they anticipated would be the major problem. As it turned out, the problem was getting off the beach!”

When we focus on the wrong area, we focus are thinking to that area. We need to step back and see the larger goal and how it all fits into a larger system.

Tactics should be tailored to the situation, not just pushing the strategy used in the previous war against a different opponent.

What happens on projects?

The goal of a project should be to help the business become more efficient, solve their problems. Technology should be one of part of the improvements, aligned with the business processes, the people and business goals.

Design thinking starts looking at the how the business works, their problems and goals. It looks at the pain points with the current ways of working and how to improve customer service. The initial work looks at the business holistically and on creative solutions.

In many projects the focus is on replacing the existing systems and new technology..

The focus is on

  • The existing legacy system
  • Technology
  • Delivering the project on time

The focus is on the technology and the project , we focus on the beachhead and not the enemy.


Every customer, business and project are unique, there isn’t a template that delivers a successful project. You need to observe the environment, requirements, problems, people, industry, company and ways of working, use this to create a unique approach.

The environment changes, the approach needs to reflect this, you cannot use a static approach too every project because it sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t.


A plan and approach will be created at the start of the project, this will quickly be wrong because the information on the project changes. Your plan needs to be based on reality, you need to make decisions with the latest information.


Think beyond the project, focus on the business, people, customers and technology, in that order. There isn’t a standard template, you have to focus on the goals and problems of the business. Understand the business first and creation the solution second.

Are people on the project waving or drowning?

Sometimes it’s those who don’t ask for help, who need it most #HoskWisdom

The difference between someone in water waving and drowning is small, but the difference could lead to life and death. How many times do you see people and teams complaining, but are they waving or drowning?

Conflicting teams

IT projects are stressful, delivered to tight deadlines. Teams need to get their work done, but depend on other teams to complete the project. Teams need to focus on their own work to ensure it’s done correctly, on time and to a high level. The dilemma to individual teams is if the other teams don’t finish their work, the complete solution won’t work. You can’t finish creating a human and have the legs and arms finished but no head and eyes.

  • Your team needs to complete work
  • You need to help other teams with information and shared design
  • Obligation to the project to make sure all teams are working effectively

Waving not drowning

Complaining is a popular pastime on projects, individuals can create noise and distract others. The personal objectives of individuals can distort messaging and priorities


  • An individual or team can exaggerate their performance and contribution
  • A successful team can quietly get their work done (not
  • personal conflicts can lead to individuals complaining about other teams

Drowning not waving

People and teams who are drowning don’t always ask for help, they try to battle on, hoping things will turn around. In some situations those who are in a position of responsibility don’t want to admit they made a mistake, have a relationship with an individual involved and don’t want to make the change.

The simple choice is to stick with the status quo and not change because changes need to justification and if it goes wrong there will be criticism. You are less likely to be criticised for sticking with the current plan, which still might work. The original plan might be created by someone else, which gives less incentive to change the plan and take responsibility.

To admit you are drowning takes courage because you need to make yourself vulnerable and ask for help. It easier for others to notice a team/individual needs help but there needs to be incentives to want to improve.

It’s difficult for leaders to understand what is working and what isn’t because of the lack of clarity in reporting and feedback. There are two truths that can come to mind

* You can’t lead from an office

* You can fool people on the front line that things are going well

You need to get out and talk to people, find the pain points from the people doing their jobs and not just listen to the managers, plan and metrics being measured. The tendency will be for people to not publicise bad news or hide it but if you want to improve a project you to fix the parts not working as soon as possible.

Step back

There are always more tasks to do on a project, another report to write, meetings to attend. The constant motion stops you taking time to reflect, step back and see the bigger picture. A project is a complex system with lots of separate and dependent parts. Most of the time you deal with the symptoms of problems and not the root cause.

Peter Senge’s first law of The Fifth Discipline is “today’s problems were created by yesterdays solutions”, the second-order effects of changes are not always clear but can cause problems later on or in other places.

To assess your own performance you need to create some time to think, look at the project as a complex system and see where the problems are and assess your performance and contribution to these problems.

questions like these help

  • What do I need right now?
  • What would really help me?
  • What are my priorities?
  • What am I doing, that someone else should do or can do?

People problems don’t resolve themselves and need to be actively resolved, unless you are close it’s difficult to tell if the person is waving or drowning.

This post came from listening to the new Future Islands album and then finding this poem written by Steve Smith called Not Waving but Drowning, one paragraph is below

Not Waving but Drowning BY STEVIE SMITH

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

Projects evolve to create the right solution

Requirements create estimates, estimates create plans, plans create projects, projects create problems because the requirements, estimates, plans and projects were wrong #HoskCodeWisdom

IT projects go wrong, you can’t avoid it but you can prepare for mistakes, get feedback helps you learn, improve and create a solution suited to the customer needs. You can’t get all the requirements up front, for a technical team to design and estimate a solution correctly and then deliver it without any significant problems is crazy.

The requirements and solution develop the more you investigate and build. The solution delivered at the end is never like the solution specified at the beginning. The plan you created at the start of the project is never correct, it evolves and changes along with the solution.

Requirements are never complete, requirements are missed, requirements are added, requirements are wrong and they requirements change as the project develops.

Estimates are not commitments, they are an estimate of effort based on the information at the time.

Plans are created with the assumption nothing will go wrong, changes won’t happen, people won’t leave and nothing significant will go wrong. Plans will always change, expect it and use it to your advantage.

Change is natural, change is positive, change will deliver the project which is needed, not the project which was estimated and planned with a minimum amount of information.

Make sure people are aware plans will change and deliver projects in smaller parts, incorporate feedback into your plans and deliver value early and often.

The goal of a project is to deliver a solution the business needs, not the solution specified in the plan when you had less knowledge and no feedback or experience. Don’t become to protective of your plan that it stops you changing.

Defining your project problems, helps you avoid them

All I want to know is how this project will fail, so I can avoid doing that #HoskWisdom

Project plans have goals, milestones and deliverables. They have optimistic paths into the future and run into trouble when the inevitable problems jump up and smash you in the face.

Predict your potential problems and you can resolve them before they become problems. Focus on what might go wrong and you can create plans to prepare for it. Do your thinking before the event when you have time and you will have the answers ready for when you have to act.

Mike Tyson warns of the danger of project plans

“Everyone has a plan, until you are punched in the face” — Mike Tyson

Predict your problems

The best person to predict the problems that might occur on the project you are working on, is the team working on the project. There are common problems, but each project can create completely new problems.

A popular method to predict problems is to perform a premortem, like a post mortem but before the death of your project 🙂

Premortems are effective because no one is to blame for potential problems, it encourages people to raise potential problems. Premortems can be more effective than post mortems because in a post mortem people are being defensive and protecting themselves rather than diagnosing the actual causes of the problems. Post Mortems can suffer from people rewriting history to support their actions and justify their actions.

Premortem’s help you find potential sources of failure and give you a chance to resolve small problems before they become big problems.

A premortem could start

  • “The production go live failed disastrously because…..” or “
  • “What are we nervous about”
  • “What could go wrong which would cause us the most problems”
  • “what’s like to go wrong”
  • “what’s the biggest risk”
  • “what happens if this person gets kidnapped”
  • The project was a colossal failure because…..”

The group can suggest reasons the project could fail, discuss the causes and what steps we can take to mitigate the problem. Focus on the top ten and work out what you can do to stop those problems from happening.

Plans go wrong and need to change, planning for problems lets react strategically if those problems occur. Planning for problems allows you to use time before the event to be ready during the event. When problems happen in an event, you don’t have time to think, which is why you should use the quiet time before to plan your response.

The best time to fix a roof is when the sun is shinning, not in a thunderstorm. The best time to plan for big problems in a one off event, is before the event has started. You can stop some problems from occuring, have plans for when other problems occur

Define your fears

I was watching a Tim Ferris TED talk — Why you should define your fears instead of your goals and a blog post — Fear-Setting: The Most Valuable Exercise I Do Every Month. which offers a similar approach

Define — prevent — prepare

  • Define: List the worst things that could happen or the significant problems
  • Prevent: List how you can stop the items above
  • Repair: If the worst happens, list how to repair each bad thing.
  • Have others resolved this problem or similar problems, learn from their experience and avoid their mistakes

If you think you don’t have time, what will be the cost of not doing this? unexpected problems ruin your day


Thinking about your project fears or what might go wrong is inverting the problem, it helps you avoid mistakes and prepare for them. There is a difference between knowing what problems could occur and preparing for them. Time is a tool and successful people use it to give them time to think. In the middle of a crises you don’t have time to think, so do your thinking before the crises hits.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today — Chinese proverb

The coronavirus is a good example, the countries which got hit from SARS prepared themselves for future pandemics by creating a plan, stock piling, upgrading hospitals and were ready to act quickly. The countries which had to tackle Covid-19 as it was happening were behind, tried to decide as they went, and responded slower.