Agile Leadership Pattern: Project Obituary Exercise
January 28, 2007
Try this exercise with your team to identify, overcome, and avoid potential project “gottchas”.
Get the team to write a project obituary; ask them to imagine the project is nearly over and has failed; their job for the next 45 minutes is to describe all the things that went wrong contributing to its eventual demise. Often people who are difficult to engage in regular vision exercises relish the opportunity to list all the things that could go wrong. Perhaps given a slightly pessimistic slant on life, they can generate an exhaustive list of possible, albeit gloomy, outcomes for the project. These might include communication failures that lead to mismatched expectations, vendor delays, team morale issues, etc, anything that could negatively impact the project.
Run the session as you would a brainstorming session with someone in a facilitator role recording the ailments on a white board or via sticky pad notes and prompting submitters for more detail to clarify understanding where required. If you used sticky notes, group related problems under broad categories. Review the lists with the group and then ask people to quietly think through potential solutions to these problems and take a break for 15 minutes.
Then, after the break, solicit solutions (vaccines) to each of the problems (ailments) from the team. Usually there will be more than one suggested solution for each problem so make sure you have plenty of white board space, or wall space if using stickies. Creating solutions for problems is an energising process and often generates many creative and unanticipated suggestions. For example, on a past project, if I had suggested a 10 pin-bowling social with the Finance group I am sure it would have been met with groans of objection from my team, but when they came up with the idea, it had instant approval (it was their idea after all!) and I was happy to oblige and organize it.
The whole obituary idea sounds a little morbid, and there may be instances when it is not appropriate for a team. However, by asking people to consider problems and then how each could be avoided, the team creates a mental image of overcoming likely issues. So then if any occur on the project they already have some sample solutions in mind. As the old saying goes: “forewarned is forearmed” i.e. we will be ready for it.
This exercise is related to the Merlin backwards planning exercise I described earlier and is also used in the Toyota Production System. Toyota used the obituary approach when creating their “Toyota University” program and engaged the team in a larger exercise to create a full report entitled “The University of Toyota calls it Quits; A Requiem for a Noble Concept”. In the book “The Elegant Solution” author Mathew May describes how the article detailed the path to failure. Created as an expose set three years in the future, it described a corporate university that was everything management didn’t want the University of Toyota to be with fat brochures and academic papers. It worked. The university team clarified the main issue that could be their demise: failure to align to around real business needs. The article was a call to arms that set imaginative wheels in motion. The group redrafted the article, not as an obituary, but as a front page story trumpeting the success of the university and created the framework for its success.
So, when next starting a project (or corporate) endeavour consider the obituary exercise. It might be just the tool for giving the naysayer’s their voice and then uniting the team around appropriate risk mitigation and avoidance strategies. I really believe the team has all the best answers; we just need to create opportunities for them to be heard more.