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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Inflexible Projects

July 9, 2004

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Projects are everything in your high-tech career. They drive your work from day-to-day. They help you to build the great stories that will get you better jobs down the road. Some people, like Tom Peters, author of “In Search of Excellence” and David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” say that you should consider everything you do, every goal you want to accomplish, just another project along with all the others. Unfortunately, projects have a way of self-destructing before they ever get off the ground. There are ways, of protecting yourself against project failure. Some of these, though, require addressing your preconceptions about projects.

Long-term and inflexible

Over the years, long-term planning has been the watch-word of high-tech management. “Here is where we will be in 1, 2, even 5 years.” I am sure that many of you have dealt with such projects. The problem, as I am also sure you have seen, is this. Technology, and life in general, these days, moves too quickly for inflexible long-term planning. You can plan, certainly, but your plans have to be generalized and flexible.

One example: a big corporation states it will have all desktop computers on Windows XP by the end of 2005. That is fine and dandy, but who knows what operating system might be standard by the time you reach 2005? You need to take the high rate of change into consideration and develop more general goals. Perhaps you might say, “The company will be standardized on the most stable platform available in 2005.” Of course, this will bother some people. They want to know exactly what they will be using and when they will be using it. The truth is, no one really knows exactly what operating system you will want to use by the time you get there.


In today’s world, long-term plans demand general goals that offer a direction for high-tech projects, not a rubric to be mindlessly followed. Instead, it is the short term project tasks that offer the specific, day-to-day direction. If the long-term goals tell you where you want to be, the short-term tasks are each step along the path. To meet the goal stated above, you might be exploring Windows XP and where it is headed. You would also be investigating Microsoft’s “Longhorn” project, as well. Either one of these solutions might be your final decision (if there ever is a “final” decision, more on that later). You won’t really know until you get there.

You have to spend each and every day adapting to the conditions that surround you. One operating system might be delayed. Another might not meet your needs. Still another could be customized to your environment. As some options are discarded, others are investigated. These short-term task can change on a daily basis, as long as each and every one of them is somehow focused on achieving the long-term goal you established. In fact, these tasks have to change, because the world around you is changing even faster.

You need to divorce yourself from the usual thinking of “lock-in” and adapt more fluid methods of achieving your high-tech goals. It can be painful to realize that you need to abandon a path you once thought promising, but think of the pain involved when you finish a large project that is obsolete the moment you roll it out. You can never afford to become too wedded to any one technology -- Mac, PC, Apache, Linux, whatever. Technology is not a religion, it is a tool. Each one must be evaluated strictly on how well it meets your needs, now and in the future. If, in the future, the technology ceases to meet your needs, you must be ready to abandon it on a moment’s notice and find a technology that better suits your goals.

Projects can die many deaths, but inflexible thinking, and the belief that you can see the future, are often the culprits. Instead of trying to predict the future, you need to analyze the options you have, today, and how they can help you achieve your goals. Leave the predictions to the wizards, you have work to do.

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