Fast-tracking

Fast-Tracking Can Invite Disaster

Large cracks in the walls, glass panels falling from the windows, rain seeping in. The Guangzhou Opera House in south China city is falling apart and it's only two years old. Evoking an alien spacecraft, the structure received accolades from around the world and even inspired a fashion line when it first opened.

But an out-of-this-world design can't hide a slew of flaws on the CNY1,38 billion project, another vivid illustration of how improper planning and short-term thinking can sabotage success. The danger of fast-tracking projects is nothing new, but when executives put market demands ahead of quality, they and their project teams walk a fine line between risk and reward.

Though the local government blames the opera house's deficiencies on the region's humidity, critics charge the project is another example of China's struggle to keep up with rapid growth. The U.K. newspaper The Telegraph reported that many Chinese buildings are designed with 25-year lifespans, on the assumption that they'll be torn down and replaced within this timeframe.

Yu Huiyao, the deputy manager of the team at Guangzhou Construction that led the project, blamed his group's inability to consider "the complexity of the design" before starting work. In a similar case, a 13-story tower in Shanghai collapsed because of shallow foundations, another casualty of skimping during the planning phase.

Bowing to market pressure and accelerating project schedules isn't unique to China. In a push for renewable energy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management accelerated its Genesis Solar Power Project, a US$1 billion solar plant in the desert of Riverside County, California, USA. Project sponsors mandated the need for speed to launch the project, but during the hasty research phase, project teams missed several indications of a Native American burial ground on the site. When bones were found in April, the agency was confronted with a legal battle that could end up scuttling the project.

In tough economic times, companies were pushed to create greater efficiencies. The premise was alarmingly simple: Do more work at a faster pace with fewer people. And while the concept did indeed boost productivity, it backfired at the project level.

"Under-staffed projects invariably stumbled, incurring costly delays or even failing completely-quickly erasing any labor cost-savings," wrote Liz Larsen of consulting company Navint Partners in Fast Company in May.

Long hours can lead to employee burnout, increased attrition, decreased productivity, unhappy stakeholders and failure-sometimes before the project is ever launched.

I see this all the time, says Homa Bahrami, PhD,senior lecturer and faculty director at the Haas School of Business, University of California. CEOs want to get to market fast, but that often translates to a tradeoff in the quality of project deliverables. In some cases, that's a viable option; in others, it's deadly.

Dr. Bahrami outlines three moves project managers can make to create a speed limit on fast-tracked projects:

  • Clearly define project terms. "Lack of specificity is the biggest enemy," she says. "Don't use words like 'quality' without talking about which issues could mean catastrophic problems." A project to develop a new drug, for example, will have serious repercussions if speed trumps patient safety.
  • Determine what's negotiable and what's not. The project sponsors may be okay with adding a few days to the schedule, or they may say the deadline is set in stone. Either way, project managers need that information to properly plan.
  • Compromise. If the sponsor is dead set on a quick timetable, try to work out a deal in another area, such as an increase in the number of bugs allowed in the first version of a software rollout.

Dr. Bahrami also suggests a targeted communications approach. Executives might be willing to adjust a project schedule, for example, if they understand the outcome could damage the company's reputation. "Present the issue in a way they can understand the consequences," she says.

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