Bureaucracy gone mad

I’ve been involved in many, many projects over the last 30 years or so, everything from a few days of elegant efficiency to months of dreary dreadfulness. Project management is both an art and a science, and no one has ‘the’ answer… but I can tell you some things you should NOT do. Oh yes almighty.

There’s a wonderful moment in ‘Yes Minister’ (the 1980s British sitcom) where the civil servants and the Minister are discussing a new hospital. It’s working perfectly, says the bureaucrat, all systems go. Yes, but there are no patients yet, replies the Minister. Agh yes, but that’s not the point, retorts the first, hospitals work so beautifully without all those patients.

In other words, the system becomes the thing.

Beware of this when bravely beginning your next project. There is no such thing as perfection. No one knows what is going to happen. No one has all the information. Uncertainty rules. The system is not the point. The customer is.

Beware the manager who is very good at documentation, systems and processes, and scoping. Beware the initial projections of so many months, and so many tens/hundreds of thousands/millions of dollars. Run away, my friends, run while you’ve still got a life left to live and the will to live it.

For I can tell you there is nothing more soul destroying, nothing that can suck the living essence from you, than an intricately articulated, detailed project of many months. The times I’ve been told “our scoping will provide us with what we need to build” or “this will just work out of the box” or “the project will take x months and cost $y”… all lies I tell you. LIES!

Well, it’s not that these project managers are lying deliberately (although I have known some to, knowingly, to cover themselves and allow enough wiggle room for the ultimate failure that is to come). It’s just that the world is too complex, consumers too massively unpredictable, rivals often invisible, and a hundred other factors that will destroy the best laid plans of the project manager.

No, reverse the cycle. Think back from your consumer (hint: they are the one you earn revenue from), keep them close, talk to them, survey them, feed them (literally – bring them in for a chat and a meal), listen to them, and build them something they actually need, and will pay for. Something that would relieve a real pain point. And do it fast.

Jack or Jane be nimble, be quick. Do it in a month or three (no more than 3 months, ever, promise me), get out there and watch the customers use it, hear their feedback, and let the project evolve in the marketplace. Never be too arrogant to think you know what they want or what will work. Bring them in to the process, and get those document-wielding, scope-developing bureaucratic system builders well away from your organisation. They sound good, but that is all they are… noise.

Do this, and you will live to enjoy new projects, and so will your customers, your staff and ultimately your shareholders.

About the author

Charlie has spent more than 20 years in Perth’s tech and startup sector, firstly as a founder himself, through to exit, and more recently as a writer, advisor and investor. Originally from the UK, Charlie worked in Singapore before arriving in Perth in 1997 to do an MBA at UWA. Graduating as top student in 1999 he set up online real estate business aussiehome.com, running it for 10 years before selling to REIWA, whereupon Charlie ran reiwa.com. In 2013, he moved to Business News to lead their digital transformation as CEO, and then worked for the federal government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program, funding pre-revenue startups and innovative businesses. He now works in an advisory capacity for multiple tech and other businesses, is managing editor of Startup News and co-host of the Startup West podcast. He also writes a column for Business News on startups. Charlie sits on the advisory boards of WA Leaders, TEDxPerth, WAITTA, the Perth Symphony Orchestra, and the full board of Rise Network.

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5 Responses
  1. Richard Keeves

    Great post Charlie. Focus on customers – and build systems to meet the real wants and fix the real pains of real customers. Act fast, and get the “Minimum Viable Product” to market so you can test it in the real world – and then improve it. As you say, nothing is ever perfect. It’s also ok to let customers know that your new system is new and is a ‘work-in-progress’. Google ran gmail in beta mode for 5 years! (2004 – 2009 thanks Richard

  2. Tony Wiles

    Oh God. If only I had read something like this years ago. I live in a world of offering what they need. They live in a world of want. They just don’t mix. Tooo late but Thanks Charlie

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