The Bow Wave Effect

The Bow Wave Effect is a pattern of failure where project deadlines are repeatedly missed and the project continues to drift in time.

How Bow Waves Begin

Fuelled by Scientific Wild Arse Guesses (SWAG), poorly constructed project schedules, over allocated resources and schedules not adjusted for risk results in project teams biting off more than they can chew. Inevitably, during project execution, the project plan and schedule are quickly discarded resulting in project capability being delivered in an ad hoc and reactive manner based on accumulative decisions that seem right and expedient at the time.

Most project managers don’t recognise the problem since individual decisions to defer or drop functionality accumulates slowly over time resulting in a bow wave that washes over budgets and deadlines, endangering project outcomes.

The project management triple constraint of scope, cost and time starts to drown under the weight of stakeholder expectations. Since neither cost and time can be compromised, nor quality affected the only choice available to the floundering project manager in a sea of confusion is to compromise on scope. Consequently, a growing body of work has to be done at the very end of the project when risk is highest and the deadline offers no margin for further slippage.

Complexity Feeds the Wave

Most projects fail to recognise project complexity. Kaye Remington and Julien Pollack identified different kinds of complexity require different management methods, and suggest four categories for analysis,

  • Structural complexity
  • Technical complexity
  • Directional complexity
  • Temporal complexity

The source of the project complexity will influence the project lifecycle including critical review points and length of project phases within the lifecycle, the project governance structure, selection of key resources, budget and scheduling methods and ways of identifying and responding to risk.

Counterproductive Behaviours

The bow wave is, in general, the result of solving a problem with a ‘quick fix’ that gives immediate results but only temporarily solves the original problem. Intuitively, organisations know a properly thought out solution supported by a properly constructed resource feasible schedule that is adjusted for risk offers a better long term solution. However, the pressure to deliver something, anything and now makes project organisations and professionals feel unable to wait until a suitable solution is implemented. Over time the buzzwords of agile, disruption and minimum viable product (MVP) become embraced not realising this approach undermines an organisations ability to implement the fundamental long-term solution needed.

Evolutionary Project Challenges

Evolutionary projects repeatedly fail to correctly estimate project size, effort and duration, and there are many reasons for this including,

  • Lack of estimation ability or historical data
  • Making estimates fit the ‘perceived’ correct result
  • Lack of knowledge management that impedes learning rate and effect

Since the estimates are poor, development of new capability is deferred from one release to the next, causing a build up of even more functionality to be delivered in the next increment.

Evolutionary projects empower teams to develop a product centrally instead of having a project-focus resulting in less management control. Consequently, crucial activities like productivity measurement, productivity improvement and benchmarking are no longer carried out, which poses a risk to many organisations.

Further complicating this view, is the tendency to defer development of new capability which is judged to be complex, hard and / or risky. Instead of scheduling early development of complex, hard and risky new capabilities they are postponed. In the short term, the project is seen to be kicking goals as new capability is being delivered with a fast cadence and at a low cost. However, the project risk profile increases over time for which there is less available time and less ability to change the system to accommodate changes.

Breaking the Pattern

How do you recognise your own bow wave?

  • By considering how new capability was allocated to releases, seeing what has been deferred and comparing that to the anticipated complexity, maturity or risks of that capability.
  • By considering work completed versus work remaining, and checking for schedule adherence.

To break the bow wave dynamic, first, understand the cause of the schedule pressure that leads to an expedient solution, and examine other possible solutions. Once a suitable solution is identified, the organisation must assess its current ability to implement, i.e. budget, time and resourcing as this ability may have been eroded as a result of the expedient approach. Finally, you have to be brave and to steel yourself to have the tough conversation. No one ever said being a project manager was fun or easy but by analysing and confronting your bow wave problem you may just find a lifeline.

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About Ian: I have more than 20-years IT Project Portfolio experience spanning vendor, solutions integrator and customer side both for private and government organisations. I have worked for Motorola, Ericsson, Vodafone, Dimension Data and Fujitsu amongst others. I am the principal of pminsight, a boutique consultancy specialising in empowering project organisations and professionals with project data-driven insights.

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