The skin of a watermelon presents a paradox or simultaneous reality of its core; both perfectly ripe and disappointingly mushy, but you won’t know which until it’s cut open. So you just leave it be; looking green and fine until it’s too late and… disintegrates.
We’ve seen agile projects following this pattern – reports and feedback to senior management suggest all is well (green on the outside) – but if you scratch the surface and and talk to the team with day-to-day involvement, it isn’t long before it’s apparent all is not what it seems. Instead, things are somewhere on the scale of just above lukewarm (pink) to actually on fire (red) on the inside.
While it’s important to have strong leadership in place to protect a team and provide the space to deliver, there is often a risk that such leadership can end up dictating what is reported back to the business. A balance needs to be struck; rather than controlling and manipulating data to provide good commercial results, the strength needs to be exercised by acting as a ‘head cover’ while paving the way to achieving better results. This is especially necessary when working within a complex environment that has strict reporting requirements and regulations.
Showing and not telling
You’re working on a huge project with a number of stakeholders and halfway through, costs, timescales and stress levels are on the rise and motivation and sight of the end goal, are declining. Despite this, the delivery manager prioritises reaching each milestone and / or sticking to budget constraints (however unrealistic) and, rather than flagging blockers to senior management, they’re hidden. The project moves forward and gains additional investment yet for all intents and purposes its failing from the inside out. Just not everyone can see this.
Whether it’s through fear of the consequences or a misplaced, but genuine belief that the difficulties are trivial and can be salvaged in due course, the project is presented as being on track simply because that’s what management wants or in fact, needs to hear. In some cases, the misreporting has been driven by a client pushing a project forward because they need to succeed at all costs and cannot be seen to be failing. Suppliers are then pressured to take a disingenuous approach to reporting and are unable to communicate the full story.
Decisions are then made by those at the top that aren’t reflective of the reality and at the expense of developers’ workloads and quality of the deliverables. This in turn allows issues to build up until it’s simply impossible to fix everything, leaving the manager to explain how a seemingly ‘great’ project has failed and what you’re dealing with is a watermelon.
Honesty is the best policy
There lies a tension between perceived success and actual success, and delivery managers who won’t report anything but a green status – possibly through lack of experience, knowledge or the space / support to do so – ultimately do more damage than good. A judgment call needs to be made as to when (not if) an issue needs to be communicated to senior management and stakeholders, but sooner rather than later is usually the best course of action. It should however, always be informed by the frontline team, who should be permitted to review and feedback on the material being distributed to management, prior to its dissemination.
We’ve found the best way to avoid projects developing into watermelons is to implement a number of key control procedures:
Be proactive rather than reactive – Learn to spot warning signs and address smaller problems before they become insurmountable or threaten to derail a project entirely. The bigger the project, the bigger the pool of stakeholders, which on the one hand means more people to reassure and satisfy when it comes to results, but it also means access to a well of wisdom that can help with risk foresight, analysis and management when harnessed effectively;
Be transparent – Get everyone on the same page by utilising agile project management rather than waterfall style. This way, you can visibly demonstrate your MVP or software (even with problems) so that senior managers – particularly those without a technical background – can see the end goal and understand that the desired outcome will be achieved regardless of any interim issues;
Adopt a ‘monitoring’ rather than ‘reporting’ approach – Use tracking that is both qualitative and quantitative in measurement to get reliable KPIs. The process of monitoring analytics and focusing on performance metrics is much more hands-on and strategic than that of reporting as it removes subjectivity and shifts the focus towards data. This helps avoid misleading or unhelpful information that may result in decisions being made that are not in the best interests of the project or the team working on it;
Use retrospectives – At the end of every project (and even every milestone where possible), teams should reflect on what worked well, what didn’t and how they could do better so that behaviour can be adjusted accordingly for any future operations. The objectives identified during retrospectives should be communicated to leadership to promote transparency and encourage a culture of openness, and then actionned in the next iteration by pegging them during sprint-planning;
Build psychological safety for key influencers – Removing the barriers to escalating problems can be key in achieving success because psychological safety promotes learning behaviour among teams and helps shape outcomes. Project managers and owners need to be empowered to make key decisions and when required, bold changes; and
Work to get rid of the blame culture – Arguably the root cause of watermelon projects, a climate of understanding needs to exist to enable innovation and progression. While accountability (and its consequences) needs to be recognised, politics should be eschewed and moves made towards creating a purposeful, value-driven culture where failing fast is permitted and actually leads to greater outcomes.
Ultimately, it’s a combination of delivery managers taking ownership and responsibility for transparent reporting and having the freedom to do so. By equating investment with success you’ll see a direct correlation between input and effective project management, allowing you to achieve key deliverables and constructive results.