It is a sad fact: Many startups and established companies run into trouble, when their innovative development projects go awry, exceed their budgets, miss their time targets and fail to achieve their goals.

Why? Most project managers are well-trained, experienced, diligent and hard-working. What goes wrong?

Former TIM Board Member Prof. Alex Laufer, past Dean of Technion’s Civil Engineering Faculty, has a theory.  The classical discipline of Project Management assumes a world of certainty and provides finely-detailed planning tools, like Gant charts, that specify every detail. Most project managers use those tools in one form or another.

But the real world is chaotic, uncertain and stochastic in nature. Planning tools tend to be static, while projects they plan are highly dynamic. The conventional wisdom is misleading and even harmful. A dynamic project requires a dynamic approach to planning. Successful project managers are flexible, adaptive and quick to improvise solutions to unexpected problems that arise. 

This brings to mind the early days of rockets and guided missiles. A branch of mathematics known as optimal control was used, to plot the optimal trajectory. But it was quickly discovered that rockets and missiles are constantly buffeted by unexpected forces – winds, humidity, temperature. You cannot plan the rocket’s trajectory just once and expect it to reach its planned destination. You have to recalculate the trajectory every millisecond. This is known as adaptive control.   

In project management, a set-in-concrete project plan is often built. But almost invariably it quickly becomes irrelevant. You need an adaptive dynamic approach in order for your project ‘rocket’ to hit its target.
I recently had the privilege of evaluating a Ph.D. dissertation written by Laufer’s student, Zvi Zilick. Zilick has some grey hair and has long experience in managing projects. His thesis was unusual – it comprised 10 detailed case studies of successful dynamic project management, including a highly unusual story of an emergency heart operation to repair damaged heart valves. I wish every project manager could read these fine case studies. They combine both Zvi’s experience and the insightful experience of those whose stories he recounts. 

In two books (and a new forthcoming one) Laufer explains his own principles of dynamic project management that contradict the current conventional wisdom. I recommend that every innovator read his 2000 book, co-authored by E. Hoffman, Project Management Success Stories (Wiley, NY). You learn more from successes than failures, Laufer notes, because there are millions of wrong ways to run projects (and fail), but only a few successful right ways. 

How can you improve your own project management? First, read case-studies of successful project management. Second, drop your set-in-stone project models. Third, build in to your project plans buffers and ‘shock absorbers’ that permit flexibility. Fourth, remember that managing projects is not about steel girders or transistors, but rather it is about people. Laufer finds that ‘soft’ behavioral variables like interpersonal trust are far more important than ‘hard’ engineering variables. For example, do team members tell the truth? If they are slipping in their timetable, will they tell the project leader in time?   

Projects are dynamic. Managing them, therefore, must also be dynamic. Why has it taken the discipline of project management so long to realize this?