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Large projects are like Schrödinger’s Cat: Alive and dead – Who dares to open the Box?



Disclaimer: No cats were harmed in preparing this article.


Schrödinger’s Cat was a thought experiment from Erwin Schrödinger. Originally thought to show the weirdness of quantum theory, it became the most prominent but slightly dark explanation for it: A cat sits in a sealed steel box with a flask of poison, a small radioactive source, and a Geiger counter connected to a hammer. The radioactive source decays with a certain probability. If it decays the Geiger counter will release the hammer and destroy the flask of poison and kill the cat. Looking at the box from outside there is no chance of knowing if the cat is still alive. Before you open the box, the cat is both: Alive and dead at the same time.


How does the project - aka the cat - ends up in a box?


Large-scale projects with several sub-projects and streams and high budgets are not easy to assess. Project managers and sponsors look at a box. Project reports are thought to be the instrument to measure the vital signs. One challenge is that the reports to the program lead or steering committee are cascaded, filtered, and often catered to the project expectations, leadership mood, and own career goals.

In addition, projects are calculated while wearing rose-colored glasses and have little financial cushions for failures or significant delays. The premise “fail fast” is nice but rarely calculated into the plan and failing is not accepted as normal part of project life. Even if we say, “Fail fast” it means “If you fail, please do it early and only with little budget impacts”. But failing can happen in almost any stage of a project.


As a result, the instrument made from progress and financial reports is not showing the full reality of the cat.

During my career, I arrived at several projects where I could sense after couple of days: This is a dead project, but it’s kept alive artificially with reports and money.


who is brave enough to open the box?


The person opening the box is only praised if the cat is still alive but will be prominently disliked if the cat is dead. Almost every employee with career aspirations within the company will think twice before opening the box. External consultants (and I truly believe in the value of external consultants for companies, but that’s a totally different article) will also think twice before risking a client relationship.


What can you do?


1) First and foremost: Do not put the cat in a box!

This can be achieved by establishing reporting types and styles that give better indications. Before the project starts, put early alert KPIs in place to measure the vital signs of the project and agree on steps to be taken if an alert KPI “rings”. Include coaching to unveil hidden potentials and issues.


2) Always be prepared that the beloved cat, you thought, will make your life better and brighter, might be dead.

No matter how careful you plan and report, how skilled and engaged the team is, the hammer might swing and kill the project. Therefore, think of alternative scenarios - a replacement cat - if it goes wrong. She might not be as fluffy, but she will do the trick and make you happy.

Ask around successful entrepreneurs, they often had to let go of the original idea and pivot.


Your cat is already in a box?


If your project-cat is already in a box:

  • Decide on unboxing rules and process: Who? How? Why? And post-unboxing: And now, what?

  • ·A specialized coach can open the box with you. Coaching creates a neutral ground, makes issues and status visible and helps determine best outcomes for the participants.


To each saint its candle…


It’s quite common to read in newspapers some almost gloating, smart-alec headlines in case a company stops a major project after millions of dollars burned. But behind every of these headlines there’s a brave person who opened the box and poked the cat. Let’s pause a minute and think of all these unsung heroes.


Are you about to open a box? Let’s talk how I can help you.

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