Each mission embarked by an organization comes up with its own complexity, size, time frame, human and material-resource requirements, and other characteristics. Accordingly, each mission brings its unique signature with it. Amidst all the uniqueness, all missions have a strong commonality: the need for a successful completion of the mission. And, for methodical “missionaries”, successful completions of missions are usual occurrences. However, sooner of later everyone would meet up with instances that pose more serious difficulties that emerge as threats to the missions, which may end up in failure if they are not mitigated in time. Therefore, the art of averting failures of a mission becomes a prized trait in any complex mission. This article hopes to share some lessons with die-hard missionaries, which we all are forced to become in unique ways.
The root cause of failure in a mission is the deficiency in its building blocks, such as strategy, plan, time, knowledge, expertise, management, employee, equipment, money, will, belief, or discipline. Some say that the human factors are the largest of all in the success and failures of missions and seek the three Cs in their personnel: Competency, Commitment, and Character. Therefore, they try to evaluate those three characters before they even induct an individual in the team. However, once all ingredients are tentatively set, the mission is embarked; the flexibilities start to diminish; and the mission starts forming a structure. At the end of every mission there would be a residue called the mission-outcome, which may be of many kinds. But, for the sake of brevity, let them be categorized as three: product, service, and knowledge. Their characteristics vary in such a way that the first one is finished and then sold; the second one is sold while being finished; and the third one is sold when it can demonstrate that it is possible to finish. You, therefore, may constrain and constrict your product as long as the core value is preserved, competitive advantage is not lost, and there is enough justification for the customer to buy. A service is less conducive for self-imposition of constrictions; its guts and skeletons are more visible; it is more prone to disagreements; and you are at a higher mercy of external factors. And, developing new knowledge is the most risky of all as it is embarked with the most number of uncertainties; it is the most exposed to external factors; and it may even prove impossible to accomplish. However, all missions would have one thing in common that their failures may bring severe negative consequences for the organization that embarks the mission.
A mission is supposed to be time bound by nature. Therefore, the time becomes one of the more untouchable commodities. Therefore, the time must be broken into a series of time slots and the major deficits for the completion of the mission should be identified by the passages of the first few time slots. By that time, the strength of your “horses” and the sufficiency of your “gear” must be known and, consequently, it should be possible to predict whether the “convoy” can take you to the destination in time. The most important clue you must gather is to know if you have assigned the task of a horse to a donkey. If you realize that such an assignment has been made, you will squander your mission if you attempt to push your donkey to perform like a horse. Better identify what a donkey can do and let it contribute in that capacity. You let some horse finish the rest of the work. Reconfigure the mission early enough so there is time for risk management. In more technical language it can be said that the most potent weapon available to a missionary in an already embarked mission is the “identification of risks and their mitigation”.
It makes us question, “What is that technique that lets us predict that some streams of tasks in the mission are going to falter?” A vague answer could be the measurement of project parameters and their comparison with the target values. However, the simplest of it would be the comparison of project plan with the project execution. In plain words: are we reaching milestones in time or not? A “no” as answer is often enough to know that we are facing a problem.
If face of this “no” answer, often employed techniques are: 1) more regularly reminding the urgency, importance, and timeline to the team, 2) collecting progress report at a smaller interval, and 3) asking the person assigned to the task whether it can be done or not, 4) micro-analyzing all the things that have been done, and that can be done. However, these techniques do not seem to produce outcome unless the work was faltering due to lack of commitment and sincerity. And, if these techniques have utility in finding problems of personal or emotional nature, a caution is required as they could potentially aggravate such problems further. Let us briefly focus on the problems that originate from technical challenges faced by the mission while being conscious that technical failures can also give rise to personal problems if not handled correctly.
The tracking of whether or not, or to what extent, the deadlines are met would give us vital clues about the prospect of success in a project. And, when the deadlines are missed, we must identify what key ingredient was lacking. But to reach there, we must identify whether the people involved in the execution of the task could articulate deficient factors and request for their mitigation by or before the deadline, and if they could do that on their own. If what is asked is more time, the task is likely more difficult than the expertise of the team and the technical challenges are greater than the capacity of the team. In that case, problem is likely bigger than any assembly of more material and gear can take us.
The manager should then either find expertise or negotiate the project mandate such that proper provision could be made to build the expertise. This will require re-organization of the project schedule and that of the team. If outright expertise is unavailable, there comes an issue of training, trainer, trainee, and trainability. Experiences tell that the person with the expertise is not necessarily the best person to train others. There may be a suitable third person who could be better teacher than the person who bears the knowledge, and who bears the expertise. In an organization destined for a long future, there must be a formal group to deliver training on the product, practices, environment, and culture of the organization. However, an organization may safely delegate the training of generic knowledge to the marketplace. But in the end, expertise must be within the reach or else the mandate of the mission must be re-negotiated. Although such re-negotiation would be hard to swallow to ordinary mortals like us, it is an absolute necessity and not doing so would invite our own peril. It is better to be battered and alive than dead and there is no alternative than re-negotiation in those circumstances.
Negotiating the quantity and scope of the faltering mission make all the exercise worthwhile once again and allows the mission to take a different trajectory than plunging onto a fall. It is better to recognize the fall and steer around with limited success than opting for a sure fall. Even when problem stemmed from breakdown of inter-personal relationships and emotional tranquility, first line of work should be the safeguard of the mission and the safeguard of the people and to not personalize the problem.
In sum, a thoughtful missionary must recognize the fall in advance and steer around with lesser but safer catch than latching onto the expectation of great catch and plunge into the fall and perish.