Project Decisions: Saving a Fawn or Diverting a River
The stark reality that nature dictates what lives and what dies is something that similarly happens in project management. A project that is failing may never recover, and, just as the mother deer leaves its fawn, sometimes the project manager must abandon the project.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do. If the mother was near, staying there could scare her away; plus, I had a lot of work to do. High snow levels from the winter had caused a nearby river to flow directly toward my cabin. To stop the building from sinking, I was going to need to redirect the river myself. Yet, just leaving that little deer on the ground would be personally unforgivable. Flies were already starting to swarm over him, and the sun was growing hot.
In animals, a mother, knowing that her baby will not survive, often abandons it. Assuming this was the case, I took him in, cleaned him up, and drove to the nearest town to look for a way to feed him. Being a holiday, wildlife services, veterinarians, and feed stores were all closed. I bought a quart of milk recommended from a local farmer, hoping the deer would get enough nutrition until the stores opened.
I stayed up all night nursing the deer back to health. He learned to walk and had even started following me around. But, in the morning, the fawn lost all strength. Over the course of an hour, he could no longer swallow his food, and his breathing came to a stop.
Now, what on earth does this sad story have to do with project management?
To me, the stark reality that nature dictates what lives and what dies is something that similarly happens in project management. A project that is failing may never recover, and, just as the mother deer had left, sometimes the project manager must abandon the project. This may sound like a harsh, emotionless statement - comparing a non-living monetary idea with a beautiful living creature - but I only mention it for the sake of the metaphor. In a way, not abandoning some projects can actually be life-threatening to a business. For instance, when important projects with a lot of time and resources invested into them begin to decline, abandonment later in the life of the project will be more difficult than in the beginning. In other words, projects that seem to be problematic right from the start will most often need to be dismissed before management gets too complicated.
Also, there are projects that have priority over others. For the mother deer, her “project” involved her own survival, and she knew she could do nothing for her baby. For me, my project priority was to stop the cabin from sinking into the river. Instead I cared for the fawn. Meanwhile, in those few days alone, the water level rose by about a foot.
But, for me, trying to recuperate the deer was a rewarding experience. Had I left him outside in the flies I would not be able to forgive myself. Sometimes, this is how projects go. We see that a project is failing, but we still see the potential for life. We can nourish it to strength and watch it stand up, but, if something is inherently wrong with the project, nothing can be done.
Personally, I don’t see every failed project as a negative thing. As long as work is still getting done, a lot can be learned from an unsuccessful project. It may even be a principle of ethics to stay with a failing project.
Sometimes you have to try to save the fawn. Doing so might complicate other pressing projects, but, there’s always the next weekend to redirect the river.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sifting through his personal experiences, social observations, and a variety of philosophies, Robert Steele writes on many subjects, particularly that of project management. Robert provides unique, easy-to-understand answers to one of the most misunderstood questions of his discipline: "What is project management?".