The growth cycle of most successful businesses includes expeditions into new markets, but the point of entry and practice often varies to a large degree between them. One example of this is the second attempt of Communication Solutions (ComSol), an AT&T retailor, to break into the Dallas-Fort Worth market in Texas. This project took the form of rapidly opening three retail locations across the region within Lucas, Fort Worth, and McKinney. While the process of opening these retail locations was largely similar to previous operations, it is important to note that the core element was always a localized start-up program run by the regional leadership from Oklahoma. Considering they were successful in opening the storefronts, the overall project could be considered a success, but it faced multiple delays and setbacks including but not limited to the loss of core staff, non-existent floor traffic, structural confusion, faulty technology, and a lack of merchandise. This text will explore the theoretical underpinning of these events and the aspects of project mismanagement that led to them to offer actionable recommendations to prevent similar impediments from arising in the future. That exploration will focus on two specific areas: Risk Management and Stakeholder Management. By abstracting these practices from the rest of the setbacks, it should be possible to develop a more effective expansion strategy going forward.
One of the defining moments for this project occurred during the preparation to open the Lucas store when a visiting senior member of the company insisted on keeping the original schedule despite a wide array of known technical problems and the open disagreement from local staff. This eventually led to a disastrous opening for both the store and the overall project because those minor system problems resulted in employees being unable to complete customer requests and more than a few negative reviews that still plague the store. In all reality, this could have been avoided if more time and resources had been dedicated to troubleshooting required systems or if leadership had listened to the employees on the ground floor and prioritized the known problems with the system. Drawing from last week’s lectures the opening should have been a paint by numbers project for a company like ComSol that had already opened several dozen stores across rural and central Oklahoma. Unfortunately, the lack of a meaningful feedback mechanism and case-specific risk management resulted in this seemingly simple project rapidly devolving into a marketing nightmare. However, before addressing those specifics, it would be best to contextualize the store opening as a starting point because it was the company’s first attempt to re-enter a challenging market and set the tone for the rest of the project.
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Looking at the situation from the application of chaos theory as described Cooke-Davis et al (2007) establishes the opening as a temporal “edge of chaos” (p.53 & 54) with the possibility to result in either order (a preferable out-come) or chaos (what occurred). The potential is critical here because it highlights the branching paths to consider when evaluating risks. Functionally, chaos theory provides a framework for project managers to expect unknown unknowns because it recognises complex sequences of events as either the change to or results of a nonlinear system (Cooke-Davis et al, 2007). Analysing leadership decisions by contextualizing them within an inherently volatile situation allows a more functional understanding of simple decisions. The decision to not prioritize technology that has already been identified as a potential risk allowed for unique aspects of the project like regional connectivity or a different internet service provider to fly under the radar resulting in a ripple effect that still impacts the business. While the existence of complex systems isn't solely to blame for leadership mistakes, it does provide a useful framing mechanism for the lack of risk management that took place.
No human being wants to consider the possibility that a failure is an option let alone an inevitability, but it should be the first line of logic to be pursued by any project manager because it will expose the obvious stress points, they need to develop a strategy to mitigate or accept. Drawing from the textbook, risk management in its simplest form operates in a three-step process: Identification, Quantification, Mitigation. Or more simply put, what is it, how bad is it, what can be done about it? While this is a clear oversimplification, it does provide a functional framework for beginning the process of risk management because it forces the practitioner to engage with each of the required steps at a surface level. This simplification fails when obvious conclusions can accurately represent the scope of the problem. Looking back at Lucas, the following risks were identified and mitigated; training employees in high-performance environments, product overflow, and direct oversight from company executives. However, these precautions all assumed that there wouldn’t be other problems within the system.
In the end, those precautions didn’t have the ability to address more subtle issues like those outlined above because they were either deemed unlikely or not to have a big enough impact to justify intervention. On the theoretical side, Cooke-Davis et al (2007) describes an element of chaos theory called the butterfly effect that addresses how even minor changes can result in massive impacts. In this way, Lucas represents a clear example of the butterfly effect because a singular decision point led to multiple problems. In reality, planning around every possible risk is impractical and functionally impossible so applying a process like failure mode effect analysis (FMEA) would lead to more effective decision making. Contextualizing this to Lucas, the hideability factor of FMEA would have ensured that technology failure would have been prioritized since it directly impacted the front-end customer experience. Even if this initial risk analysis fails to identify critical stress points, the dynamic nature of risk management should have the ability to mitigate most risks before they escalate.
Finally, it is important to explore the dyadic relationship between company culture and risk management. Based on previous lectures recognizing a company’s risk appetite is an important step for developing an appropriate program management plan, but this can be further specified to individual leaders within the corporate structure. Lucas specifically operated on a unidirectional risk evaluation system so the management would identify risk and inform employees of their responsibilities in the mitigation process, but when employees raised a concern it was largely disregarded. This created an environment defined by seniority. Despite the fact new hires were the majority of the population, their concerns would consistently be defined as inexperience with the software or a misunderstanding of company policy leading to a lack of interest and little to no action. This unequal power dynamic led to minimum effective responses to known problems.
Beyond this static form of risk management, the divide between workers and management continued to be an almost constant stress point throughout the days leading up to the opening and in the weeks immediately after. This stress would take the form of several employees quitting due to lack of customers (they were in commission-based positions), miscommunication between local and regional management about approved marketing/community outreach strategies, and near-constant company policy changes to try and resolve known issues. While the majority of these can be defined as corporate strategy or correction, it is important to note how this impacted the employees as stakeholders for the remainder of the project. Considering Lucas was the first store in the region, the problems it faced set the tone for Fort Worth as well. While it certainly didn't suffer from the same technical problems as Lucas, the lack of effective stakeholder management marred the Fort Worth opening.
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Internally, employees felt they weren’t prioritized by the company so there was less energy during the preparation for the opening celebration. This represents the power of vision as a project management tool as described by Christenson and Walker in 2004. Leadership can use vision as a foundational tool in project management because it motivates all parties to engage with a specified challenge, but they continue by providing several core components of effective vision making including accessibility, credibility, and a motivational call to action (Christenson and Walker, 2004). In this way, Fort Worth could be considered less successful than Lucas because the team involved no longer had the same passion for the project. This reshaped the way people interacted with the project and moved the majority from golden triangles to moaners. This took the form of fewer and less expansive outreach efforts by the local team, and eventually a single-digit turn-out for the opening celebration. While the external impacts were rather obvious, it is harder to quantify the internal impacts. As discussed above, it was clear there had been a shift on the synergy-agonism scale. The lack of faith in leadership resulted in near constant questions in team meetings, and many employees doing the bare minimum in terms of outreach. At least point, there were very few members of the original team among the staff, and those who remained were actively looking for other opportunities.
Conclusion and Core Recommendations
The ComSol examples above highlight the importance of the human element within project management. Leadership can have extensive plans for each stage of the operation, but if the people carrying out those plans are unable to meet the requirements, they are functionally useless. The core failures of the project can be summarized in the following three ways: a lack of contextualizes risk management, a failure to maintain effective communication, and an utter breakdown in the team dynamic. In this way, both Lucas and Fort Worth can be classified as failures of project management, but the reality is that the stores remain open despite a global pandemic so they could be classified as corporate success stories. In order to minimize the likelihood of repeating these errors, it is recommended that ComSol establish a more agile form of project management going forward. Specifically, having personnel focused on a single project so they can build interpersonal relationships with the staff and more effectively contextualize solutions to the situation at hand. While opening a store may be a paint by number operation, entering a region with a unique market falls more in line with a quest project.
Outside of agile project management, establishing a clearer framework for risk analysis such as FMEA would lead to more concrete decision making. If widely applied, it could open the door for employees to potential risks to leadership in a more concrete method. This would open the door for a more multidirectional and dynamic form of management that actively encourages employee engagement and maintains their involvement throughout the process. In addition to reshaping the method the company engages with risks, it would allow a more precise calculation of risk. Finally, the largest recommendation is to provide an avenue for effect feedback so team members have the ability to shape the project as opposed to engaging as passive observers.
- Cooke-Davies, T., Cicmil, S., Crawford, L. and Richardson, K. (2007) ‘We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto: Mapping the Strange Landscape of Complexity Theory, and Its Relationship to Project Management’, Project Management Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 50–61.
- Christenson, D. and Walker, D.H.T (2004) ‘Understanding the Role of “Vision” in Project Success’, Project Management Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 39–52.
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