Stop Slowly Boiling the Project Frog

You’ve probably read or heard of the story of the boiling frog, about an experiment involving a poor frog that is boiled alive. The story goes like this: if a frog is thrown into boiling water, it jumps out immediately. However, if the frog is put into cool water that is gradually heated, the animal will not notice the slow rise in temperature and will ultimately be boiled to death. Apart from being a cruel experiment (apparently dating back to 19th century), there is quite a bit of controversy about whether this is actually true or is it just a metaphor used by writers to describe human behaviour (see for more background).

Whether frogs behave like this or not, the effect described in this anecdote is found in many (probably most) projects. Suddenly declaring there is a major delay causes everyone: project managers, team members, and sponsors to call for a meeting to discuss emergency plans.  But a repeated delay of a milestone by just a few days, followed by the same thing with the next milestone and the next is typically accepted.  This behaviour is often accompanied by statements like:

“It will be ready in just a couple of days”, “Before we take any actions, just wait until the end of the week”, “we should really be close…”

How can you detect if you have a “boiling frog” in your project? A very simple yet powerful tool is a milestone trend chart like that shown below.  You list the projected due date of a milestone at different points in time and you immediately can see if you are heading for trouble.  The chart clearly shows how milestones are getting delayed week over week.  Or you see that the start of a phase is being delayed, but the end date is staying the same.  These are all signs that its time to start raising some project flags.

A simple yet powerful tool for project managers and project sponsors to get one indicator of overall health of a project.

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