Did you ever wonder what the kangaroo rat, watermelon, and project manager have in common? No need. Pour yourself a glass of wine, light some candles, make yourself comfortable, and have a great read.
Watermelon project is a project that is green on the surface, but very much red inside.
Generally, the inconsistency of the actual state and its PR cocoon is actually much more prevalent than the state of projecting naked truth. It’s healthy when we’re talking make-up or complementing clothing, but not so much when we’re talking civil liberties in the “Democratic” Republic of Congo, a foreign policy of Russia or side effects of vaccination.
In the context of portfolio management, we should prefer the ugliest truth over the prettiest lie. PR is like cholesterol. When the level of PR in your internal channels of communication gets too high, actual information can’t get through. This is a life-threating situation. The organization basically gets high on its own supply. The orchestra on the Titanic plays the waltz, and everyone is dancing, hoping to skirt the shoals of bankruptcy.
There are two major causes of the occurrence of watermelon projects.
Firstly, this could be an evolutionary response. Many animals in the wild live in fear of being eaten. Since it’s quite difficult to pass on the genes when you’re dead, animals spent the last billion years figuring out how to avoid it. This is how antipredator behavior came into being.
It is strikingly similar to what we call risk management. The risk could be avoided, and so can predators. For instance, kangaroo rats shift from nocturnal to crepuscular foraging during a full moon, when they are more vulnerable. Some reptiles can change color hue and pattern of their skin to blend into their background. Ring a bell, anyone?
I’m not saying that the modern corporation is essentially a jungle. We have AC and coffee, but they would most likely outperform us on a business run.
Antipredator behavior can be innate. The way we are handling stress, for instance, is not well suited to the contemporary realities. It was shaped many years ago in the jungle when our business runs were not as fun as they are now. Analogically, the PM’s camouflage can be an evolutionary response to the threat that used to exist generations ago, but it could well be a rational behavior in an irrational organization.
The first one can be treated by a calm conversation and perhaps psychotherapy for the most severe cases. The irrational organization issue is a subject for another time.
The second most common reason for having watermelon project in the portfolio is garden-variety incompetence. This could be easily fixed by injections of knowledge directly into the brain. When the organ in question has a normal size, this is pretty trivial. When it’s not, you can miss, and this could cause messy complications such as the Eardrum That Knows Too Much. Some rare cases of complications similar in nature gave birth to the term “smartass.”
PR levels in the internal channels of communication should be regularly controlled and adjusted if necessary.
Senior management’s behavior must be visibly different from that of a saber-toothed cat. If the troops are afraid of their commanding officers, it’s no good. Well-run organizations need a free flow of high-quality information as much as the brain needs oxygen. Everything that prevents the information flow or lowers its quality is a disease that must be vigorously treated in a timely manner.
PMs should be encouraged to report objective measures whenever possible. They should report calmly, without fear of being eaten alive.
After all, a project’s status update is a dish best served cold.