Project Practitioners > Presidential Legacy and Projects

Presidential Legacy and Projects

By Kent McDonald

I have always been a big believer that the best time to do lessons learned is when you can act on the lessons learned to make your future efforts most effective. As a result, I tend to do frequent retrospectives during a project and down play the value of post project retrospectives. Some recent experiences have led me to draw a correlation between projects and Presidential legacy, and change my philosophy on noting lessons learned after the end of a project.

Yes, you read that right, I am now going to walk that thin line between scholarly historical analysis and partisan pot shots trying to prove a point about lessons learned. Here's the premise; the impression of a president right after they leave office can often be dramatically different 10, 50, or 100 years down the road as time starts to put a distance between the raw political opinions of the presidents contemporaries, and the actual actions of a particular administration can be seen in full context of historical hindsight. Take Abraham Lincoln. It'd fair to say that today he is considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, US Presidents. But at the end of the Civil War, he was far from the most popular person in North America a fact that led to his tragically shortened second term. The change in opinion about a president of course cuts both ways, where the high opinion of a president when he leaves office takes quite a few hits as time passes. Take John F. Kennedy for example. People may have known about his infidelity when he was president, but they certainly never said anything about it. In either situation the reason for opinion changes are the pieces of information that come to light about the inner workings of the presidency.

Projects are much the same way. What looked like a successful project right after it was done, could display much different characteristics a couple of weeks, months, or even years later as the deliverables from the project are implemented and used. Projects that looked like a success initially when gauged against the goals of on time and under budget appear to be less successful when viewed from a vantage point a few months later. Consider a couple of examples:

  • A project introduces a new feature for your product that you think will make your customer's lives easier and save you lots of money in the process, but when you release that feature, the response is less than stellar, certainly not to the level you were counting on when you put together your original business case.

  • Project A as part of its scope produced a deliverable that Project B is dependent upon. Only after a few months when Project B gets to using the results from Project A does it become apparent that the deliverable from Project A did not sufficiently meet the needs of Project B.

Ouch...So what do you do? Well first thing is address the problems that arise; not always the simplest thing to do since the projects that had the collection of people best positioned to resolve the issues have disbanded. But next, learn from the problems. Chances are if you were involved with projects that built the legacy, you will find out about issues that have occurred since it was implemented. When you hear about them, don't beat yourself up about them (hard not to do, I know) but rather think back to what happened during the project and what led to the situations that resulted. Then, keep those things in mind and use them as leading indicators for potential risks on your current projects. And finally, and this could be difficult, share those experiences with your peers.

That's one reason historians study past presidential administrations – to identify things that led to unintended consequences but weren't obvious at the time and share those thoughts with future leaders. Whether those future leaders choose to listen, well that's up to them.

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