Is “Whack-A-Mole” a Legitimate Project Management Technique?

The object of whack-a-mole, a popular arcade game, is to use a mallet to quickly knock the moles that randomly pop up back into their holes. 

The game requires quick reactions and definitive action to keep the moles at bay.  If you’re good, you can put the moles back in their hole, at least temporarily.

At times project management feels just like a game of whack-a-mole – identify issues, react quickly, do whatever is needed to make the issue go away, and move on to the next one.

Is a whack-a-mole technique actually a tool that project managers should master and use when needed?  Isn’t reacting to issues quickly a good thing and a trait that should be fostered?

In the real game of whack-a-mole the same “issues” keep popping up over and over no matter how hard you whack them. 

In a real project it’s a terrible waste of time and resources to manage the same issue more than once.  When things get crazy during your project you need to take the time to effectively manage the issues that pop up so that they’re solved permanently.

No matter how good you are at risk management (preventing issues), issues will occur.  Using effective techniques to manage those issues go beyond whacking them and hoping they go away.

Effective Issue Management Techniques

Here are a few of the most important things to include in your issue management process:

  • Rapid identification – The earlier you identify an issue the less damage it can do
  • Tracking – Make issues visible so that proper attention is given to their resolution
  • Assessment – Quickly assess and prioritize the issue – how much damage can it cause and therefore how much energy and urgency should be put into resolving it? 
  • Assign ownership – Identify who is responsible for resolving the issue
  • Resolution – Get to the root cause so that you know the issue won’t reoccur
  • Lessons learned – Take the time to learn from the issues and revise future project phases so that the issues don’t reoccur

The final step, lessons learned, should be a continuous process and not something that’s put off to the end of a project. As a result, you can capture the lesson while the issue is still fresh in your mind and benefit from the improvement for the duration of the project.

A simple but effective issue tracking matrix is shown below:

Of course you could add more columns as needed for your situation but in my experience it’s better to keep it simple otherwise the log becomes cumbersome to use and maintain.

Whack-a-mole is a fun and intense arcade game.  Leave it at the arcade by using strong risk management and effective issue management on your projects.

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