Resilience Engineering #26: Organizational Fatigue – Task duration, Schedule and Politics!

by Gary Monti on December 21, 2011

Having a root canal without Novocain can frequently be less painful than getting task durations from team members. Why does this occur especially when most people want to do a good job and feel significant?

The answer lies in the politics of scheduling. You might recall that in situations requiring resilient engineering being starved for resources is one of the conditions. So what can you do? Below is a simple chart I use to coax needed information from subject matter experts (SMEs).

Protect, Protect, Protect

We all are familiar with the win-lose approach to estimating tasks. SMEs are swamped with way too much work so they overestimate. The manager is aware of the padding and cuts the duration. It all ends up being a replay of the old Sheep Dog – Coyote cartoons where parties are maneuvering to maximize their position…all at the expense of project success.

Here is a simple chart that can help get needed information while simultaneously addressing the politics involved:

 

Task Name Duration Assumptions Stakeholders PM’s actions

 

It is presented this way to show a deliverable-oriented approach. In other words, the focus is on being task-oriented and putting the contextual and “softer” concerns later in the chart. This is good for reporting – the scheduling side of life.

In reality I work the chart in a different order, focusing on the political side of life:

 

Task Name Assumptions Stakeholders PM’s actions Duration

 

A deeper dive on the meaning of each column header will help.

  • Task Name. This actually goes deeper than just putting a name of something. Checking in with the SME to make sure the task is defined accurately is the essential. The task has to have meaning for the person doing the work. I can say, “Price a trip to New York.” It sounds clear but there is more information that is needed for the travel agent (SME) to execute properly. In other words, a good travel agent will generate a design specification, e.g., first class, stay at 3 star hotel, etc., and from there, with my approval, will generate the tasks needed to price the trip.
  • Assumptions. Remember what “assume” does? It makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Checking in with the SME as to what assumptions are being made is vital. In complex environments the context is shifting. The project sits on a dancing terrain. Knowing what the assumptions are and having them up on the table where they are understood by all and openly discussed will help dampen the politics and keep the project stable.
    This part of the conversation is critical. It actually is about risk management. “Assumption analysis” seems to be easier for people to swallow than “risk analysis.” The whole thing gets to be moot since people roll right in to risk analysis once you get through the icebreaker. In other words, you’ll get good information to the extent you are trustworthy.
  • Stakeholders. This is a vital part. I ask the SME, “Who impacts your work and how?” Here is where my work as the PM comes into play. Listening to who helps or hurts the SMEs ability to get the task completed starts a process. The process is putting together a playbook as to how the PM needs to navigate the politics of the situation so the SME can stay on task.
    All of the above works best as an open conversation. It is about building trust. The quality of the number I get as to task duration has to do with the level of trust the SME has in his/her ability to work and the political surroundings.
  • Duration. Here is where a big paradox comes into play. The PM can ask for durations only to the extent the PM is willing to run cover for the SME. Again, it’s about the trust. Once I commit to addressing the politics of holding the schedule together the SME can be challenged to give as realistic a number as possible.

All of this information can be rolled up into a realistic project plan. This includes pointing out where things are stable and where the company has a certain part of its anatomy sticking out the window! Notice, I said “realistic” not necessarily “doable.” You’ll be able to gauge what you can do with what you have in the given risk…er…assumption environment.

The next blog will look at managing the next step in dealing with task duration, schedule, and politics – managing upward in the organization –  and put this information to work.

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