Posts Tagged ‘Resilient Systems’

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.

Vigilance on the project manager’s (PM) part is critical to addressing organizational fatigue. In line with that one behavior the PM can display falls under #8 of Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Sharpen your saw.

This habit is about building a sustainable process. Sustaining can be very challenging in fatigue situations. You may not be able to avoid it completely but you just might be able to lessen its effect.

Sharpen Your Saw

Let’s take a look at what the PM and team can do. Below are some tips I’ve learned over the years.

  • Breathe. This is probably the single most important activity. It symbolizes letting go of reactivity. Reactivity causes narrowing of one’s field of vision, near-sightedness, deafness, and the inability communicate. Stepping back from the situation and breathing helps re-establish connection with and between team members as well as raising awareness. Awareness is vital for seeing just what is happening. Proactive opportunities become visible.
  • Regular Risk Reviews. The team needs to be grounded in order to proceed successfully. Interdependence is vital. Regular risk review sessions covering threats, opportunities, problems, and windfalls helps the team stay connected and re-orient as the environment shifts. (In the next blog we will look at how this rolls into creating realistic schedules and dealing with project politics.) If things are really difficult, a 15-20 minute teleconference/meeting each morning can go a long way towards maintaining cohesiveness on the team and maintaining direction.
  •  Bring in Fresh Eyes. Ask a trusted individual to sit in on a few meetings simply to state what they see. This can help team members pull their face out of the mud, which was pushed there by the organizational fatigue.
  • Pizza and Coke. Take the team out and give them a chance to kick back. It helps with breathing.
  • Restate Quality Goals. Reminding people of why they are on the project along with hearing their version of what they are trying to accomplish will help quite a bit. This activity ties into the risk review quite well.

The importance of this is reflected in one event from Monty Python’s Twit Olympics – the 100-yard dash for the spatially disoriented. When the gun went off everyone ran 100 yards as fast as they could in different directions! Everyone listening to each other state the quality goals will help the team maintain proper orientation.

  • Assess resource requirements. Avoid driving yourself nuts trying to figure out how to get 3 people to do the work of 10. You can’t. Your options are few and simple and comprise some combination of the following: cut scope, extend schedule, or get more resources. That’s all there is to it. Might be painful but it still is simple.
  • Pester Up The Food Chain. Keep senior stakeholders informed of the project status. This is especially important when resources are in short supply. A simple measure of the degree of disconnection on senior managements part is reflected in how often they use the word “should.” The more you hear it, the closer you need to get to senior management in keeping the reality of the project up on the table.

This also applies to dealing with functional managers who control resources. If the estimate calls for Einstein and Newton and all you are getting are Bevis and Butthead then the situation needs addressed ASAP. This is also true if you are getting people part-time when full-time is in the estimate.

Simple, frequent teleconferences and/or meetings to reinforce these points will go a long way towards the team keeping its self-respect and staying proactive. In the next blog we will look at coaxing task durations from the team and tying it into protecting the team from organizational fatigue.

Resilience Engineering #24: Thanksgiving and Success

by Gary Monti on November 29, 2011

Thanksgiving has provided a great time to inventory what is good about life. For myself, that included looking at things from a business perspective. One of the line items is project success. This may seem a bit funny since resilience engineering is about accidents, failures, damage, etc. The reality, though, is resilience engineering asks the question:

Why does failure occur when people plan to succeed and work to do just that?

Focus on Sustained Success

In line with Thanksgiving and in its simplest form the resilient engineering frame of mind avoids taking success for granted. Stated another way, it is a proactive approach to failure that is done in a unique way and answers the question:

What does it take to establish and maintain continued success?

One of my favorite people, Andy Groves, co-founder of Intel, to this day has a piercing focus regarding this question. He is a professional paranoid regarding success. Does that mean he has a negative attitude? Quite the contrary. He is just aware that while success can be quite powerful it is also paradoxically frail. Forces both within and without the project or organization need to be constantly monitored and managed to keep the project or even the entire organization on a balanced footing.

Part of Thanksgiving is appreciation of a powerful sponsor who avoids reacting to someone yelling, “squirrel!” and, instead, stays close to the project, practices governance, and avoids micromanagement.

This brings us to another line item regarding Thanksgiving, having subject matter expert who take full responsibility for their work. This not only includes doing the work but also addressing the associated quality and risk management PLUS being aware of the ripple effect behaviors have on other parts of the project.

When these things occur we all have something to be thankful for, can genuinely be at peace, and are free of the need for the tryptophan that comes from eating too much turkey.

Large, complex projects can be a lot like war. They are started in the name of situations or principles that get run over, ignored, or destroyed completely. World War II was started to preserve the sovereign independence of Poland, which ended up under the boot of Stalin by wars end.

In terms of organizational fatigue, the historian Thucydides in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” provides insight into the interplay between power, justice, and personal damage. From a complex project perspective, it is about what occurs when we set in motion something much larger than ourselves with many strange attractors, forces that can have dramatic effects.

The Melian dialogue is a great example. It covers the extermination of the entire adult male population of a minor island in the Aegean Sea, Melos. Because of Athens’s paranoid fear Melos’s continued neutrality in the war might be viewed as a sign of weakness on Athens’s part, Athens brought pressure to bear for Melos to join Athens against Sparta.

For perspective, think of how a senior manager can come down disproportionately on an individual or small group when the project is experiencing difficulties that are much larger than the people being victimized. This can be a particular expression of organizational fatigue. Thucydides asked, “How can this happen?” His answer comprises one main point: context over character.

The Fog of Projects

Projects get started for the best of reasons. They can lose their way, though, and people start doing crazy things because the control or perception of control is at risk of being lost. The emotionality of the situation sweeps over good people and in the name of repairing the situation draconian measures may be used.

When emotionality sets in character gets thrown out the window.

This is what happened in the Melian extermination. The fog created by over-thinking the situation sent the Athenians into a death spiral that lead to the massacre being the only thing  a just and powerful person could do. The Athenians lost their way. They abandoned their character, got caught up in the moment, and behaved insanely. The weight of the entire war was brought to bear on a tiny population in the belief relief would be achieved and the Athenians would move on towards victory over the Spartans.

Before brushing this aside as something that could easily be avoided take a look at a rather simple example that shows how easily the craziness can set in. Look at the project of laying a roof. One of the most important jobs is drawing a chalk line. This must be done if the roof is to be true. That chalk line is a metaphor for character, strategy and discipline. It keeps things on track.

An easy mistake a newbie can make is skipping the chalk line. After all the shingles are cut square so as long as one shingle is aligned with the previous one, things will be okay.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, without a chalk line (character, discipline, and strategy) one can feel fine laying the shingles until stepping back and seeing they are uneven are at risk for leaking when it rains. This realization might not occur until many shingles have been nailed in place. At that point craziness can set in. Why? The answer, as a question, is simple, “Who wants to rip out what’s been installed and redo the work?” The urge sets in to look at the immediate misalignment among the few shingles right in front of the installer and try to fudge a solution that will get things back on track. It is so easy to want to yell at the installer when the manager in charge is the one at fault. It is the manager’s job to make sure the chalk lines are set correctly to guide the work.

The thoughts of running over budget, not getting the job done by the end of the day, the customer yelling at the manager, etc., can be overwhelming. It can lead to the decision to punish, a common characteristic of organizational fatigue.

Hunting submarines is similar to hunting situations likely to fail. In this second blog on organizational fatigue let’s do a deep dive and see what we can find.

There is an irony in that while the submarines are lurking below the surface the organizational factors increasing the probability of failure are right in front of the team. There are several reasons for this, which we will get to in a later blog. For now let’s stay with defining a system that searches for potential failures.

The first question that comes to mind is, “What do we look for?” Elizabeth Lay provides a good list in “Practices for Noticing and Dealing with the Critical. A Case Study from Maintenance of Power Plants.”

 “Error-likely” Climates

Lay provides 8 behaviors that are good indicators a failure is on the horizon:

  1. Leaders who use a top-down or intimidating style;
  2. Leaders who are closed off to listening to those close to the work and discouraged questions;
  3. Leaders who are not engaged in the work;
  4. Unclear roles and responsibilities for day-to-day work;
  5. Unhealthy win-lose competition between groups of workers;
  6. Over-involved customer who lacks an understanding of the work;
  7. Leaders unfamiliar with best practices and/or the cultural requirements for getting the job done;
  8. Leaders who don’t ask for help.

There is something familiar about this. Remember from the previous blog the child making a mess in the department store? What is the first question that comes to mind? “Where are the parents?”

From my work in change management one thing that stands out in this list is the absence of technical excellence. Does this mean we can just march in without technical know-how and still get things done? No. Quite the contrary. We do need technical excellent but it is only a starting point. We need a resilient organization. So how do we know resilience is missing?

Going back to the submarines, the above list is about what is invisible. The invisible component is the human factor – that “soft” stuff. It is about hubris, a subject covered in a previous blog.

Hubris is a big part of what keeps me in business. It shows up as intellectual prowess and the belief that he who knows the most will provide the best product. Frankly, that is just the starting point and provides only half the solution.

Complex projects require a communication network that runs in two directions. The one we are most familiar with is top-down. This sets the stage for contracts, statements of work, etc., and gives the team a sense of direction. This rarely is perfect and complete, which gets to the second direction – bottom-up. In complex projects this is known as emergence. The project actually evolves (which can create real problems in a fixed-fee situation – but that’s another blog) and requires good information from team members closest to the project climate and work at hand.

In order to avoid organizational fatigue a back-and-forth between senior managers, the customer, and team players is needed. In a way, we become our brother’s keeper not so much in terms of taking on his responsibilities but in terms of being sensitive to the ripple effects of what we are doing as well as what is going on in the environment.

Pinging the organization for the 8 behaviors mentioned and taking corrective action will go a long way towards helping steer resources and expectations in the right direction.

In the next blog we’ll continue our journey into the causes and ways to avoid organizational fatigue.

Resilience Engineering #21: Organizational Fatigue

by Gary Monti on November 8, 2011

Metal fatigue is a great metaphor for how organizations respond to stress according to Woods and Wreathall. Ductile metal can return to its original shape as long as the stress is below its yield point. If the load exceeds the yield point the metal will permanently deform and, if the load is increased too far, the metal will fracture. Ever see a car or truck sagging to one side or especially low at one corner? The suspension springs have been pushed beyond their yield point.

Highly resilient organizations monitor the strain placed on teams and look for signs of the team reaching its yield point. This includes:

  • The team being overwhelmed with issues
  • Continual re-forecasting of the end-date
  • Missed milestones
  • Mood changes among team members and the PM.

Mood changes can be any one or a combination of any of the following:

  • Anger
  • Sarcasm
  • Isolation
  • Indifference
  • Panic
  • Additional work being uncovered on a routine basis
  • Unavailability of personnel
  • Excessive switching out of team members
  • “Hurry up and wait” syndrome
  • Excessive use of highly specialized personnel
  • Fatigue

… and this list is not exhaustive … there can be more…

Avoiding Fatigue

Highly resilient organizations try to head off this behavior by:

  • Practicing anticipatory awareness and paying attention to what is happening. It may be necessary for someone outside of the team to see this since the team may have drifted towards the yield point and not be aware.
  • Anticipating through risk management and think ahead as to what could go wrong and the associated consequences. This means making as thorough as possible risk management plans;
  • Adapting to situations and keeping what works (anticipation) and coming up with new plans (anticipatory awareness) as needed.

There is a very simple way to address this situation that is relatively low in cost. Bring in a fresh set of eyes to look at the situation. If PMs were budgeted 1-2 hours a week to simply look at each other’s projects and state what they see how much could that help determine fatigue is about to occur or is already happening?

Now, “And what do I do with that information?” might be the question that comes to mind. In other words, thoughts of doing root cause analysis can dance through one’s head. Maybe it is more like nightmares of root cause analysis! Why? The answer is simple. The situation can look like one big mess. And it could be.

I want to conclude with a question, one that might help point in the right direction for getting some of that root-cause information. Imagine being in a department store. You see a child running amok and making a mess of things. What is the question that comes to mind almost immediately?

If you said, “Where are the parents?” you would be right on target. So when you see a fatigued team or one nearing it the answer to what is causing the problems might be simpler than you think. In the next blog we will go deeper into this.

What do you do when there is never enough time to do everything thoroughly? In resilience engineering (RE) there is a concept called the efficiency-thoroughness trade off (ETTO). What does one do? Let’s look.

First thing required is identifying the environment. This is easily done when talking with a new hire. If you find yourself saying or hearing something like the following you are in an ETTO environment:

“It will take a while but you’ll get the hang of it. We have plenty of policies and procedures. The trick, though, is knowing which ones to apply on any given day. Things change around here pretty rapidly and you’ll have to learn how to keep up.”

That daily change can lead to erratic behavior. Why? What is defined as “efficient” changes from day-to-day based on what goal management is chasing. One day the focus is on everyone getting his or her documentation current. On another it is billable hours. Still another the focus is on proposal generation. It goes on-and-on and end dates never move.

So why write about something so obvious? Simple. I’ve found that in technical environments the organization can be biased heavily towards task-oriented people. What this means is there is inherent insensitivity towards the politics of the situation and the shifting priorities. There is something else that occurs that is rather insidious.

“Those who are task-oriented can run the risk of being so close to the work they have a very short time horizon. This leads to inability to look ahead and confront early potential trade-off situations where thoroughness is so lacking that rework and additional expense are guaranteed.”

In my practice probably the most common thing heard is, “I hate politics.” To tell the truth, I do too. I came to it kicking and screaming. “Just let me build my brainchild,” was my mantra. Others can do the politics. Now, the huge payoff associated with understanding and using politics is obvious and a big part of Center for Managing Change’s work. By understanding politics one can get a feel for the ETTO and how to manage the situation.

Look at it this way. List all the work-related issues you talk with peers about at the lunch table or over coffee. See if you can take the conversation further by brainstorming ways to approach the people and situations that are so frustrating. When you do this you’ll find that personalities start coming into play almost immediately. This is where the work begins.

List your frustrations regarding ETTO. See if the group can brainstorm what key players’ hot buttons are. Determine how those hot buttons can be pushed to get the movement you want (which is usually more time and resources to get the job done right the first time.) Then take it up a notch. Try connecting all those hot buttons and see if a strategy can be developed for talking with your stakeholder population so they will see the benefit of giving you the time to be sufficiently thorough. That last phrase, “sufficiently thorough,” is the key. It’s not about perfection. It’s about getting enough time to give the customer what they need and not have to revisit the deliverable in order to get it right.

So, remember. If you want the time do the politics.  Now, if it were only as easy to do as it is to say!

Resilience Engineering #15: Cutting Edge

by Gary Monti on September 27, 2011

“Cutting Edge” is a phrase that…well…cuts both ways. It has a great deal of relevance in applying resilience engineering (RE) in project management. One way to characterize resilient situations is, “Too complex, not enough resources, and no matter what I do someone will be disappointed.”  You and the team are “out there on the edge!” There is a big plus to this work, though.

There Is a Bright Side

Pima Chodron summarizes it in a quote from “When Things Fall Apart:”

When things fall apart and we are on the verge of we know not what, the test of each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize.

The “Bright Side” you might have been expecting was being able to work on cutting edge technologies, or enter new markets, etc. You would be correct. There’s something else though, something vital.


Managing a $30 million dollar project the opportunity was present to work with a really great project engineer, Claudio. We were a team. I knew the industrial process around which the plant was designed and worked the politics and he was masterful in keeping seven engineering subcontractors in order. The work was very demanding since the process was cutting edge and had dynamic risk a la RE.

When all was done we talked once a year to revisit the project and the difficulties that were overcome. You probably know the drill. The conversation takes you back to those moments where you just weren’t quite sure how things would go yet somehow you made it happen.

Claudio’s company ended up closing his regional office. He left consulting engineering and got a job with a pump manufacturer. Getting away from the pressure of consulting felt good at first but that feeling quickly melted. He missed that pressure. He gained weight. He lamented he was losing his edge. Why? If a problem wasn’t solved by Friday it just rolled over to Monday and he still got a paycheck. The sense of immediacy was gone. No more sitting on that cutting edge aware the project could flip either way.


Chodron also talks about the need for whatever we are doing to be slightly off center. Not so much that our work topples. Rather, just enough to reinforce the need to pay attention, to be fully present. This gets back to the challenge of situations where RE can benefit. Nothing is static, the entire project is moving, there’s no sitting still. Yet, you and the team have to come up with a way to keep the situation sufficiently stable so success can occur.

Even in these challenging economic times there just might be an opportunity to thrive. Again, Chodron sums it well in, “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

“Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.”

This all fits with RE and complexity theory where the solution percolates up from the small things that are done everyday combining in a constructive way. It is a building up that just might take the team to a place they thought was impossible to reach. A place where they can look at each other in the midst of all the trouble and just have a beer or coffee and bask in knowing they are good.

Resilience Engineering #14: Company Scorecard

by Gary Monti on September 20, 2011

How big of a hit can your organization take? Can you prevent it? What resilience score would you give your organization? Ron Westrum gives some good criteria in Resilience Engineering: Concepts and Precepts.

Threats and Timeframe

An important issue revolves around the time horizon surrounding the threat and when the organization responds to it. There are 3 categories to consider:

  • Foresight is the ability to prevent something bad from happening to the organization.
  • Coping is the ability to prevent something bad that has happened from getting worse.
  • Recovery is the ability to recover from something bad once it has happened.


Foresight has two components. The first is profiting from lessons learned and dealing with threatening situations in a constructive way through avoidance (elimination of the threat) or mitigation (dampening the probability or impact of a risk) strategies. This is what could be considered standard risk management.

The second is more interesting. It has to do with weak signal analysis. This comprises sensitivity to emerging trends within the environment and taking steps early to fend off the threat or to be prepared to deal with it successfully should it turn into a problem.

The problem with weak signal analysis is the findings may not integrate with cultural norms and be dismissed out of hand as being incorrect, over-reactive, or signs of being a crackpot. The use of radar at Pearl Harbor in 1941 is a good example. Accurate information was generated regarding the incoming Japanese attack. Use of it would have allowed for better preparation for the attack. The problem was advanced technologies such as radar weren’t part of the military culture and were considered “out there” so the information was ignored and the opportunity to prepare for the attack was missed.

Do you do any weak signal analysis to see what trends might be developing? How familiar is your organization with the competitive environment? If you do get that information what is done with it? Is it converted into something actionable?


Coping can comprise two approaches. The first is familiar to most of us. It is toughness in terms of being able to absorb, say, a no-cost change order. This is what would be called “robust” in previous blogs. There is a second intriguing aspect to coping, which can promote long-term survivability. It is the ability to redesign/restructure the organization right in the middle of the trouble. There is an everyday word for this – flexibility.

The trend to switch from being a computer company that provides services to a service company that uses computers is a very good example of coping.


How is the recovery from a seriously damaging event handled? Is the focus on the principles that best serve the market niche the organization is in or is there a search for the guilty and punishment of the innocent? Apple is probably the best example of recovery. It has gone from about 2% market share in personal computers to being the second biggest company listed on Wall Street beaten out only be ExxonMobil.

So the questions are, “What would your organization’s score be when it comes to foresight, coping and recovery? What would you do to improve them?”

Breaking the grip of a robust approach in complex situations can be done but it is challenging. This past week validation occurred while working with a Fortune 500 company.

Troubled Projects

We spent the week working on how to turn around troubled projects by assessing the degree of trouble and determining what to do to turn things around.

Using an approach independent of any one individual or personality, i.e., principle-based, they were shown how quickly an assessment can be done by looking for misapplication or complete absence of key principles, e.g., the nine areas of project management espoused by PMI. A strong emphasis was placed on earned value and its importance in forecasting the completion of a project along with the importance of risk management as the ability to do earned value decreases. This was repeatedly challenged and a very interesting discussion evolved over the week.

A huge, challenging project surfaced having to do with integrating a recent acquisition. The argument made against earned value went something like this (sing along if you know the words), “The situation is dynamic and moving quickly. Making a schedule will take too long. Let’s simply use a top-down approach and dictate end dates along with resource- and time constraints. It’s worked in the past, it should work now.”

Gathering Information, Change, and Grieving

A surprising drop in the resistance to moving from this top-down approach occurred when we moved into human dynamics. It had to do with information gathering and belief systems.

An essential part of quickly and accurately assessing a situation is making sure the right context is used for structuring a picture of the situation. In troubled situations if the right context is missing people feel unsure, pull back, and resist participating. The trouble increases. Empathy in terms of getting the context right is extremely critical.

The hanging on to the old method dropped and the “Aha!” occurred when showing the forms of resistance using a graphic adaption of the grieving cycle from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s seminal book, “On Death and Dying.”

A director in the PMO saw, and admitted to all present, that denial has been used with this acquisition. What was stated went something like this:

“I’ve been hanging on to the old methods (robustness) and been stuck at denial. It just won’t work. We have to shift to resilience. This includes educating leaders in the company.”

With this statement, an appreciative silence filled the room. You could have knocked me over with a feather! By shifting to resilience the odds of success for integration started increasing immediately.

Ironically, earned value is currently unachievable because the situation is truly complex. This means solutions will emerge from the bottom-up.

Earned value CAN be used but only after new project and process structures emerge (resilience) that permit getting their arms around the situation.

To repeat from the previous blog, this reads easy but does hard. However, it IS possible!