Resilience Engineering #20: Work As Imagined Vs. As Performed

by Gary Monti on November 1, 2011

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It is a saying common when being audited in complex situations. How does it come about and what can be done?

The “how” usually comes about through time- and emotional distances disconnecting senior management and those doing the work. It becomes increasingly easy to over-simplify and lose touch with all the nuances associated with getting a job done.

There is another element to this as well. It has to do with expectations. Everyone has pressure from someone else. The Board has to deal with shareholders. The CEO has to deal with the Board…the SME (subject matter expert) has to deal with the PM. Part of those dealings includes projecting budgets. These budgets are typically used in determining bonuses, profit sharing, etc. Expectations are set.

Expectations can have a dark side. Let me explain. A piece of wisdom learned a long time ago is, “Plan without expectations.” In its simplest form this means putting together as good a plan as possible but also take risk management into consideration by thinking about what would be done if the expectations fail to be met. Doing this helps let go of investing entirely in the projections. It allows for options and also helps level set in terms of dealing with the unfairness of life should those expectations fail to be met.

Work As Imagined

“Work as imagined” refers to thinking things are simpler than they are. It is a simplistic approach arising from over-investment in the desired outcome. This “counting the chickens before the eggs have hatched” approach leads to blindness. The blindness is an unwillingness to consider just how challenging situations truly are and insist things are simple.

So what does this mean for an audit? It boils down to this. The more one invests in a given outcome to the exclusion of all else the greater the projection onto the team the situation is simple. By simple I mean how it is used in complexity theory, i.e., a rule-based system that is 100% predictable in terms of outcome. Consequently, any mistakes or failures have to do with not adhering to the rulebook. Individuals can be called out and dealt with accordingly.

Work As Performed

On complex projects the way work gets done is summed well in the catch phrase, “living on the edge of chaos.” “Work as performed,” means catch as catch can, trying to balance all the forces pushing on the project. It is anything but predictable! Those forces are gauged on a daily or even hourly basis and the team works to respond accordingly. There is a moving from rulebook to rulebook or a complete dropping of the rules with changing circumstances. Keep in mind, there are probably one or more stakeholders invested in each rulebook!

This brings us back to the opening statement, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It gets down to a key distinction in resilient situations: anticipation vs. anticipatory awareness.

The Way Out

Anticipation is all about getting hung up on the projections, believing they are cast in stone. Anticipatory awareness is the freedom to flex with the situation, make necessary changes on the fly, and respond in a constructive manner to the changing forces. Expectations must frequently shift in complex environments. This doesn’t mean goals can’t be met. It does mean goals may have to be modified based on the realities present. It does not mean an acceptance of second-best. It means adaptability. This is summed up well in the statement, “Railroads might still be leading the Dow Jones if they had seen themselves in the transportation business rather than the train business.”

The solution to this is communications, communications grounded in an honest empathy for what everyone is going through in light of the realities present. In its simplest form it comprises a meeting of the minds between the business case and project plan. Imagine brown bag meetings where management presents the business model used to generate the context for the project. Imagine another brown bag session where the project manager presents the reality of the project. Go a step further and imagine each side listens to the other and modifies expectations accordingly. This is the key. It has to do with common ground, common ground serving as the basis for communications and realistic accountability, common ground that shifts with the risk terrain.

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