Posts Tagged ‘Project Plans’

“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.

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.

Last week we discussed Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger and “The Miracle on the Hudson.” In resilience engineering there is a constant search for the character traits one must possess to be successful when dealing with complex socio-technical interfaces, which are increasingly becoming the norm. In line with the speed with which decisions have to be made in foggy situations it seems appropriate to have a checklist. I love checklists. When done correctly they serve two functions simultaneously: setting the right frame of mind and helping establish a focus on successful behaviors.

A checklist can also help during more mundane times such as trying to get back to sleep (or maybe just GET to sleep) at 2 AM when your head is spinning because of a challenging project.  Below are two checklists that may help in terms of those specific behaviors and attitudes.

What Makes For a Good Pilot?

The civil aviation authority in France has published a list of capabilities pilots feel are essential for effective execution in complex situations:

  1. Be able to construct and maintain an adequate distributed mental representation of the situation.
  2. Be able to assess risk and threats as relevant for the flight.
  3. Assess one’s self-proficiency envelope, know the boundaries, and adapt one’s tactics and strategies accordingly.
  4. Be able to switch from a situation under control, to a crisis situation.
  5. Be able to construct and maintain a relevant level of confidence towards self, others, and the technology involved.
  6. Be able to learn, implement and maintain routines and skills associated with basic flight functions (fly, navigate, communicate).
  7. Be able to contribute to decision-making in complex, uncertain environments.
  8. Manage interactions with aircraft automated systems.
  9. Know, understand, and be able to speak aviation jargon.
  10. Manage interactions with, and cooperate with, crewmembers and other staff.
  11. Make intelligent usage of procedures.
  12. Use available technical and human resources, and reconfigure as needed.
  13. Be aware of time and time pressure.
  14. Properly transfer acquired knowledge and know-how from specific context to a different one.
  15. Properly use and maintain information and communication technology equipment.

Another way to look at this from a purely psychological perspective is to have the following traits:

  1. When under pressure acknowledge your feelings and then focus on the work at hand. Emotionality leads to out of control behavior of simply freezing up.
  2. See through the situation to success. Stay focused on the long haul.
  3. Look. Let go of projections. Simply see what is there and understand the trends.
  4. Decide how much you believe in yourself and whether or not that is sufficient to maintain your leadership position.
  5. Practice humility. This means knowing what you can and can’t do…which leads to the next point.
  6. Learn how to ask for help. The goal is to get the job done rather than being Superman or Wonder Woman.
  7. Let people know you see them and need their help. Practice empathy and address people as they are. If it’s details they like then give them details. If there is a need for the overall picture then paint the picture (time permitting).
  8. Stay positive while admitting difficulties are present. To paraphrase Andy Groves when asked if all could be lost if the next generation chip failed, “Yes. Keep moving. We can make it.”

Again, these are checklists — mirrors. When having a hard time go through and see where you are working well and where things could improve. Use the results to drive the next day’s agenda. This is probably preaching to the choir but bears repeating: by having the right attitude, knowing where to focus, asking the right questions, and risking action leadership emerges.