Posts Tagged ‘Resilience engineering’

Resilience Engineering #30: Balance and Perspective

by Gary Monti on January 18, 2012

Maintaining balance and perspective is key to leading complex, constrained projects. In the last blog regarding keeping one’s wits, the need for discipline was the first step mentioned. Below is a simple method I’ve used to help establish discipline and maintain balance and perspective.

Risk Analysis: A Traditional Approach

Normally risk is viewed negatively, i.e., problems in the present and threats out in the future. A common communication and discussion tool is the chart below.

Probabilities range from low, medium, and high, as do impacts. This is a good chart. The question is, though, “What would it take to make it better?” That gets to the issue of balance and perspective. It is out of balance because only one aspect of risk is being addressed, the downside. Risk management also has an upside with windfalls being events in the present that are adding constructively to the project and opportunities being future constructive events.

People are very visual. When they only see the downside and then talk to the positive balance can be missing. In other words, this chart will work better if it were expanded to include the good along with the bad and ugly (forgiveness, please, Mr. Eastwood).

Risk Analysis: A More Comprehensive View

In the chart below a better approach is shown.

Let’s look at how this works. (Before getting started I want to point out the vertical axis for negative events is flipped from the previous chart, i.e., really bad events are at the bottom rather than the top.) “Insufficient resources” is the negative event we will focus on. The flow of the conversation in dealing with this goes like this:

  1. “Insufficient resources” is a definite threat to the project with both a high probability and high impact;
  2. “Add resources” is an opportunity that will neutralize the threat and it, too, has a high probability and high impact;
  3. “Integrate additional resources” is a threat projected by the opportunity “add resources.”

Look at what this approach does:

  1. It provides balance by presenting potential opportunity AND the ripple effect in terms of a threat that this opportunity poses. The team gets a chance to have a more integrated conversation – one that leads to more cohesive actions and interactions;
  2. Perspective has been added. The visual is more balanced. We’ve built something that reflects that. Again, people are visual and pay attention to what structures they can feel, touch, and deal with, and;
  3. This is a more disciplined approach. (Remember the previous blog about keeping one’s wits?) The entire picture is presented.

Working in this manner helps dampen the types of conversations that would end at “adding resources.” If this were to happen, after the meeting people might start talking something like this, “Well you know, someone has to take care of these resources. Where are they going to sit? Who’s going to bring them up to speed?” Talking in this manner risks poisoning the underlying conversation and undermining the credibility of the project and project manager.

With the leader bringing as much as possible out in the open for discussion the chart gets increasingly robust by avoiding being naïve and overplaying the opportunities as well as avoiding promotion of only a “downside” frame of mind. It also challenges people to participate and stop reserving comments for the gossip mill. The leader is in a better position to promote participation and a healthy sense of responsibility. Those who are realistic, positive and forward looking get a much-needed boost.

Resilience Engineering #29: Keep Your Wits About You

by Gary Monti on January 10, 2012

Keep your wits in chaotic situations. Success depends upon it. The irony is, keeping one’s wits is grounded in simplicity. It is challenging and can take all you have. It is a daily, constant activity.

Avoid confusing simplicity with a naive belief everything will work out somehow. Rather, it is about letting go of the urge to react when forces are demanding that you do. It is about keeping eyes and ears open and just seeing what is. This simplicity is a reflection of an on-going process rather than a goal. It has to be a process because of the fluidity of the situation. There is a constant shifting. Customers change their mind. Lead engineers quit. Technologies change. The list goes on.

A Three-part Approach

There are three aspects to being a simple leader:

  1. Practicing discipline;
  2. Maintaining awareness;
  3. Developing an understanding of the situation.

Practice discipline.  Do what is right.

Now, this isn’t a moralistic sense of right. It is more about congruence among all the principles that apply and choosing behaviors based on alignment with those principles. To use something I’ve mentioned in previous blogs:

If everything were okay, what would I do?

Know what principles apply to each profession on the project. Work within acceptable variances determined by the relationships between principles. For example, sales should be aware of engineering limitations when negotiating options with customers. In turn, the engineers should be aware of how much flexibility they can maintain in order to support sales and accept some level or risk.

Maintain awareness. Stop. Breathe. Look.

Risk letting go of thinking about consequences, especially the ones that have personal impact. Clarity will surface. The picture may be pretty and then again it may not. The point is you’ll have a clear picture! From there you can move on to the next step.

Develop an understanding of the situation. Think.

By having a clear picture you can now think in a realistic manner. What does this mean? It means moving around in the space created by the first two steps mentioned above. Thinking grounded in this behavior leads to an understanding of the situation. The ability to see how things really are and what they could be surfaces. An understanding develops as to what it takes to get the job done.

The boundary between flexing and breaking comes into sharper focus. Change orders developed based on this approach are usually right on the mark. You will see when to dive into the details and when to pull back and let the team work it out. You’ll also see when scope needs to be cut or time added.

Being simple is part of the secret of being a good leader – something required in complex situations where managing is insufficient.

Being on the lookout for potential failure is one of a leader’s primary functions. So what does one look for when in the middle of a project? How do you maintain clear thinking so the right changes can be made? Here are some guidelines that can help.

Patterns of Maladaptation

Woods and Branlat recommend looking for three distinct patterns:

  1. Decompensation;
  2. Working at cross-purposes, and;
  3. Getting stuck in outdated behaviors.


This is when there is an over-reliance on teams being able to deal with problems. Drift, a topic covered in previous blogs, falls into this category. The most common example is over-reliance on overtime. When success occurs with chronic use of overtime, especially with salaried people getting no extra compensation, there may be blindness to the fact the team is marching towards burnout.

Working at cross-purposes. This behavior can be seen when local decisions are made without regard for the ripple effect on the rest of the project. A common example is concurrent engineering. With concurrent engineering serial activities are put at risk by putting them partially or completely in parallel. For example, Activity B should not begin until its predecessor, Activity A, is 100% complete. Because of time pressures, though, B begins prior to A’s completion.

The working assumption is prior to starting any work estimates and strategic plans are sufficiently adequate that the B team can be comfortable that the A team’s deliverable will work as expected. The problem is, especially with complex systems, there can be a myriad of small decisions made by both teams that the interface between the two teams’ work simply falls apart. An oversimplified example would be making a nut and bolt. Both do a perfect job but fail to realize one is using standard threads while the other is using metric. This occurred with one of the Mars orbiters. Calculations for breaking thrust to decelerate and bring the satellite into orbit were calculated in metric by one team. The thrust order was given in standard by another team – an order of magnitude too great. The whole time both teams were naively comfortable because they double-checked the precision of the number without asking each other what system of force application was used.

Getting stuck in outdated behaviors. A good example of this is Motorola’s loss of the cell phone market. They delayed entering the digital cell phone market because they dominated the analog cell phone market. At the time over 90% of the market was analog so Motorola saw no reason to waste effort on a fringe device. Enter Nokia and things changed rapidly and dramatically.

Patterns of Maladaptation

So what to do? Consider having routine assumption analysis meetings. “What-if” with the team and stakeholders. Bring the assumptions to the foreground. Pound on them! Connect them! Try to get as freewheeling a discussion going as possible to see what the limits are. Put probabilities on the possibilities and see if your project plan will hold up. Determine what change orders might be needed to position the project for success.

Sustaining this type of discussion among the team and stakeholders will maintain sensitivity to what is going on. This means something may be detected that is critical but failed to be part of the initial conversation. At this point the odds of success just might start stacking in your favor because your vision is getting sharper and your thinking is getting clearer.

The previous blog covered how to get durations from subject matter experts (SMEs). In working towards getting that information there was a column, PM’s actions, which I failed to define. I ask your indulgence in allowing me to explain its importance in this blog. In addition to rounding out the technique when working with SMEs duration is also pivotal for working with stakeholders who affect the SMEs’ work. Let’s look at working with senior managers first and then come back to the SMEs.

Push Towards Goals

The entire reason for a project is goal achievement. Typically, commitments are made based on estimates before the project is fleshed out in detail. This means there is a level of uncertainty present, which requires assumptions in order to close the deal. Similar to working with SMEs, a simple approach is used in working with senior managers as shown below:



Assumptions Stakeholders Priority PM’s actions


You will notice similarities with how SMEs are approached:


Task Name Assumptions Stakeholders PM’s actions Duration


The meanings of the terms for the senior managers are as follows:

  • Goal. This encompasses the strategic goals of the project, both external (customer-facing) and internal (project-facing) as well as the specific deliverables.
  • Assumptions. As with all complex projects, assumptions are critical in that they need to be realistic especially if the context is always shifting. The assumption conversation is quite similar to that with the SMEs. 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 challenge is senior managers usually have a different world-view than the SMEs and the PM has to find common ground between the two groups.
  • Stakeholders. The PM’s work ramps up with this part of the project. Senior managers are asked, “Who impacts your work and how?” Listening to who helps or hurts the senior manager’s ability to succeed starts the process of the PM putting together a political 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. A key ingredient is the manager being open about what is tugging on him.
  • Priorities. Here is where the work gets challenging. Usually the sponsor and other senior managers want everything to be #1. In complex situations, though, that is never the case. If they are going to keep their balance within their stakeholder population then there has to be some give-and-take regarding project priorities and how work gets accomplished. For example, this could include phasing deliverables, which initially were to be delivered all at once.
  • PM’s action. By now you have figured out what the PM’s job is – pushing on the manager to dive into the complexity and start negotiating with their stakeholder population to generate that give-and-take conversation



Assumptions Stakeholders Priority PM’s actions



Task Name Assumptions Stakeholders PM’s actions Duration


At this point the PM starts feeling like the Secretary General of the UN. A compromise has to be found between the senior managers and SMEs. This compromise is characterized by allowing both groups to feel they are maintaining a realistic, sustainable balance point with regards to their part of the project. Here is a formula that works:

  • Goals. Start with re-iteration of senior managers’ goals.
  • Stakeholders-Senior Managers. Have senior managers map out, discreetly, their stakeholder population and how they relate to them. (This is a potential “falling off point” because some managers do not want to share the political realities of their position.)
  • Assumption-Senior Managers. Here the senior managers show their map of the threats and opportunities present from their perspective.
  • Tasks. The SMEs take over the presentation and show what they feel needs to be accomplished to meet the goals.
  • Stakeholder-SMEs. Similar to the senior managers the SMEs map their stakeholder population and the forces at play within.
  • Durations. Simply put, the team creates a schedule
  • PM’s action.  And now the fun begins! Within the initial commitments there usually is too much on everyone’s platter. Some horse-trading is needed if a sustainable balance point is to be reached. Establishing and nurturing the negotiation process is the PM’s main function.
  • Priorities-Tasks-Durations. Creating a balance among these three components is the Holy Grail the team needs to achieve.
    The big challenge is everyone absorbing some piece of the unfairness of life. SMEs need to understand that serving the customer is the source of their paycheck. Thus, they need to do what it takes to keep the customer happy.
    Senior managers need to realize that the SMEs are the people who keep them in business. The project succeeds on the SMEs’ back. A shield must be created to protect the team so they can perform.

As a consultant, this last point is where the “hate” part of “love-hate” in client relationships can surface. Having built trust with both groups, client employees might assume that I will “tell the other person” how they have to straighten up and fly right. The fact is, telling everyone simultaneously the give-and-take is needed is now the PM’s #1 job. I’ve learned to fasten my seat belt at this point.

This is best done simultaneously both in the trenches and at a strategic level. The senior managers need to apprise the team of any strategic changes that could affect work and work to keep those changes to a minimum and within the limits of the team structure. The team needs to communicate what they feel the ripple effect could be up the food chain for any changes they experience at the detailed level and avoid being prima donnas focused only on their part to the exclusion of those around them.

You’ll know success is going to occur when you stumble into a conversation hearing the two different levels speaking in reasonable terms about each other. When this sets in you can start thinking about the celebration.

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.