Posts Tagged ‘robust systems’

Substance abuse is a business reality. It is an uncomfortable subject, which deserves some mention. There are about 13 million active alcoholics in the United States who have powerful impact on 40 – 50 million other individuals as reported in  “Alcoholism and Other Drug Problems.” The number of drug addicts varies from 600,000 to millions. A substantial number in both cases are white-collar workers.

One thing that can contribute to substance abuse is inability to deal with the stress in complex situations, situations where a balance point must be found among all the disparate forces affecting the project. To make matters worse, the balance point can shift from day-to-day. The stress can just be too much for some individuals who turn to coping mechanisms trying to maintain performance.

Unfortunately, the associated issues can at times be swept under the carpet quite readily. Along with pressure to perform there can be a corresponding fear in the atmosphere suggesting staying in denial and coping will work fine and the focus can remain on producing. Lurking in the background are legal, human resource, and social consequences that can “put a stick in the gears” of the project or process and bring things to a halt.

A Breath of Fresh Air

This all can come to the surface when providing personal, individual feedback after profiling tests have been administered. There is so much focus on performance that a discussion about personal limits and how it feels to work in the given environment can catch a team member by surprise and they drop their guard. It provides a chance to breathe, to let go of the burden even if for just an hour or two.

The information can be quite intimate creating a challenge as to how to proceed, e.g., admission of possible substance abuse problem. Violating confidences is unethical while holding information back relevant to the changes required can compromise the engagement.

What To Do?

As a consultant, a balance can be reached by telling the individual their confidence will be maintained as to particulars, encourage them to take care of themselves, and statements to the managers in charge will be limited to observable behaviors and whether or not they are within acceptable limits. Now, this can include the attitudes of others having to work with the person.

As a project manager or supervisor several options are available.  Stick only to observable behaviors:

  • Pay attention to changes in attitude, poor treatment of others, shirking responsibilities, inability to complete normal activities, constant blaming of others, absenteeism, etc.
  • See if there are any reported safety-related behaviors, e.g., erratic driving behaviors when on company time or using a company vehicle.
  • Contact Human Resources with any information about which you have concern.

Again, this is an uncomfortable topic but one a project manager can expect to run into at least once in a career. Situations requiring resilience engineering (socio-technical solutions) contain stressors that can aggravate existing problems within an individual. Staying levelheaded and dealing with the facts as they present themselves is critical.

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!

Resilience Engineering #10: Success When in the Grip

by Gary Monti on August 16, 2011

Ever just want to pinch someone’s head off? What about just giving up the ghost and running away? Last week’s blog talked about seizing the opportunity when working with a difficult person or situation and using it as an opportunity to become more resilient. Here I’d like to pay respects to the associated difficulty. This is one of those activities that reads easy but does hard.

Robustness has several apparent advantages:

  • One is already prepared to move ahead with defined strengths;
  • Weaknesses can be avoided so there is no distraction;
  • A sharp focus can be established.

Curiouser and Curiouser

If we peal back the surface layer of robustness we just might see a psychological rabbit’s hole that shows a reality stranger and more convoluted than the one on the surface. Like Alice going through the Looking Glass, let’s tumble in and take a look!

Those weaknesses mentioned before, what if I told you they are the puppet masters? They are not just any puppet masters but ones that flip between rage and being totally lost. What if I also told you they come out when it appears one can least afford it?

This is the downfall of robustness. It tries to protect itself when things start falling apart (become complex) and the urge to control takes over. It can lead to aggression brought on by a fear of being in the grip of an even greater, paralyzing fear believing doom will result if robustness is abandoned.

This phrase, “In the grip,” is commonly used in Jungian psychology. The associated dynamic is fascinating. If unwilling to look at one’s weaknesses and change accordingly then a toxic coupling occurs. This unwillingness combines with the aforementioned fear of doom. It creates a bizarre feeling of being quite practical, adult, a good business person, etc., when going on the attack. Paradoxically, the attacking hastens the collapse.

The thing to keep in mind is only through addressing weaknesses in complex situations is one able to become resilient. The over-exercising of strengths is part of what led to this situation. Doing more of the same is counterproductive. Our strengths now become our weaknesses.

Are you following the saga of Murdoch and the News Corporation? Ever work with someone technically competent but unable to delegate? What happens when that person gets a job bigger than themselves?

Is a Weakness Evil?

Now we circle back to the last blog. These complex situations are where the opportunities exist. They give us a chance to see where we can become more of ourselves and pull out of the shadows the parts that have been banished years ago and put them to work. The puppet masters (weaknesses) we try to bury are parts of our psyche reacting to being in prison and denied for so long. They rebel and will continue to do so with increasing intensity and frequency until they are heard.

This leads to another paradox. Bringing these traits to the surface and actively working with them makes us not just stronger but more resilient! The reward is immeasurable. One becomes a bit more whole increasing the ability to lead and thrive and deal with more complex situations. Simultaneously, the opportunity to be happy and spontaneous appears.