Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 38;   September 17, 2014: False Summits: II

False Summits: II

by

When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
Illustrating the concept of local maximum

An illustration of the concepts of local maximum and global maximum. Some enterprise decision-making entails choosing strategies that optimize specific organizational attributes, such as the cost of production, or revenue. Optimization, generically, is the search for a maximum with respect to certain parameters. A local maximum is a maximum in a localized region, which is not the maximum of a more global region. Viewed as "summits" local maxima are false, in the sense that they do not represent the "best" value obtainable over the entire parameter space. Discovering that a strategy has led the enterprise to a local, but not a global, optimization, can be just as debilitating as the false summits described here.

Image courtesy SoSailAway.

We began an exploration of the value of the false summit metaphor last time, focusing on reducing the probability of surprise in projects by gathering intelligence in advance. That does help, but because false summit surprises can still happen, we can increase our chances of success by preparing for them. Here are some tips for preparing project teams and management teams — and the attitudes of the people involved — so that when false summits occur, we can better take them in stride.

Accept that mountains have false summits
When you set out to climb a mountain, you'll be better prepared for false summits if you accept the fact that some mountains have false summits — and maybe this one does. When you look ahead and see what looks like the summit, remember that it might not be.
Because projects are inherently risky, it's unreasonable to expect or demand rigid adherence to budgets and schedules. Reserves are essential, because there are always — always — unknowns. Budgeting and scheduling as if there were no unknowns is naïve, if not unethical or criminal. This applies at every time scale. For example, allocating resources across multiple projects with the assumption that everything will be completed as projected is unrealistic. But scheduling meetings back-to-back all day long is also unrealistic. We need slack at all time scales to enable us to deal with the unexpected.
Manage expectations
In climbing, assuming that no false summits remain, or that "it's easy from this point on," exposes the party to the risk of disappointment. Climbing is an adventure. The unexpected can always arrive.
In project work, where it can be unusual for even a single day to go as planned, we nonetheless cling to the attitude that when the unexpected does happen, something has "gone wrong." Usually, nothing has gone wrong. That's just the way things are when we On the mountain, when undesirable
situations develop, we must have
the psychological reserves necessary
to cope effectively
work on projects. The occurrence of unexpected events is not in itself an indicator of substandard performance on anyone's part. Rather, it is an indicator that the organization is engaged in project work, and typically, nothing more. On the other hand, stretching resources — or over-committing the organization — so severely that people are unable to deal with unexpected events is an indicator of substandard performance.
Manage stress
On the mountain, when undesirable situations develop, we must have the psychological reserves necessary to cope effectively. Pushing people to their limits exposes the entire party to unmanageable risks.
When project team members, leaders, managers, or sponsors experience elevated levels of stress day after day, for months or years, one disappointment can be enough to trigger behaviors that threaten not only the success of the project, but also the organization's ability to execute future projects. Manage stress. Operating too lean and too mean is too dumb.

Well, we've reached the end of this discussion — the summit. Really. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIGtydwAhyEAKaKoOner@ChacQWMNJXvOOYQWSKndoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The Dalles of the St. Croix RiverThe Politics of the Critical Path: II
The Critical Path of a project is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. We don't usually consider tasks that are already complete, but they, too, can experience the unique politics of the critical path.
Robert F. Scott and three of his party arrive at a tent left by Roald Amundsen near the South PoleManaging Non-Content Risks: I
When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets things done.
Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango coupleScope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
A view from the false summit of the Manitou incline in ColoradoFalse Summits: I
Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
An apple and a skyscraper full of windowsHow We Waste Time: II
We're all pretty good at wasting time. We're also fairly certain we know when we're doing it. But we're much better at it than we know. Here's Part II of a little catalog of time wasters, emphasizing those that are outside — or mostly outside — our awareness.

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
A typical standup meetingAnd on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenCKbWFYBTqhyyRYNIner@ChacWwtKGYPJkQrIUfCnoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.