Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 25;   June 19, 2002: Seeing Through the Fog

Seeing Through the Fog

by

When projects founder, we're often shocked — we thought everything was moving along smoothly. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we had — or could have had — enough information to determine that trouble was ahead. Somehow it was obscured by fog. How can we get better at seeing through the fog?

Mort now understood why Ginny had wanted to meet off-site. "I'm worried," she was saying, "Dave always seems to be overloaded. Even back in March, when things were going smoothly on both our projects. So I thought I'd check with you."

"Hmm. I've been getting the same story," Mort replied. "He keeps saying that work on other projects is making him miss his dates."

Mountain fogMort and Ginny then talked with Sid, the lead on Dave's third project team. Sid told them that he'd heard the same thing from Dave, too. Once all three of them — Mort, Ginny, and Sid — pooled their information, they knew they needed help from HR. That way they could possibly save all three projects, and the career of a bright but troubled employee.

By working together, and being open with each other, Mort, Ginny, and Sid combined what they knew. The information each one had wasn't enough in itself to tell any one of them what to do, but combined, they were able to choose an effective management intervention. By fusing together all they knew, they could see the real problem through the fog.

To see through the fog that hides the rocks, you sometimes need information from outside your project. Here are a few tips for seeing through the fog.

To see through the
fog, you sometimes need
information from
outside it
Share what you know with other project managers
Compare issues lists from several projects, looking for patterns and commonalities. Compare schedules to look ahead for contention for people or resources. Talk to other customers of suppliers or subcontractors, both within your organization and outside it if you can.
Learn from history
If you suspect a problem might be looming, interview past project managers who've worked with the people or subcontractor that might be at issue.
Use cluster analysis
Search defect reports and schedule slips to find clusters of problems. When you find a cluster around a single component, consider restarting that component from scratch, possibly with a different team. Look carefully at other components that were built the same way, possibly on other projects.
Be uniformly skeptical
Components that were built by people who are well regarded sometimes escape early rigorous testing because of favorable bias. Examine all test plans for bias and make sure that all components are treated equally skeptically.

Projects are usually in one of four states: not yet begun, finished, in crisis, and about to be in crisis. The only transition that happens unexpectedly is from about-to-be-in-crisis to crisis. By learning to see through the fog, you can make that transition a little more gracefully, and a lot less often. Go to top Top  Next issue: Think in Living Color  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
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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.
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When the pandemic compels some knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, we tend to treat them as if they were totally unavailable. But if they're willing and able to work, even part-time, they might be able to continue to contribute. To make this happen, work out conditions in advance.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

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A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
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Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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