Projects are so notorious for overrunning their budgets and schedules that we all know what we mean by, "the second 90% of the work." Just as we feel like we're closing in on the goal, new tasks appear — things we overlooked, or things we were just clueless about. We can learn about how to deal with this by examining an experience from mountaineering — the false summit.
Some mountains are notorious for having false summits. One encounters a false summit when the contour of the terrain is such that what appears from below to be the summit is actually just a protruding ridge or shoulder that obstructs the view of the real summit — if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, the false summit merely obstructs your view of the next false summit. Either way, ascending further, it becomes clear what has happened, because there is more mountain above than first appeared.
Recognizing that the "summit" wasn't the summit can be discouraging. In physically trying situations, which are common in mountaineering, the added psychological stress and disappointment can actually threaten safety.
At work, the analog of encountering a false summit is the discovery that completing the project requires far more effort and time than we thought. After several such revelations, discouragement is common. The credibility of leaders becomes an issue, and that makes management more difficult. Failure looms.
Here are some tips for avoiding false summits in projects.
- Have a good map
- A map of the terrain is essential for planning your course up a mountain. The higher the peak, or the rougher the terrain, the more useful is a map. Still, things change. Maps aren't perfect.
- In projects, In project work, we tend not to
employ advance reconnaissance
as often as we mightwe must often make plans based on experience with other efforts, because we've never done what we're now attempting. That experience can be misleading, but it's the best we can do. Use plans with care.
- Reconnaissance helps
- In climbing, the more you know about the route, the more likely is success. At times, we send someone ahead to gather data that helps us determine the best course forward.
- In project work, we tend not to employ advance reconnaissance as often as we might, because we tend to view as wasteful any activity that doesn't directly contribute to deliverables. Send someone ahead to reconnoiter. Focus groups, piloting, and prototypes are usually helpful.
- Use locator technologies
- Maps are helpful even if you know your location only approximately, but knowing exactly where you are makes maps even more useful. Locator technologies do help.
- In project work, there is no equivalent of a GPS locator. But we can often benefit from periodically re-estimating the work remaining to be done, using the insight we've acquired from the work done so far.
We'll continue next time by exploring the psychology of the experience of false summits. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or
iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- The 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.
- Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: II
- Managing risk entails coping with unwanted events that might or might not happen, and which can be costly
if they do happen. Here's Part II of our exploration of coping strategies for unwanted events.
- How 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.
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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