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.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Managing Risk Revision
- Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen.
But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch
resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
- In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing
misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques
that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
- 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.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
- Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges
that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
- More Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
- The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order.
It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with
some kinds of perceptual distortion.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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