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 effectivelywork 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.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Films Not About Project Teams: I
- Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to
be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- See No Evil
- When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance.
And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: I
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we "know"
just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability
to complete projects successfully.
- Projects as Proxy Targets: II
- Most projects have both supporters and detractors. When a project has been approved and execution begins,
some detractors don't give up. Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics detractors use to sow chaos.
- The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we
tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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