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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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