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Monday, December 17, 2012

Screwing Up Is Quicker

          There’s a story about an efficiency study done in a newspaper office. An expert stood behind a sportswriter with a clipboard as the guy was on the phone. The sportswriter finished the call, rattled off a report and was about to shoot it into production.
          “Wait a minute,” the efficiency man interrupted. “How long did that take?”
          The answer: “Ten years and ten minutes.”

           Screwing up and earning success have this in common: They both take time. The difference is that one takes very little time, while the other can take a lot.

        A snap decision, once made, though, is forever – even if a horrifying outcome is instantly, glaringly obvious. When you’ve blown an important moment, there is noplace to hide. You’re standing alone, in the full light of public notice, in the ruins of a stupid mistake. It’s all yours. But hey, you got rid of the uncertainty, didn’t you? Live with it.

True achievement never comes on the spur of the moment, even when it seems to. You must invest patience and painstaking care over time, keeping your eye on the ball through thick and thin for days, months, years . . . if you are to produce substantial rewards.

You learn a lot. You find out how to calibrate trial and error. You come to know that the sound base for decision-making is preparation, not response. You tune your ability to nurture possibilities as they mature, deferring the satisfaction – or relief – of settlement until its time most dependably has come.

When this practice is conducted in routine circumstances, it isn’t particularly easy. When things aren’t so sedate, it can be a real bear. In the face of a bursting storm or gathering clouds, effective management calls for a kind of discipline that is hair-raising to witness. Calm, thoughtful decision-making amid unbearable tension or the concussion of bombs.

But there are people who do it.

          For us action-driven, results-focused project managers, this issue presents an agonizing conundrum.

You are required to generate instant and accurate movement among disparate parties to get specific results amid the swirl of risk and uncertainty. You have to make hard-and-fast decisions whose results are not assured, but whose effects often are immediate.

You’d better be right. Things happen to the money, schedule and resources that have been invested in your decisions. You are responsible to – and dependent upon – a variety of stakeholders whose interests and judgments often are radically at odds.

The essence of the project management strategy is to know when to make that decision and slam it into overdrive. You know from Moment One that the decision will be mandatory, and the pressure is on you.

            When the situation is familiar and you’ve already seen how it is handled, no problem. That’s when project management can be quite comfortable, and it is not the hard proof of the worthy project manager. The real measure, instead, is when you don’t really know what to do, there’s a lot at stake, and something must be done right away.

          The project manager is forced into “guesstimation.” The project is on the line. The gamble, to have reasonable odds, must be calculated. A successful outcome is made possible by sufficient preparation, foreseeing such a possibility and preparing for it when no such thing was immediately before you.

Peter Drucker, the management guru, understood this. Drucker considered most business decisions quite easy, and many just plain unnecessary.

          But he cautioned that there are a very few such moments that are really important. The ones that actually do matter are the ones, he said, that call for “The C Word – Courage.” There is no certainty. The stakes are high. No way to turn. Something has to be done, right away. No one knows what to do, and someone has to decide.

          Those who shine at that ultimate moment are those who have prepared themselves.
The reality is that there always is time. Too often, we don’t notice that until it’s gone.

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