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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Assumptions, Risks & Selective Routine

     You can’t leave the house without assuming that your neighbors won’t attack you, that your car will start without blowing up and that you can safely travel across town.
     Those are pretty safe assumptions for most of us in the United States and around the world, but not so everywhere. There are places where you can’t assume safety, and where deadly risk is ever-present.
     Conclusion: Assumptions and risks are situational.
     We can apply that to life: We assume the car will start . . . and then one day it doesn’t. We can assume the front steps are safe, until the day an invisible sheet of ice makes them life-changingly not. Maybe the usual is in place. Maybe not. It’s situational.
     When we’re project managers, we herd uncertainty for a living. We can pay a high price for mismanaging the job.
     The devilish thing about project management is its lurking unpredictability. There’s the nine-times-out-of-ten factor. So much of any project is composed of procedures we have tried and found to be true countless times. We can’t justify meticulously examining each of them each time we employ it.

     Still, there will be times when the nasty negative will strike. We need some means of detecting when and where that will happen. And we have to know in advance, or at least in time to head off a breakdown.
     We meet the challenge by the way we define and manage routine. And that’s not easy. Too often routine manages us, rocking us gently in an atmosphere of peace and comfort.
     You can’t escape the human inevitability of it. Any attempt to maintain intense attention on the details of a varied, moving landscape usually degrades to burnout, or at least loss of focus. You just don’t really see things any more.
     And a pervasive problem in every project of my experience has been a general tendency to gloss over the entire sector of assumptions and risks. Partly, that is because people are in a hurry, and they feel a lot of this stuff is unpredictable anyway.
     Buried not too far beneath that is discomfort in even questioning long-held beliefs and “things everybody knows.” Let’s just get at it. Why take the time? We’ll find out soon enough.

     Well, maybe it won’t be soon enough when we find out. The more we can reduce uncertainty and the earlier we come to grips with any contingency, the less unnecessary complication there will be over the busy life of the project.
     The answer to overcoming denial/avoidance is to embed in our regular routine periodic activities for management of both assumptions and risks.
     Assumptions are expectations without evidence. Risks are damaging conditions that may or may not exist or arise. The two actually overlap and/or are subsets of each other. Both are central to the concept and practice of project management – and both are routinely ignored or superficialized.
     Failure to deal with this contributes mightily to project failure or shortfall. In many cases, it may be the prime reason.
    What’s the answer? How do you establish a reliable tracking and warning method that people will continue to use indefinitely?

     Let’s begin by laying a solid base of facts and agreements at the very start of planning.
     Say we make it routine that there be a strictly-followed checklist in every project launch protocol for surfacing and analyzing every assumption. This doesn’t get boring if it’s done right – you only do it in one big push at the beginning.
     You’re freshly alerted to its importance, perhaps, by the avoidable hassles you suffered in a just-completed project.
     This start-up preparation would include researching unknown issues rather than guessing or letting them slide by. It is reinforced by accounting for lessons learned: major wins and losses involving assumptions in previous projects. Actual facts have a powerful effect on understanding and intent.
     Then we assemble on that base a plan for periodic selective routine, a system of actions that must be taken at key moments instead of tracking that has to be continuous.   
     Risk management becomes more realistic, useful and reliable when it is subjected to the same initial sort of thorough, serious examination.
     Every project preparation also should include implementation planning -- designation of dates for revisiting and updating both assumption analyses and risk assessments. Those revisit dates become checkoff points in the project plan and in the specifications for each task.
     And, as project implementation and status reporting roll on, actions and results must be reported, discussed and then, as needed, revised.

    The checkpoints for individual project tasks and activities must be chosen for reasons internal to that matter, not collected into large status report sessions established on an external calendar.
     That means there are lots of small meetings at the action level -- status reporting, problem solving and replanning. This is so much more effective than mass meetings whose main purpose is making life convenient for the project leadership.
     Thoughtless scheduling of big gatherings for project communication is never a good idea. It can be fatal to healthy project management.  
     None of this would be necessary if assumptions and risks weren’t so implacably situational. But that’s the way they are.
     So we need to be, too.  

The Modern Project Manager

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