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Sunday, December 4, 2016

When All Else Fails, Read the Directions

     “When all else fails, read the directions.”
     The landlord was a rough-hewn sort, a small-town developer and semi-retired owner of a construction business, constantly battling with the authorities over his penchant for doing things his own way, regardless.
     His wry counsel about the directions, though, was spot on. In the midst of some routine difficulty, he made that remark as he went back to Square One.
     After a quick chuckle, we stop to appreciate the implications of such a crack. It reminds us how often we entangle ourselves in ever-widening, totally unnecessary complexity.
     Until comes the revelation: Oh! It wasn’t plugged in. No wonder it didn’t work. Why didn’t we check that to start with?
     At times it is actually the case that there were directions available, but why bother? The task seemed to be a familiar one, or simple enough that no instructions were necessary.
     Similarly, even when there are no directions, why ask for explanation? What’s to be done is so simple and straightforward.
     And why take time to think it through when it really looks so obvious?

     There’s this tendency to launch into flight without conducting a proper take-off. Actually, if whatever it is lends itself to low-impact corrections along the way, doing the quick thing is OK. It may even be the smartest way to proceed.
     The clinker is that many situations we get into, perhaps most of them, don’t work that way. When the nature of the thing makes it impossible to go back and readjust, we’re stuck. “Oh, why didn’t I think of that at the beginning?”
     The reason you didn’t think of it back then is that you weren’t really thinking of anything much at the time. It was just an impulsive lurch into action, without considering where this is supposed to wind up, or what there might be along the road.
     Or even just what’s intended. It happens when the weekend handyman labors to build a lattice bower when all the wife wanted was a couple of prefab things from the hardware store.
     “Why didn’t you tell me that?”
     “Why didn’t you ask?”

     When the matter at hand is more than an afternoon task, and the workforce is more than one person, and there are multiple stakeholders and a variety of resource providers . . . you’ve got yourself a project.
     Each new factor, in kind or in number, adds to or multiplies the complexity of what is to be done.
     There are projects so process-driven that all you need to do is count up the ducks – however many – and make sure they stay in a row. That has its challenges, but discipline and sustained attention constitute the major managerial requirements.
     Some new assignment might well look like that at first, but the impression quite often is deceiving.
     So the competent project manager never acts on a first look, no matter how much hurry-up pressure there is. Or how unappetizing is the prospect of pushing for information and commitment from reluctant associated parties.  
     It’s not surprising how often serious problems burst upon projects that are well along, when the hole was left ‘way back at the beginning. We were in such a hurry to get going that it never occurred to us to involve IT, or to order the stuff that requires six weeks of lead time.

     Every project carries known risks and those that are called known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
     Known risks are potential problems that are predictable and therefore relatively avoidable. Examples are missed assignments, schedule slippage, cost overruns, competing workload demands and the like.
     Known unknowns are risks you expect to face, but you can’t be sure just when they’ll hit and how serious they will be – or if they’ll actually happen at all. Speculative estimates on important activities you’ve never done before are like that. You know you’re taking a chance on them.
     Unknown unknowns are unpredictable negative occurrences that are somewhat common in truly innovative projects. You have no idea what might happen, or how serious it might be, or even what you might be able to do about it.
     Risk actually is unavoidable, even when you try to avoid doing anything. You always are vulnerable to undesirable circumstances and events. In project management, risk is the name of the game.
     If what you’re doing is completely predictable in its requirements and outcome, it’s a process but not a project. If you're careful, you're pretty much all set.
     When complexity, dependency, innovation and unfamiliarity combine, that IS a project. When a lot of those factors are involved, you’re really into a project.

     We need to make risk management a continuous, well-tended project function, from the very pre-beginning.
     The backyard handyman with the lattice bower could have saved a lot of work and avoided marital discomfort by asking a couple of simple questions . . . and listening to what the end user wanted.
     The project manager needs much more information than that, of course. But then the consequences of not having it are significantly greater.
      A well-managed prelaunch process doesn’t have to be time-consuming or disruptive.      It does need to establish agreements and commitments. When all else fails, those will pull the project through.

SEE ALSO: Out of the Alley, Under the Streetlight

Well, how about you? Let’s read your take on reading the directions – or writing your own. Join in. Write. Right here.       

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