Saturday, June 28, 2008

Risk goes way back

There's a lot of talk today about risk mitigation on projects. It's an important field and hugely important, but no one should that that it is new. Almost all financial services is really about mitigating risk. A great example of this comes from founding Virginia.

In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the wealthiest men in England at the time, privately funded the founding of Roanoke. There were issues and threats (think storms, Indians, the difficulty of supplies) and by 1590 the endeavor was lost, one of the colonies was entirely lost and Raleigh lost a huge amount of money.

It took another sixteen years for the British to take another run at founding a colony. The Virginia Company was set up as a joint-stock company. Many people invested money (bought shares) and the risks were spread (mitigated) across a large number of people. Likewise, the gains would accrue to that same large number of people.

Now, one might say that this has nothing to do with risk mitigation on projects and directly, it probably doesn't. But you better believe buying ships, equipment, supplies, sailors, colonists and then sailing the Atlantic and founding a colony was a huge project. And you better bet there were some people very interested in how things were going. Remember that dueling was a valid way of settling disputes!

My point is simply that people have thought about how to mitigate risks for a long time. Spreading the risk, giving people participating in the project an opportunity to buy into the project and share in its success or failure have a long history of success.

I wonder was a risk register would look like for the founding of a colony?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What is real work?

Often times one gets buried into the mechanical aspects of project management. There is comfort in routine and a certain symmetry in the output. It all looks beautifully structured and planned. However, the plan disguises the fact that there is very messy reality and a lot of ambiguity.

When one's faced with ambiguity, it is tempting to create very detailed and structured plans. As if somehow the plans details will make it reality. But a map is not reality and adding more tasks to a project schedule does not make it more realistic.

I thought about this reading a poem a friend sent me, The Real Work, by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

The real work on projects is the thinking when one has to figure out what to do next. It's very comforting to do something you know, especially when problems swirl and the path in not well known. But busy work is not what's required at that point. Thought, and experiments and real work are what's called for, but often not done.

To paraphrase John Wooden, its often easier to look active than to achieve something.

Are you being active or achieving?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ambiguity and Project Management

Like the blind men of Indostan, going into a project, no one can see what’s going to happen. PMs put together a project schedule of the tasks they think will need to be done, the resources they will need and some estimates, but rather than thinking of this like a plan, think of it like shopping for a camping trip. The provisions you get don’t tell you anything about where you’ll go camping, what you’ll encounter, where you’ll camp or what bears or dears you will see hiking.

It’s only when you start out on the hike that you discover blisters, have to pick paths, need to make decisions about pitching camp at 3:00 pm or pressing on in the hopes that there is a better campsite that you’ll find before 6, so you have time to set up before you start making dinner.

How do you get insight from your team into the trip? How do you find out whose over-energized and anxious to do more, whose getting blisters, whose feeling sick and whose actually been camping here before?

What about the collaborators? The park rangers, store owners, even the other campers. I bet they’ve been through this before. They can take one look at you at 3, and say if the road ahead is mountainous and you should rest before going forward or if it leads into a fresh valley that’s best seen at sunset.

That is the type of insight one needs to succeed. That is what we are working with our customers to provide.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! But the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! What have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chance to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
- John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

This may well be the most insight piece ever written about project management and what it means to try and run a project. Each person working on a project has a different perspective. They are confident in their perspective because they have personally lived it. They are suspicious of other people's perspectives, because in large ways or small ways, someone's experience is different from theirs.

How can one align all these different perspectives, identify an end point that one keeps moving toward, learn what everyone is experiencing and avoid being pulled onto meaningless paths which may look promising at first but don't lead to a constructive conclusion?

Remember that running a project is a little like running a hundred yard dash, except for one small difference. After you start running, someone fires a bullet at your head. If you cross the finish line before the bullet reaches your head, you're fine. If the bullet reaches you before you reach the finish line, well, that's not so good.

That is the demand of project management and alignment. Aligning people in the face of ambiguity and getting them to all work together to cross the finish line before the bullet reaches your head.

The world of the project manager.