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Volume 14, Issue 37;   September 10, 2014: False Summits: I

False Summits: I

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Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
A view from the false summit of the Manitou incline in Colorado

A view looking down from the false summit of the Manitou Incline in Colorado. The incline follows the route of a funicular that is no longer in service. Note the gradual increase of steepness of the incline as it descends, followed by a section that is less steep. It is this configuration that creates false summits.

In project work, when we tackle the "easy parts" first, and then encounter a more difficult stretch, we expose ourselves to a risk of experiencing a false summit, because we cannot see past the more challenging section. Sending a team ahead to explore that part of the project can limit the risk of a false summit.

Photo (cc) AHodges7.

Projects are so notorious for overrunning their budgets and schedules that we all know what we mean by, "the second 90% of the work." Just as we feel like we're closing in on the goal, new tasks appear — things we overlooked, or things we were just clueless about. We can learn about how to deal with this by examining an experience from mountaineering — the false summit.

Some mountains are notorious for having false summits. One encounters a false summit when the contour of the terrain is such that what appears from below to be the summit is actually just a protruding ridge or shoulder that obstructs the view of the real summit — if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, the false summit merely obstructs your view of the next false summit. Either way, ascending further, it becomes clear what has happened, because there is more mountain above than first appeared.

Recognizing that the "summit" wasn't the summit can be discouraging. In physically trying situations, which are common in mountaineering, the added psychological stress and disappointment can actually threaten safety.

At work, the analog of encountering a false summit is the discovery that completing the project requires far more effort and time than we thought. After several such revelations, discouragement is common. The credibility of leaders becomes an issue, and that makes management more difficult. Failure looms.

Here are some tips for avoiding false summits in projects.

Have a good map
A map of the terrain is essential for planning your course up a mountain. The higher the peak, or the rougher the terrain, the more useful is a map. Still, things change. Maps aren't perfect.
In projects, In project work, we tend not to
employ advance reconnaissance
as often as we might
we must often make plans based on experience with other efforts, because we've never done what we're now attempting. That experience can be misleading, but it's the best we can do. Use plans with care.
Reconnaissance helps
In climbing, the more you know about the route, the more likely is success. At times, we send someone ahead to gather data that helps us determine the best course forward.
In project work, we tend not to employ advance reconnaissance as often as we might, because we tend to view as wasteful any activity that doesn't directly contribute to deliverables. Send someone ahead to reconnoiter. Focus groups, piloting, and prototypes are usually helpful.
Use locator technologies
Maps are helpful even if you know your location only approximately, but knowing exactly where you are makes maps even more useful. Locator technologies do help.
In project work, there is no equivalent of a GPS locator. But we can often benefit from periodically re-estimating the work remaining to be done, using the insight we've acquired from the work done so far.

We'll continue next time by exploring the psychology of the experience of false summits.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: False Summits: II  Next Issue

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