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Volume 14, Issue 38;   September 17, 2014: False Summits: II

False Summits: II

by

When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
Illustrating the concept of local maximum

An illustration of the concepts of local maximum and global maximum. Some enterprise decision-making entails choosing strategies that optimize specific organizational attributes, such as the cost of production, or revenue. Optimization, generically, is the search for a maximum with respect to certain parameters. A local maximum is a maximum in a localized region, which is not the maximum of a more global region. Viewed as "summits" local maxima are false, in the sense that they do not represent the "best" value obtainable over the entire parameter space. Discovering that a strategy has led the enterprise to a local, but not a global, optimization, can be just as debilitating as the false summits described here.

Image courtesy SoSailAway.

We began an exploration of the value of the false summit metaphor last time, focusing on reducing the probability of surprise in projects by gathering intelligence in advance. That does help, but because false summit surprises can still happen, we can increase our chances of success by preparing for them. Here are some tips for preparing project teams and management teams — and the attitudes of the people involved — so that when false summits occur, we can better take them in stride.

Accept that mountains have false summits
When you set out to climb a mountain, you'll be better prepared for false summits if you accept the fact that some mountains have false summits — and maybe this one does. When you look ahead and see what looks like the summit, remember that it might not be.
Because projects are inherently risky, it's unreasonable to expect or demand rigid adherence to budgets and schedules. Reserves are essential, because there are always — always — unknowns. Budgeting and scheduling as if there were no unknowns is naïve, if not unethical or criminal. This applies at every time scale. For example, allocating resources across multiple projects with the assumption that everything will be completed as projected is unrealistic. But scheduling meetings back-to-back all day long is also unrealistic. We need slack at all time scales to enable us to deal with the unexpected.
Manage expectations
In climbing, assuming that no false summits remain, or that "it's easy from this point on," exposes the party to the risk of disappointment. Climbing is an adventure. The unexpected can always arrive.
In project work, where it can be unusual for even a single day to go as planned, we nonetheless cling to the attitude that when the unexpected does happen, something has "gone wrong." Usually, nothing has gone wrong. That's just the way things are when we On the mountain, when undesirable
situations develop, we must have
the psychological reserves necessary
to cope effectively
work on projects. The occurrence of unexpected events is not in itself an indicator of substandard performance on anyone's part. Rather, it is an indicator that the organization is engaged in project work, and typically, nothing more. On the other hand, stretching resources — or over-committing the organization — so severely that people are unable to deal with unexpected events is an indicator of substandard performance.
Manage stress
On the mountain, when undesirable situations develop, we must have the psychological reserves necessary to cope effectively. Pushing people to their limits exposes the entire party to unmanageable risks.
When project team members, leaders, managers, or sponsors experience elevated levels of stress day after day, for months or years, one disappointment can be enough to trigger behaviors that threaten not only the success of the project, but also the organization's ability to execute future projects. Manage stress. Operating too lean and too mean is too dumb.

Well, we've reached the end of this discussion — the summit. Really. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects  Next Issue

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