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Posts Tagged ‘risk’

Cheese on my Cheesburger

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I recently had lunch with relatives, including my young nephew. He ordered a “plain cheeseburger, please”. In doing so he thought he had asked for a cheeseburger without the usual fixings of lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, ketchup or mustard. Just a plain cheeseburger.

He was confused, then, when his order arrived. It had no lettuce, tomato, etc just as be had ordered. But it also had no cheese on it! When we questioned the waitress she quite straightforwardly said “oh, I’m sorry, I thought you wanted nothing on your burger”.

Both my nephew and the waitress had made different assumptions about what “plain” meant.

This is what Donald Rumsfeld would call dealing with the “unknown knowns” in the lunch contract; Items each party thought they knew, but had never confirmed. This failure to properly articulate all the facts about the order, and unwittingly leave some requirements unspoken or implied, is an amazingly frequent occurrence. Requirements, after all, form the foundation of any project and must be actively managed too.

In a separate incident, a cousin of my wife was renovating the master bathroom in his house. He found a reputable plumber to come in to move the toilet and install a new shower. Unfortunately he failed to specify that the shower should stay at the same temperature when the toilet was flushed. He assumed that was standard practice. As his partner’s screams of pain will attest, this was apparently not so in their area!

The most successful projects also occur when you know the most about the products, technology and environment in which the project is being conducted. This can be thought of as maximizing the known knowns (ie things you know that you know, aka The Facts). The more you know, the better your plans can be.

In order to do this, you also need to minimize those things you don’t know (you can never eliminate them, the world is too complex). Assumptions (the unknown knowns I described earlier) need to be brought out and explicitly stated as facts (“I want cheese on my cheesburger!” or even better: “I want cheddar cheese on my cheeseburger!”) or listed as questions (ie things that you know that you don’t know – the known unknowns). Either way, they need to be uncovered and addressed.

It can be just as important to state what you’re NOT going to do, as what you are. This keeps expectations of project deliverables in line as well as avoiding Scope Creep during project execution.

Reusable templates and checklists are great ways to make sure that as many assumptions get confirmed and questions answered about a project as possible. Many PM tools also contain the ability to start or “seed” a new project plan from well maintained “gold standard” plans developed from the cumulative experience of other similar projects (see my previous post on “Project Vaccination”).

Unanswered questions and assumptions become the focus of the project Risk Plan, where strategies and tactics are developed and budgeted to address the impact according to the different possible answers. They should never be put off until later, as nobody likes to wait for another burger to be cooked. It just slows down how quickly everyone gets to the dessert.

I’ll discuss the fourth category of knowledge – and Rummy’s most quoted – the Unknown Unknowns in a later post. Right now I’m ready for my Waldorf salad: Hold the apples, celery and walnuts, and put the dressing on the side!

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The Breakfast Club

November 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Most people have heard of the adage regarding the breakfast ingredients bacon and eggs, where “the chicken is involved; the pig is committed”. Fewer have perhaps considered its relevance to project service delivery.

A few months ago I had a very pleasant lunch with a representative from a local law firm who was trying to find new ways to attract business from small companies and entrepreneurs. It quickly became apparent that the major hurdle was how his firm – like most other law firms – insisted on charging only by billable hours x hourly rate. In this “cost plus” method, all the risk of overruns is bourn by the client. There is also little incentive – beyond the potential impact on repeat business – for the law firm to become more efficient in its work. It was clear that they supplied eggs.

A few weeks later I had another discussion with a local utility company. Their challenge was the opposite – in order to ensure predictability in costs, the utility required many of its suppliers to provide long-term, fixed price, contracts. Many of you are no doubt already ahead of me on this: They required total commitment; they required bacon.

Of course, just as bacon contains a lot of fat, so do these fixed price contracts: The suppliers have to allow for a lot of worst case scenarios in their pricing to make sure they don’t lose money during delivery. In some engagements these won’t happen. In some they will. On average both companies should make their target margins. Unlike the law firm there is a direct incentive for the supplier to become more efficient in its deliveries, but less incentive for the customer to do the same.

There is clearly a large middle ground between these extremes, where the customer and supplier come together to agree on an initial baseline or “fair sailing” estimate. When changes occur, Change Orders are created to cover any difference. Even in these cases, however, there is an incremental cost in time and money preparing and negotiating the Change Order itself. There is no free lunch (or breakfast!). The trick is to get the right balance between covering the costs of the project as it evolves, and generating the goodwill required to sustain a long-term mutually successful relationship beyond the immediate project.

A good project delivery environment will not only have a good knowledge base from which to create the initial plan to proactively anticipate & mitigate the risks that cause changes, but also the right cultural balance and value system to know how and when to apply changes.

Most nutritionists recognize breakfast as the most important meal of the day, providing the right foundation for having sustained energy. Project Service Delivery organizations would be well served to do the same.

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