Stretch

Stretch_HeaderPlanning is crucial. It is crucial for organizations, communities, families, and individuals. I am an advocate of detailed planning of the kind that will model down to the dependencies of each step. I like knowing where my stress points are going to be and where I will go astray if a dependency doesn’t materialize. I have planned all of my projects and I consider planning a key success factor. Nevertheless, I have never had a single project go entirely according to plan.

The fact that not a single plan completed without change is not to be confused with failure. Projects fail for a variety of reasons despite the best of plans. Neither should one associate plan revisions with poor initial planning. The point is that without a plan, the project is wandering without a roadmap. The plan provides structure to the endeavor as well as an understanding of the overall architecture of the process. Plans go awry almost universally because we cannot control or even anticipate all of the possibilities caused by human beings and random circumstance. We can merely assess probabilities and draw conclusions that are likely to guide us through most of the events.

The challenge, then, is learning to adapt as you go. Adaptation is a survival skill. I have written about this topic in the past (see Learn to Play the Doglegs), but will elaborate here on three key elements. These are recognition, detachment, and adaptation.

Recognition
The best thing about having a plan is that it will tell you when you are driving into the weeds. Recognition that the project is off track is vital to success. Small deviations probably will not have a profound effect on a project, but when a major milestone is missed or a key stress point stalls – when the critical path turns red – it is time to re-examine the plan.

The plan, though, is not the only means of recognizing when a project is headed for trouble. Listening to people is just as important because one may be receiving indications that alignment is poor or that needs are not being met well before trouble shows up on the instrumentation. Some signs to look for are:

  • Decisions continue to be re-visited
  • Certain tangents recur from meeting to meeting
  • Meetings are taking longer than they should
  • Participants or stakeholders exhibit confusion

Detachment
Leaders need to be passionate about their projects, but objective about their project plans. For me, I take a great deal of pride in my “brand spanking new” project plans where all the pieces come together just in time to meet a deadline. It is not unlike the feeling of solving a complex acrostic puzzle. Nevertheless, if I do not abandon my emotional attachment to it immediately I will be in trouble because the plan is already flawed. It cannot help but be. When the project begins to deviate – which it will – I need to be prepared to jettison some parts, add new ones, or reconfigure others. By the end of the project, the plan may resemble a tangle of worms more than my initial pristine creation, but we will have made it to the finish line together. The secret is in letting go of the details.

Adaptation
Reconfiguring a plan is where the rubber meets the road.   This requires flexibility on the part of everyone involved, but most of all on leadership. Adaptation is a form of course correction and requires embracing change. Not everyone on the project may be affected, but some may be affected profoundly. The key inputs are:

  • Objectives: keep the project objectives clearly in mind. What does success look like?
  • Priorities: re-examine the priorities. Is this really needed? Is this really needed right now?
  • Dependencies: interrogate the dependencies. Must all of these conditions be met in order to proceed? Can this be retrofitted later without detriment to integrity?
  • Roles: challenge roles and responsibilities. Are roles still clear? Have they changed? Should they change?

 

In most cases, projects have the luxury of making these adaptations over a period of days, perhaps even weeks. This is certainly the case on large construction projects and IT projects that proceed using a so-called waterfall methodology. But what about smaller projects or projects utilizing the agile project approach? Indeed, these are more challenging because the adaptations need to be almost instantaneous.

In agile projects, adaptation is part of the intrinsic culture of the process. Objectives, priorities, dependencies and roles are in flux practically every day as part of the substance of the daily scrum meetings. Good scrum meetings resemble the stretch of the spandex leotard on a dancer, reconfiguring to every change in the shape of the underlying form.

Smaller projects that are not “agile” can have similar stretch. To be successful, that stretch comes from even greater detachment from the details of a plan coupled with a clear comprehension of objectives, priorities, dependencies, and roles. An example will illustrate.

I was working with a client some years ago to develop a roadmap for their company analytics. The effort culminated in a one-day retreat, the result of which would be a prioritized set of initiatives. To accomplish all of this in a day, we developed an execution plan scripting a series of exercises that would lead to the goal. At the retreat, the morning exercises stayed on track and the participants returned from lunch ready to tackle the rest of the work. Within an hour, it was clear that the plan was in trouble. There were hidden agendas that had not been exposed in earlier parts of the process. To put the process back on track, we had to abandon one exercise altogether and blend another into a later exercise, allowing more time to realign the participants. Because we had never shared the execution plan with them, they arrived safely at their goal without ever knowing of the course correction.

We could not have achieved that stretch without the structure of the underlying plan. Irrespective of the fact that it did not proceed perfectly, it was a good plan because the rationale for each component was clear and because we had thought about what each component should reasonably require in terms of time and resources to execute. Not all parts were interchangeable, but enough were to allow for adaptation when the need arose.

I have woven an analogy into this article that references a concept outside the topic at hand – in this case the dance leotard – as itself another layer of analogy. This meta-analogy operates at two levels. At the first, the dancer’s stretch (the flexibility of the muscle) is analogous to the adaptability of the plan. At the second, the project reshapes like the spandex leotard as the underlying plan transforms. The analogy serves as a reminder that flexibility and the ability to adapt do not derive from just the plan of the day, no matter how good. Rather, they come from the larger picture that consists of all of the contents in our rucksack of life. The satisfaction is not in the perfect plan, but in the perfect stretch.

Does your organization have the knack for adaptation? What tactics to you employ to keep plans flexible?

 

 

Learn to Play the Doglegs

River_HeaderIt is essential to understand that I have never played a hole of golf in my life.  Not one.  That does not mean that I have not been close to a golf course.  In fact, I generated bid packages for the irrigation systems for almost all of the major Jack Nicklaus golf courses in Southeast Asia during my years at RainBird International.  I even walked some of those courses.  Nevertheless, I have never swung a golf club.

Those of you who play golf know what a dogleg is.  It is a bend in a fairway that makes a hole more difficult to play.  In life, a dogleg is when something occurs that causes a major setback to a plan or initiative.  Doglegs present serious impediments that threaten success.  (Dan Rockwell on Leadership Freak calls them zigzags.)  Professional and personal, these setbacks can seem devastating.  They can be expensive, they may be emotionally charged, and they are often personally humiliating.  Learning to manage these events is essential for success and survival.

I come to my appreciation of doglegs through personal experience. Several years ago, my wife and I developed a tactical plan to move from Southern California to the North Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  It was a complicated plan, insofar as we knew that we wanted to find and purchase the property six to eight months before moving and we did not have a lot of capital with which to work.  We knew the acreage we wanted and what the basic characteristics of the structures needed to be.  We also had in mind our long-term goal of one day opening a bed and breakfast as a retreat for classical musicians.

We began by engaging a real estate agent in Sequim to coordinate the search.  We also launched the refinance of our California home to cover a down payment and eight months of double mortgage.  We were barely started when we saw the dream property advertised.  We scrambled a trip to Sequim and it was absolutely bespoke except for one thing.  The main house was utterly soulless and unlivable, so we had to walk away from it.  Two weeks later, the appraisal in California came back so far below expectations that the bank literally would not speak with us.  Talk about getting smacked down at the get go.  We were completely demoralized and toyed with the idea of throwing in the towel.  But our real estate agent in California hooked us up with another banker and we started the process again.  And while the second appraisal was much more in line with reality, the payout was going to be substantially lower than the plan called for.  By that time we were already on our way back up to Washington to actively house hunt, albeit with reduced expectations as to what we could afford.  Unsure if the loan would close in time for a down payment, we pulled money from an IRA just in case.  On the ground in Sequim, we looked at many properties until we found it.  It had our family and our long-term vision written all over it, the price had just been dropped into our range, and we were first in line for the deal.  We were even able to get the money back into the IRA without penalty.

It was right about then that I had my epiphany about “playing the doglegs.”  If we had quit when the first disappointments happened or decided to wait until a more propitious time, we would probably never have made the move.  In fact, both of those early setbacks turned out to be critical to our success.  The “dream” property would never have worked, but it sharpened the specification for what we really wanted.  More important, the refinance obstacle forced us into a lower price range that in turn allowed us to find the right property.  It would never have been on our radar if we had remained on the original financial plan.  And believe me, before the saga was over there were to be several more doglegs to play.

That epiphany has coalesced into a core concept for me, one that has helped me since then through challenging projects both at work and at home.  It has caused me to think about the specific mindset that enables us to play the doglegs, along with some of the techniques that have worked for me.

Have a vision for the destination.

Before starting any initiative, it is especially important to understand the characteristics of the end state.  This is as true in life as it is in BI.  What are those essential qualities that will embody success?  What are the non-negotiable items?  By understanding those, you will understand what can be left by the wayside when the course takes an unexpected turn.  In our case, this meant understanding that the end state needed to support the B&B, be wheelchair friendly, and accommodate both grand pianos.  These were the non-negotiable requirements.  We were able to let go of the requirements for the extra acreage and a barn when we had to reduce the purchase price.

Work through your emotions quickly.

Particularly on important personal projects, emotional responses are inevitable when life takes a change of course.  These include anger, disappointment, frustration, and fear.  These feelings are real and valid, but they become our worst enemies if we dwell on them.  The best way to work through our emotions is to remember that the goal or end state is more important than the specific path we take to get there.  It is likely that there are many paths to that end, not just the first one we chose to take.  It is why having a vision is so important.  Emotions will make us afraid to act and cloud our knowledge that it might take several tries – several tacks – before being able to move forward again.  So first, focus on the vision.  Then breathe in, breathe out, and sit back down to rework the plan.  Do not wait.

Have a Plan B. 

Even when one does not expect difficulties, one should always have a Plan B, sometimes even a Plan C.  This provides an instant fallback when the dogleg springs.  In fact, a Plan B can help avoid the emotion stage altogether.  Having a fallback allows an individual or a team to react quickly when time is short.  Our Plan B in the story above was to have the IRA money available if the refinance did not close in time.  In either case, I would have funds for the down payment and funds to pay back the IRA before the end of sixty days.

Accept and embrace change.

Change is inevitable, but we tend to fear it because it is destabilizing. What if I lose my job?  What if we lose our retirement savings?  We need to be flexible in the face of change, recognizing again that there are many ways to get to our destination, each path offering different challenges and different opportunities.  Moreover, the destination may not be where we believe it to be at all.  In our example, giving up some of the things we wanted not only brought us to the right place, but also resulted in a better overall financial plan. Change turned out to be good, even though we could not see it at first.

Have a network in place.

Having a strong support network in place is crucial to any major undertaking.  I am not talking about the project team.  I am referring to your network of advisors and colleagues to whom you can go when you wind up in the hazard.  On a BI project, I need to know that I have a database expert or a program management colleague to whom I can go when I get stuck.  For the move, having access to three top-flight real estate agents, a banker, and several dependable contractors facilitated our success.  By nurturing those relationships ahead of time, we were able to count on them at the doglegs.

Bank what you learn right away.

Never wait for the end of the project to profit by what you learned from the last dogleg.  The same one could double back on you again.  Get your next Plan B ready.  Re-examine your vision.  Check your network.  Recognize where it could go wrong again and be prepared.

There is a certain Zen to this, and it took me awhile to get the hang of it. Practicing these skills over time delivers important benefits.  These include:

  • A more robust solution:  Because you have addressed the doglegs in a thoughtful and consistent manner, you will have discovered a way to a better solution.  It won’t be haphazard or patched over.
  • Increased trust from your colleagues:  Because you did not fall apart at the doglegs but led the team through the change, you will have demonstrated that you are cool under fire and not afraid to recognize when the plan was wrong.
  • A sharpened personal craft:  It is not the adversity that makes us stronger, but how we address it and what we learn from it.

I have not seen my last dogleg.  In fact, I am in the midst of a Big Billy Goat dogleg as I write this article.  But every day I find a new way to adjust the plan and move in the direction I need to, taking Dan Rockwell’s zigzag course toward a successful conclusion.  I think Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne) said it best. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

Do you have a dogleg success story to share?  What techniques do you use to play your doglegs?