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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Built to Last: Forget Waterfall, Forget Agile - Let's Talk Tectonic Project Methodologies

[Also available as a podcast]

Have you ever managed a really big project? I am certain that many of you have managed some very large projects. But how big is that, exactly? As big as the pyramids? Well, maybe some of you have. But there are some projects that make even those pale in comparison.

As a matter of fact, I am currently sitting in the middle of one of the world's largest Projects. No, it was not my project - not by a long shot. We don't actually have the email or mobile number for the project manager responsible - but you can clearly see the results.

I am sitting here typing away in Hamilton - roughly in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand.

No, Hamilton is bigger than a pyramid, but it is not the project either. It is a nice place to live, and a medium sized city for New Zealand - actually the largest inland city as the main ones are along one coast or another.

The project of which I am speaking is the whole of the North Island itself. The island is 113,729 square kilometres (43,911 sq mi) in area, making it the world's 14th-largest island.

Ok, ok, you say - what's the point, and how is this a project?

I suggest this is a project because it is almost entirely volcanic in origin. Just like Hawaii or any of the smaller pacific islands - but on a much, much larger scale - both geographically and the project timeline.

I guess we should really call it a Program, because it is so large. Ok then, it's a very large program - with each of the volcanoes an individual project. 27 major volcanoes in the Taupo Volcanic zone itself, with another 15 or so scattered in the North Island - well, much more than that because the Auckland Volcanic Field features more than 60 cones. After a while, you lose count of the smaller volcanoes.

Then there is the South Island - a very different kind of project and island.

So - let's translate this to Project Management terms - and build ourselves an island or two.

Making an Island

Why the sudden interest in geology? August 6, 2012, 23:50 - Mt Tongariro erupted for the first time since 1897. Mt Tongariro is a large volcano just to the south of Lake Taupo. It has several nearby sister volcanoes, Mt Ngarahoe, which last erupted in 1977 and is technically a vent on Mt Tongariro, and Mt Ruapehu, an impressive volcano with several major ski fields which last erupted in 1995-1996. And of course, Lake Taupo itself (616 square km / 238 square miles) is in the crater of New Zealand's largest volcano.

Mt Ruapehu and Ngarahoe (right), Taupo Volcanic Zone

Growing an island by volcano is a much different activity than slamming tectonic plates together and uplifting a new mountain range - a process called thrust faulting, where the shock wave of the plate collision forces huge masses of rock to crack and slide up over its neighbour. This is how the South Island, the Rockies and all major mountain ranges formed.

The other way - one might even say a more elegant way - to grow an island is slowly, progressively, from the bottom up like the North Island. Layer upon layer, the volcanic cones rise from magma vents in the ocean floor until they break through the surface of the water - a noisy birth with lots of steam and splashing. Most of the Pacific Islands formed this way, and the peak is just the tip of a very tall volcanic cone rising from the sea floor. Some quit shortly after they broke through the water - forming a lot of the smaller islands, while others continued to grow and form mountains and valleys in between.

Comparing Tectonic Project Methodologies

Ok, so we have two main methods to choose from to build your island and raise it up above the waterline, or increase its height. 
  1. Thrust Fault (convergent plate movement)
  2. Volcanic (convergent or divergent plate movement)
Both processes occur due to changes at plate boundaries, and you may even have volcanic activity around the edges of a thrust fault, depending on any weak points (hot spots) created along the underlying plate.

But enough geology - how does this apply to projects? Both have the same eventual goal - to create an island where once there was water. Let's look at the differences in approach - and the lessons we can learn when applied to our projects.

Thrust Fault Projects

Some projects have a lot of things thrust together by force to produce a project outcome - often with major clashes and collisions between stakeholders and the project team as well. And although the results can be breathtaking when you look at it later, it is certainly disruptive while the building-up part is going on. Car wrecks are sudden, spectacular and breathtaking too - just not very healthy for the stakeholders.

The main feature about this methodology is the use of sudden change to complete the project after a long quiet buildup. With little or no warning, there is a flurry of activity,  a lot of energy expended, and suddenly it is over and things will never be the same again.

One of the problems with this approach from a people perspective is that sudden, unexpected change tends to cause resentment and feelings of loss to those affected. This may be the users of the old system, or a person whose house was flattened by the Richter 9.5 triggered by the nearby hill's ambition to suddenly become a mountain. In both cases, you have ripped out the foundations from underneath people with no warning or preparation - in other words, there was no Change Management Plan. Put simply, there was not a lot of communication about what was coming, period.

One minute, you and all your fishy buddies are swimming away close to the shoreline, and then - BAM!- you are high and dry and upwardly mobile. No change management plan for you - learn to walk and breathe air, or die. Not everyone survives this type of project. 

In real life, an event like this results in a major earthquake - and it is usually not the last. There is almost always an adjustment period, as things settle into place - accompanied by a rash of smaller earthquakes over time. Expect the same things on your Thrust Fault projects - when you suddenly change or impose things on your users, there will be a lot of adjusting, support and probably apologizing to do before they settle in to the new way of things. 

Project Change Requests in this type of project are rarely uneventful.

And like the vertical adjustment to Mt Cook a couple years back, where a huge chunk of rock slid off the peak down into the valley, not everyone will want to stay on after the thrust fault event, but they might not leave right away. Just don't be surprised when they do leave.

Of course, not all Thrust-Fault projects are bad news. If you are launching a new product or a rocket to the stars, you will necessarily have your major event at the end. There will be a lot riding on the outcome, and a lot of internal activity leading up to it - but it is not as visible as the actual public launch.

Volcanic Projects

Volcanoes get a bad rap. Compared to the energies and destruction caused by raising a thrust-fault mountain range, volcanoes are positively gentle. When they are first forming, you have plenty of warning that they are coming - gas venting, steam, warming of the water. Once they clear the water, they even provide you with night-lights to stay clear as the red-hot magma flows down the mountain side. If it thinks you are getting to close for your own safety, it may blow off some steam or ash. They are playful too - they may toss you a few pyroclastic boulders. (I don't recommend you do the "catching" part though). Sometimes you even get a free fireworks display.

 Sure, they can cause destruction  and changes to the terrain, but aside from ash clouds there are limited effects far from the volcano. Lava flows downhill, boulders can only be tossed so far. I am not downplaying ash clouds though - they can be very disruptive to the areas coated with ash - nearby and far afield, and they are a threat to aircraft. However this is a matter of perspective. None of us have seen a mountain range suddenly thrust out out of the earth beneath you. Volcanic eruptions are much more common in comparison. It is unlikely you would survive a mountain-building thrust fault event near you - you have a much higher chance of survival being near a volcano, as bad as it may seem.

The main feature about this methodology that makes it preferable on most projects is that while you are building your volcano, it is a gradual process. You have plenty of time to communicate with those affected and utilize a Change Management Plan as you build up towards the project goals, layer by layer. Sure, there will be some excitement and fireworks, but most of the growth in your project will be like the layering of magma as the volcano grows taller. While magma is flowing, the Volcano is actually relatively happy - there is a steady release of pressure without excessive build-ups. It is only when you run into obstacles and blockages that you have a danger of outbursts or violent eruptions. But again - you have the element of time. It takes many years to grow a volcano, so even though there seems to be bursts of short-term activity, the overall progress is relatively steady.

The one trick with volcanoes, of course, is the Project Change Requests. With a Thrust Fault project, you know to expect a flurry of these after the main event, and then things will tail off. With the Volcanic Project, things may seem to be quiet for a long period and then you may have an unexpected eruption of post-build activity.

Not a problem, really - unless you decided to build your house on the side of the volcano because of the nice view.


So what kind of project are you on? Thrust-Fault or Volcano? The needs of your project will generally dictate which approach is best.
  • If your project outcome is necessarily a sudden cut-over or launch type event, you might need to use Thrust-Fault. (Just do as much as you can on the communication side of things)
  • If your project outcome affects a lot of people, it is usually best to use the Volcano approach when you can - build up slowly, and employ your Change Management Plan liberally.

The key is to keep an eye on how your project is turning out - if you planned for a Volcano, watch that you don't end up with a Thrust-Fault because you stopped communicating. It makes for a strangely shaped deliverable.

Good luck with your projects, and if you get a chance, come on "down under" to visit New Zealand. You will see an amazing variety of geology and scenery if you do!

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