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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Too High, Too Fast - Project Asphyxiation

[Also available as a podcast]

I have, for much of my life, lived close to sea level. Most people don't think too much about altitude, unless they travel a lot, climb mountains, or are professional athletes. If you live near hills or near mountains, you might not even think too much about a hike or drive up a couple thousand feet, or a few hundred metres or even a kilometre in elevation above where you live. You might not even notice it that much, particularly if you are driving. If you are hiking, well - any trouble breathing you may have can usually be blamed on exertion, and that spare tire you may be carrying.

Certainly, hiking in the mountains around Vancouver, Canada, or skiing at Whistler when I was younger, I never had any problems. The base was a couple thousand feet above sea level, and that was no problem at all. Taking the lift up another 3000 feet (900m) or so and skiing back down, perhaps I felt it, but as I was not that confident a skier I had other things on my mind, like avoiding the row of trees up ahead.

There are times, though, where changes in altitude can have a serious impact on you. 

Specifically, the rate of change is a critical factor that can be life-and-death for you - and also for your projects.


Got Air?


Professional athletes are highly aware of the difference altitude makes. If they live at lower altitudes where the air is thicker, they know their blood is thinner. Those that live at higher altitudes have generally thicker blood, to help offset the reduced amount of oxygen in the thinner air. More red blood cells pull in more oxygen to feed your cells.

If a professional runner flew from home in Vancouver to Denver, Colorado and then tried to run a race, they would likely collapse early on, because they would not be getting enough oxygen into their thin blood.

Conversely, a mountain dweller flying down to sea level would gain a performance boost because of their increased ability to deliver oxygen in their blood. Until they over-did it and got stars in their eyes from effectively hyper-ventilating, that is.

This is why athletes arrive early several days before the event, to allow their bodies to adjust. (It normally takes 7-10 days for your body to acclimatize and produce [or reduce] red blood cells to compensate for the change in altitude, depending on the difference involved).


Mile-High City

I am no runner, but I was quite surprised what happened to me in 2007 when I flew to Denver (5280 feet/1,609 m) to deliver a week-long training session in a nearby town. I had flown through the Denver airport many times, and never really noticed the impact of the altitude. However, there is a big difference between being in transit compared to being a marathon runner - or a trainer. When you are passing through, you don't exert yourself much, unless you are sprinting for the connecting flight.

If you are running in a race, or teaching a class, you consume a lot of air. I was literally speechless after the first hour of training - I was running out of breath due to the altitude! It was a bit inconvenient stopping every few minutes to catch my breath, and an unexpected alteration to my normal training delivery style, but with a few smiles and a bit of laughter at the struggling "low-lander", I managed to deliver the course well enough. I also noticed that every day it got easier and easier as my body adjusted to the altitude. By the time I flew home, I had almost fully adapted to being at 5280 feet. 

While I was at the airport waiting to fly home, I heard about a mountain train ride outside of Denver, that took you up to one of the peaks. There was a big warning to NOT go on the train up the mountain until you had been in Denver for at least a day or two. Over the years, a number of sea-level-dwelling people had suffered heart attacks and a few died due to the sudden additional increase in altitude, and stress on their system. Those people had gone up the mountain on their first day, some within the first few hours of being in Denver.

I flew out of Colorado with a new-found respect for what effects altitude can have on your body.

A Whole New Level

March 19, 2009 - Durango, Colorado
I flew through Denver to Durango (6500 feet/1981m) on March 18, coming in from Dallas (430 feet/131m) where I had spent the last 7 days. By this time, I knew to expect a noticeable impact on my body, so I was somewhat prepared. I was only there for a few days, and that was in meetings, not training all day, so I was less likely to be out of breath this time around.

One thing about Durango - there is nothing much in the way of flat. Instead, there are plenty of rapid changes in elevation wherever you go, ranging from hundreds to thousands of feet over only a few miles.

On my first day at the office, I asked my hosts what the "must-see" things were in the region. "Silverton and Mesa Verde," they responded. "But you won't have time to get to Mesa Verde before the park closes today. You could try Silverton, though - it's not too far, only 48 miles." (78km)

Thus informed, I grabbed a water bottle and some snacks after my last meeting of the day, and headed out for the short drive to Silverton while I still had good light.

Forty-five minutes later, I was cresting a mountain pass at 11,075 feet (3375m), and frightened out of my wits.

It was not a sheer drop-off I was worried about - I was surrounded by trees and snow on both sides.

I was gasping for breath - while driving.

Less than 24 hours at the initial altitude change from 430 to 6500 feet, and here I was suddenly adding another 4575 feet in forty-five minutes. My mind flashed back to the warning from Denver a couple years before. This was also much higher than the mountain just outside Denver.

There was no cell signal in the mountains - and little road traffic to call for help if I ran into trouble. I calmed myself as best I could and carefully drove down the long slope into Silverton, at the relatively safer altitude of 9308 feet (2837m).

And after all that - nothing was open. It was off season, and not a single restaurant was open for me to have some dinner. So, after a short breathing rest, back up the hill I drove, carefully navigating the crest of the pass. I breathed carefully and deeply until I had dropped a few thousand feet on the far side into the slightly thicker air.

I was very relieved to arrive safely back at my hotel - way, way, back down at 6476 feet.


A Note on Project Change Management

Sudden change is rarely beneficial on your projects. Sure, you may have a specific cut over date when you launch a new system, replace an old one, or do the big media blitz for your killer new product.

However, your project is not just the big event.

All projects involve change - and successful projects include carefully planned strategies for managing that change. You don't want your stakeholders to face a sudden change unprepared; you want to prepare them along the way, let them know what is coming, what they will have to do differently, and ideally involve several of them in the change process so they can communicate with their peers.

Just like a sea-level dwelling athlete preparing for a marathon near Machu Pichu (7972 feet/2430m), you need to allow time for your body (and mind) to adjust to the new conditions. Professional athletes often prepare for the trip a few days in advance, doing what they can to minimize the amount of time they need to adapt when they get there. 

If they live at low altitude and are competing at higher altitudes, they may spend some time each day in a low-pressure chamber, to try and force additional red blood cells to form ahead of time. If they are competing "downhill", coming from high altitude to low, they may do the reverse, spending some time in a hyperbaric chamber to slightly thin their blood (but not too much!)

The point is, they know what the goal is, they know when it is coming, and they take steps to be prepared so that they can minimize the impact of the upcoming change. Failure to do so may not only lose them the race - in rare cases, failing to prepare and allow time to adapt to the change in environment has been fatal for some athletes.


Summary

As Project Manager or Change Manager, it is your responsibility to help your stakeholders prepare for the upcoming changes.

Otherwise, the changes resulting from your project may catch them unawares and out-of-breath, or at the very least, red-faced and upset.

Nobody likes surprises on projects - so help your stakeholders prepare!

Good luck on your projects, take a deep breath - and take the time to manage change.


Gary Nelson, PMP