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Friday, November 7, 2014

Why we should choose to have less choice

[Also available as a podcast]

Everyone likes to have choice

No, that's not quite correct. These days people demand choice, especially in the arena of consumer goods and services.

The more choice the better, it would seem - or at least the manufacturers would have you think so, as you try to pick out a new cell phone from the hundreds of similar models available on any given day. 


But the truth is we don't handle choice all that well. Choice means change and uncertainty - and offering too much choice can literally stop you in your tracks - or make you leave the shop dazed and confused, without buying anything.

Let's look at another example - a common product consumed by millions every day, to which many seem utterly addicted.

Of course, I am talking about coffee.

Up until the late 1970's / early 1980's in North America, there was just coffee. Plain old coffee with a few, limited choices - filtered, or percolated. You could add milk (homogenized, 2% or skim), full cream, or just black - and a few lumps of sweetener if you preferred (sugar, honey, or artificial sweetener).

Somehow, people managed to get by - for hundreds of years - with simple coffee choices. However, if you think about it, there was actually a lot of choice to work with.

2 brewing styles
5 liquid mix type options
3 sweetener type options
= (2 x 5 x 3) = 30 basic combinations to satisfy your caffeine cravings.

Well, of course it was not really that simple. You also needed to consider quantities - large, medium or small coffee, how much milk, and don't forget whitener powders - and how many spoons or sachets of sweetener. Oh, and don't forget the different types of coffee beans, and a few flavored coffee beans.

Suddenly, you could easily have 300-400 different combinations that somehow need to be filtered through before you finally get your cup of coffee.

It's enough to make you quite anxious - so you'd better have a coffee to settle those nerves.  Agh!

However, we all managed pretty well with that level of caffeine choice. Because once you had tried a few variants, you generally found one you liked, and most people stuck with that. Suddenly, there was no more "choice" when you ordered coffee - you selected your preferred combination, and all would be well until they ran out of one of your ingredients, and you had to make do with 2% instead of full cream. For many, it was an unsettling event, because they had to make a new choice, and choice meant change.

Getting that old cup of coffee was pretty quick too - someone usually had a pot on a warming plate, and a waitress would come and 'warm up your cup', then you carried on your conversation while sipping your plain, old fashioned cheap cup of coffee.

Because plain and cheap it was - and frankly, pretty horrible compared to much of today's coffee.

Thank goodness for the widespread adoption of expresso-based coffee - it definitely changed our lives. But aside from the huge increase in price and upward trend in quality, was it really for the better?

A Better Cup

Today, the pace of change has us rushing around trying to do more things with less (and less time) than we have ever experienced before. We are expected to produce our outputs faster - and so in turn, we expect those who serve us to be faster too.

That might be fine except for one big problem.

At the same time that more demands are being placed on everyone, everyone also wants to have more choice while they are at it. We want it all, in seventeen color options, twelve sizes to choose from - and we want it to be the best quality, the cheapest price and we want it delivered this afternoon, between 3:45 and 4:05pm (otherwise the delivery will be free, it says so on the sign).


Or at least, we think we want that much choice.

Think back to your projects for a minute. Are you more successful in getting a change request approved when you provide the project sponsor twenty-seven different options and costs - or when you offer them only two or three options to choose from?

It must be twenty-seven options, right? Because we all want as much choice as possible.


Your sponsor does not want to work that hard - they simply don't have the time to review all of the combinations, because they have other priorities and projects to attend to. So they leave the meeting in disgust, confused about all of the options, and uncertain about your ability to lead the project. Not a great outcome.

So what do you do? You sift through those twenty seven options, rationalize them at the project team level, apply some stringent criteria, a dash of cost-benefit analysis, and you manage to whittle the list of potential options down to two or three (but no more than four). Better yet, as you reduced the set of options, you also spent more time discussing and documenting the various costs, benefits, risks and other factors that apply to each option.

So the next time you meet with the project sponsor (giving them ample reading time ahead of the meeting), you sit down with them, discuss the smaller set of options, and the pros and cons of each. The sponsor quickly makes a decision, and signs off the request. They leave the meeting ten minutes early with a smile, because that's just enough time to get a nice coffee from the cafe on the corner before their next meeting.

More choices cause anxiety, stress and uncertainty - because most people simply can't handle a large number of options very well at all. We want it simple, and we want the decision to be easy.


Not only does too much choice cause anxiety and stress, it also wastes a lot of time. Think of all the time you stood staring at the shelf when you were shopping for an item that had a lot of choices available. You would take one box off the shelf, stare at it, read the details, then pick a similar looking box off the shelf. You would study that one, hesitate, put one of them back, then pick an other. Thirty or forty minutes later, you have only managed to move a few steps along the aisle, and are no closer to making a decision. Twenty-three more options left to consider.

"But wait," you say - "The more choice there is, the longer it takes to consider the options. That's just straight math. And you don't want to make a bad choice!"

Well true, but how do you know if you will actually make the best choice anyway? Plus, standing there for so long just makes a person thirsty. Time for another coffee.


Years ago I was in Houston, heading off to the customer office with three colleagues. It was a bit of a ritual to stop and get a good expresso coffee on the way to a customer site; especially as the coffee was covered under your daily meal expense limit. Otherwise it was too expensive to have every day.

We were running a few minutes behind, but the driver pulled into the drive-through lane of a popular expresso coffee chain anyway, driven to have that quality caffeine fix. The line of vehicles moved very slowly, which made us more and more anxious as we realized we were going to be late - the question now was by how much.

"They are so sloooow," one colleague complained.

"It would have been faster to go in," commented another.

"What's taking so long?" asked the driver, banging one hand on the steering wheel.

Finally, we got up to the window, and I realized the nature of the problem as my colleagues placed their orders.

"Grande Trim Half-Caf Mochachino, two sugars and a twist of lemon."

"Vente Caramel machiatto, triple shot, full foam, with the caramel swirl on the top."

"Vente triple shot americano, whipped cream on top and three sugars on the side."

Then it was my turn.

"Vente. Hazelnut. Latte" I quickly rattled off, then turned to my colleagues.

"You know, the reason the line takes so long is because coffee orders like yours are so complicated. It's your fault!"

They were not impressed, but I had learned something important.

Sometimes too much choice can be a bad thing. This is especially true when the customer is upset you are late, and even more so because you wasted that extra time getting your fancy coffee.  As the meeting starts, they sit glaring at you, sipping the filtered office coffee they had made especially for you. Not the best way to start the first day of meetings with a new customer.

The Simple Choice

A year later, I was in Memphis working for another end client. My colleagues who had been working there for a while took me out for dinner and to see the sights. We wandered into the famous Peabody Hotel, which is well known for its house ducks who live on the roof. Every day they are escorted down the elevator, then waddle out onto the red carpet and over to the fountain in the lobby. They spend a good portion of the day paddling about in the fountain, and then in the late afternoon, they hop out of the fountain, and follow the bellman back into the elevator, and back up to their other home on the roof. 

I never managed to be there at the right time to see the ducks, but I loved hearing the story.

As we exited the lobby, we crossed the street and began walking down a poorly lit alley. I had worked with these people for several years, so I was not overly concerned, but something did not feel right walking down an alley in Memphis in the evening. Memphis was known at the time to have some violent neighborhoods, and I didn't know enough to tell if we were going into one. So I held back, just a bit.

But my colleagues walked on, motioning me past the second dumpster, and down a brick stairwell. We entered a very crowded BBQ restaurant called the Rendezvous, and politely made our way through the crowd to the hostess desk. Within a few minutes, we were escorted on a winding trail through the restaurant, then seated at a large table. The place was packed full, with barely enough room to pull the chairs back from the table. 

As soon as we were seated, a brusque older waiter pushed between the tables and put a loaf of cut white bread on the plastic red-and-white checkered table cloth. He pulled out a pen and a pad of paper from his apron pocket, and sized up the table.

"Sweet or unsweet?" he asked.

He was talking about iced tea. Each person quickly replied with their selection. Someone tried to order a Coke and he just glared at them. 

"Um, sweet, I guess," they stammered. He nodded.

Then he pointed his pen at each person around the table. 

"You'll have one pound of ribs. You- big guy, pound and a half at least. You - one pound. You - two pounds. You - one pound," and so on as he worked around the table.

"Wet or dry?" he asked, pointing his pen at me.

"What?" I asked, not knowing what he meant.

The colleague to my left whispered "BBQ Sauce on your ribs, or dry rubbed spices. Choose dry."

"Um, Dry please," I said, then the others made their selection.

He nodded, and tucked the pen back into his apron. "Be out with the corn bread shortly."

And that was it. A full meal ordered - and we only made two small choices each. The rest were made for us - and we were not even allowed to choose a different type of drink. At first, I was a bit annoyed - but as dinner arrived and I worked my way through the best rack of ribs I have ever had in my life, I decided it didn't matter.

Just like the scenario with the sponsor of your project, sometimes having limited choice is the best thing for you.


Choice is a double-edged sword. If you have too few options, you won't be confident that you are choosing the right thing - you may feel you are missing something important. But too many choices can quickly deadlock your thinking process, as you get bogged down in confusing and often conflicting details.

The key is to reduce the dizzying number of options down to a manageable few - as soon as  it is practical to do so. A shop keeper who provides too many options risks losing sales, just as a shop with only one or two options for an item might lose out to a competitor with a couple more product choices. 

In many situations, simplifying the options comes down to trust. When you research a larger group of potential options and reduce those down to a manageable number for your sponsor to review, they should be confident that you have done your research, and have discarded many of the less appealing or impractical options in a sensible fashion. As you present the clear pros and cons of the remaining options, it makes their decision-making that much easier, and their trust and respect for you will likely grow as well. 

However, if you did not do a good job of providing a reasonable (defensible) set of final options for your sponsor to consider, they may not trust your judgement the next time.

In day to day life, we really don't need that many choices. What is the big difference between all those different cellphone models, anyway? Will you use all of those features? Probably not. Just pick the blue one and be done with it - you will save at least an hour you could be spending eating ribs.

Or maybe you just want to sit down, unwind and have your vente half-caf machiatto with a caramel swirl on top.

Hey, not all choice is bad!

Our waiter in the Rendezvous was actually quite famous - the "grumpy waiter" was well known in the city, and I was glad to have been served by him. He passed away a few years later - a loss to the city, but I am sure the ribs are still just as good.

Good luck with your projects, and if you ever make it to Memphis, make sure to go to the Rendezvous restaurant. I recommend sweet and dry - and that may be the only choice you need to make!

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Practical Case Study in Cost-Benefit Analysis - did you want Popcorn with that?

[Also available as a podcast]

Cost-Benefit Analysis

A process by which you weigh expected costs against expected benefits to determine the best (or most profitable) course of action.

A few years ago I was at a customer site in Independence, Missouri. It is a classic American town, sitting on the eastern edge of Kansas City. One of the advantages of working for a company with a wide-spread customer base was that I had the opportunity to visit a lot of different places.

When money has been spent to get you there, you had better make the most of it - so you maximize the hours you spend with the customer. However, when the working day is done there is an opportunity for personal benefit and exploration as well. So wherever I went, I made sure to learn about the local history and try to see a few attractions.

It's all about maximizing the value for the cost - which is the primary basis for cost-benefit analysis. In this case, the personal cost was not financial, but in time away from family - so it was worth my while to see the sights that I could in the time that I had. Especially when somebody else had already paid to get me there.

With a population of 119,000 Independence is more like a small city, but they have preserved their identity and character despite the closeness to their larger next door neighbor, Kansas City (pop 467,000). It's just what you might expect from a town called Independence.

Although I was only there for a few days, I made the most of my visit and thoroughly enjoyed having a look around the place while I was there. Few attractions were open after working hours, but I did manage to fit in a tour of the Harry S. Truman national historic site before it closed for the day. It was a nice southern-style building - not huge, not opulent - but it was a good, solid building with nice architectural features.

Source: Wikipedia (cc) Nationalparks

In fact, it was his family home. We were only allowed to tour the downstairs, as Bess Truman wrote into her will that in order to protect her family's privacy, the second floor was to remain closed until the death of her daughter, Margaret. Though Margaret died in 2008, the second floor has remained closed in order to better preserve the home.

For a President who took America from its traditional isolationism into the age of international involvement, it was a sign of his firm connection with his roots that he and his family lived in this same comfortable house since his marriage in 1919 until his wife Bess died in 1982. Having visited a number of other presidential national historic sites, this was the one that I liked the most. Unlike the imposing columns and the expansive property of Mount Vernon, this felt like somewhere a real person lived - not someone larger than life.

The next evening, I finished work too late to see any other historic sites, so I decided to see a movie. At least, that was the plan.

I'd like a ticket, please

Someone at the office had recommended a theatre that was a short drive away in Overland Park. There were closer theatres, and it was about a half hour drive, but they said it would be worth it.

So off I went, picking up a sub sandwich on the way. I still had it in the bag when I arrived at the theatre - I wanted to make sure I would be there early enough to get a ticket and the movie was starting in an hour. The way the person at the office had talked it up, I was a bit concerned about a full house.

I parked, locked the car and walked up toward the ticket window of the Rio Theatre. It was a building with an art-deco style facade, with plenty of neon lights wrapping around the sign board showing the name of the movie.

Image source:
When I reached the ticket window, a young man smiled at me through the glass.

"Can I help you?"

"I'd like to but a ticket for the 7:00 movie, please."

"That'll be eight dollars."

I opened my wallet and handed him a twenty. He passed back a ticket and twelve dollars in change.

I was tucking the change into my wallet when he said "Um, we need three more."

"What?" I asked, looking at first at my wallet, then back at him.

"We need three more people before we can open the door."

I looked to the side and saw eight people waiting in their cars. The parking lot was otherwise empty. "Why?"

The young man sighed. "We need at least twelve people or it costs more in electricity to run the projector than we take in ticket sales."

"Huh," I said.

"If we don't get enough, we will refund you," he half-smiled. "Don't go far."

"Okay..." I said, as I turned and walked back towards my car. I looked at the other people sitting in their cars. A couple glanced in my direction.

I went back to my car and unwrapped my dinner. As I ate, I watched the ticket window. About fifteen minutes later I was finishing up my sub as four more people arrived. They seemed to study the playbills off to the side of the ticket window for a long time.

Come on, come on, I thought, checking my watch.

Finally, they walked up to the ticket window. Money was exchanged, tickets were handed over and five car doors opened.

The art deco theme continued inside. I bought some refreshments and went inside the theatre itself and took a seat near the back. It was well appointed, with hidden lighting along the walls. There was open floor space along the sides, and I sat in a spacious dark brushed velvet seat as I took in the art-deco framed rich velvet curtains at the front. It wasn't over-done, and you could easily imagine people dressed to the nines coming in for an evening's entertainment of moving pictures. I looked all around the theatre while the lights were still on, taking it all in.

I was almost disappointed when the lights dimmed for the movie.

 Image source:

An hour and a half or so later the movie finished and the lights came back on. The movie itself was OK, but being able to experience the obvious care and attention to detail in this beautiful art-deco style fine arts cinema was, to me, more than worth the price of admission.

Is it worth it?

On your projects, there will be many decisions to make that incorporate cost-benefit analysis. From the initial decision to start your project (or not), through scoping, requirements analysis, stage gates and all of the many change requests that may arise, opportunity assessments and risk response decisions, there will always be some level of cost-benefit analysis.

You also apply it regularly in your own life - for example, when you walk by an ice cream store, you may pause to consider whether to go in. 

Is a sweet, creamy cold dessert worth parting with a few dollars? 

Of course! So you go in and look at the board above the counter.

What flavor to choose?

Well, there are so many good ones - why not have more than one? Suddenly you have two cost-benefit decisions to make, all at once. If you buy two or three scoops, you get more taste variety for your tongue, and sure the cost is a bit more - but are those extra calories really worth it?

Maybe I should just get two scoops, not three.

So you wrestle with the options, and settle on two scoops. You can't have just one scoop, you reason - it would be lonely (or any other weak justification for having that second scoop). But you feel better (or less guilty) about not having the third scoop, even though you had enough change left over to get it.

In your projects, just as in life, there will be trade-offs, compromises, and value judgments. Some may require formal business cases with explicit hard expected benefits and deliverables for the estimated cost. Many more decisions will be less formal, in the day to day decision making of the project manager. But it is rarely going to be black and white.

In addition to any financial benefits from your project, you also need to consider other factors such as:

  • Will this give you a lead in the market?
  • Will this provide an enhanced customer experience?
  • Will this improve safety?
  • Will the benefits outweigh possible risks?
  • Will it give us an ongoing return? What will it be?
  • Will this save money on the project, or in operations?
  • Will it keep the stakeholders happy?
  • Do we even want to do it?
  • and so on.

Often, you will be considering the expertise and opinions of others when you do your cost-benefit analysis. This may be in the form of your best friend being a sounding board about that third scoop - or you may be presenting a case to your Project Board, who will make the final decision based on the best available information for significant decisions.

But when it comes down to it, in your projects and in life, when you factor in the various considerations, diagnoses, opinions, research and the myriad options that can feed into a decision - the basic question is simply "is it worth it?"


The truth is that we don't always know what the right decision will be, even when we make it with the best available knowledge. The theatre had their own baseline cost-benefit decision they had to make at every showing of a movie. On most nights it would not even come into play - but on a quiet Wednesday night, that is the scenario I came across.

They had a hard-cost factor to consider. The electricity cost to run the projector for a movie was around $100, or so the young man at the ticket booth claimed. They needed 12 tickets to be sold to be close to covering that cost; it was their baseline threshold and without that many seats sold, there would be no movie.

For me, the cost-benefit formula was a bit different. When I first arrived at the ticket booth, I had just been planning to see a current movie, at a reasonable price. My colleague had talked up the theatre, so I was willing to drive thirty minutes to go to the Rio, rather than the one five minutes away from my hotel. By the time I got there, it would not have been worth driving back to a different theatre. So I waited, uncertain if I would be able to see the movie and getting slightly annoyed. But it was still was worth waiting, rather than giving up and heading back to the hotel.

It had never occurred to me that there also might be something special inside the theatre. The person at the office had said it was a nice theatre, but had not gone into specifics. Had I known what I would see inside (forget about the movie for a minute), I may have been prepared to make a different decision.

Looking back at it, and considering how far I had come to see this one-screen theatre (half an hour plus several thousand miles from home), the likelihood that I may never come to this area again, and what I would experience inside the theatre, I would have been prepared to make a different cost-benefit decision up-front.

I would have been happy to pay for two or even three tickets, just to make sure the movie ran - and so I could have that opportunity to experience the art deco interior.

On the other hand, I am not sure it would have been worth buying up a fourth ticket. It was a very nice theatre - but $24 to see it would probably have been my limit. Also, as they only took cash, that was a limiting factor as well - I needed some money left over for popcorn and a drink.

Decor is nice to look at, but a movie without popcorn is just not the same.

Good luck with your projects, and if you ever get to Kansas City, make sure to go to the Rio Theatre in Overland Park. It will be well worth it - even if you need to buy an extra ticket.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why we all need a little Project FIRST AID

[Also available as a podcast]

I recently attended an Outdoor First Aid course at Camp Waingaro, which is an old scout hall nestled in 19 hectares of New Zealand bush. Quite a long way from anywhere - or at least it felt like it when I found that I could no longer get a cellphone signal. It was a beautiful site, surrounded on three sides by a creek that wound its way down the valley.

I initially thought it would be something of a refresher course, as I had attended first aid courses before, but in many respects this was an entirely new experience.

Granted, the last in-depth First Aid course I took was over 30 years ago - but as it turned out I had remembered most of the basic concepts I needed to know over all of that time. The first day of the course was a lot of theory - with some practical exercises using CPR dummies, various bandages, how to deal with choking and so on. Of course, some practices and techniques have changed over the years - in fact, some first aid practices seem to change every few years as they learn more and best practices change.

On occasion, I have had to use my first aid skills in the past - beyond the basics of blisters, small cuts, splinters and burns. One was a full-out mountain rescue involving a victim 200 feet (61m) down a steep slope, his near-vertical evacuation and the treatment for scrapes, lacerations and embedded gravel. Years after that, I had to deal with a victim who had become engulfed in flame. It was a long drive to hospital as we worked to cool and protect his burns. Fortunately, both victims fully recovered.

As it had been a long time since my initial training, I was nervous when I first arrived at the course, but I grew progressively more confident throughout the day as we covered familiar topics. However, things changed when we got into the practical outdoor scenarios the next morning.
(c) 2012 Mathew Frauenstein

When it all hit the fan, I felt like I knew almost nothing.

Not all practice is the same

In fairness, I had retained most of the basic first aid knowledge I had learned. How to splint, how to bandage, how to check for shock - and the dozens of other key things you need to be able to do when you come across an injured person. I am reasonably confident that if someone came up to me with a moderate injury, I would be able to do an acceptable first-aid treatment on it - hey, I had done it before, a number of times. All good, right? Bring on the scenarios!

It was not quite so easy.

The scenarios were setup for us on the fly - and even though the accident makeup was pretty basic, the situations themselves were common ones - and so by their nature, disturbingly believable. We all took turns playing the role of victim and rescuer/first aider. 

If that had been all there was to it, it would have been relatively simple - in theory, anyway. 

But - as we all learn sooner or later - theory falls down flat when you hit the practical stuff.

Note: It is very hard to remain "unconscious" while you are getting numerous bug bites, lying face down in the gravel. However, if I had moved, I would have spoiled the scenario - and affected their treatment response. Ouch!

Our scenarios did not involve one victim or even two. The first scenario involved four victims with various injuries, and two bystanders who caused more problems - with one quickly becoming another victim. Pretty messy - and the dozen would-be first aiders frankly botched the overall situation pretty badly.

Time to regroup, and go back into class for a lessons learned session. 

It's not just "First Aid"

What we were beginning to learn was not just the first aid skills for helping a victim - but the management and coordination of a team while in an emergency situation. We were practicing trying to keep things together until higher-level medical help could arrive. That, or evacuate to a safe point; in the bush you could be a long way from help - hours or sometimes days depending on the conditions.

What occurred to me as I was driving home from the course and scratching my bug bites was that many of the same skills we were required to exhibit under pressure were the same ones we use on projects.

In fact, when you get right down to the bare bones of it, every one of those scenarios had the characteristics of a project.

Each scenario had:
  • Requirements (Scope) - "Help the injured victims, and do what we can to keep them safe and alive." 
  • Time  - There was not a lot of it, as we had to stabilize the patients quickly. We needed to get them to help as soon as possible- which in reality could also involve a lot of waiting. Time will run fast - and slow - while you are waiting for help to come.
  • Uniqueness- every scenario was unique, and outcomes were unpredictable. Victims had been advised to change their reactions throughout the 20-30 minute scenarios, depending what the first-aiders did to treat them.
  • Planning - We had to constantly plan and re-plan on how we were going to deal with each victim, how to manage the rest of the group, what to do if we had to wait for hours or days for help, and so on. No gantt charts, but it was planning just the same.
  • Scope Creep - for example, in the shape of a rapidly rising creek or river, where everyone suddenly needed to be moved to higher ground. Conditions do change, so you need to be able respond. For once, no formal Change Requests needed to be signed off by the Project Board!
  • Stakeholders - The victims, the other members of the group and witnesses (who all may be distressed and either interfere, help or become another victim), and Emergency Services (who were hopefully on the way soon after being contacted).
  • Assessment of skills/Task Assignments -  Who is the best person for the job? Don't use your best first-aider as a runner, and if someone vomits at the sight of blood, get them to help the one with the sprained ankle instead of the amputee.
  • Leadership - A key element of handling any situation - and as we found out in our first couple scenarios - if you are missing this, the whole situation can fall apart fast.
  • Prioritization (triage) -  Who was injured the most badly? Who needed help the quickest - the one gushing blood, the one with a sprained ankle, the one who chopped off his arm, or the one with a head injury? At first glance it may seem obvious, but you also need to take a second look (a secondary survey) to make sure you didn't miss something serious. Re-prioritization may often be required.
  • Communication - With the patient, with each other, with the leader, with emergency services. Regular updates were required throughout the scenario, between the first aiders and to all the stakeholders.

    Note: The lack of communication in the scenarios was just as important - today we live in such a connected world it it hard to imagine not being able to make a cell phone call. However, the geography of the camp and the lack of cell signal was a visible reminder that you need to be prepared to communicate in other ways - and that you will probably need to send the fastest runners to go for help.
  • Cost and Resources - We had limited supplies and people to help, and the the primary currency for cost was in saving lives - though you won't always be able to save them all.
  • Execution of the plan (not the patient). 
In addition, we had to deal with:
  • Stakeholder engagement - If there are people milling around not helping (or getting in the way), get them involved with something they can do to help - or keep them out of the way. Keep them occupied and in a safe area away from the emergency scene - so they don't become (or create) another victim.
  • Coaching/Positive encouragement - Everyone responds better with a clear head and a sense of optimism - both the patients and the first aiders. "Hey buddy, we saved your arm and are keeping it cool so they can try to sew it back on later" or "That splinter's not too big, we'll get that cleaned up."

    The situation might also require you to bolster the spirits of your team - First Aid is hard, draining work. If they wear out and get discouraged, the patients will be at risk - and so will your team.
So yes, in a very real sense, we were dealing with projects. Certainly not Waterfall (though you might have someone fall over one), and not exactly Agile - but high-urgency, unplanned, emergency projects where conditions can and do change from minute to minute.

It was a thought-provoking weekend, and I took a way a few essential lessons that you can apply to any project. All it takes is a little FIRST AID.

F.I.R.S.T. A.I.D.

Every project needs a little First Aid - and you might argue that some projects need it more than others. So let's open up our kits and begin.

[F]ind out what the problem is - and if there is more than one problem. You may be able to clearly see the challenges in front of you, but what about the guy behind the tree with an axe in his leg? 

On your projects, this is all about determining the scope / requirements - what it is we are trying to do, what are our goals, what are the pain points and problems the project is intended to solve. Do you have a clear handle on what you need to do? Better check the bushes to make sure you didn't miss something important. In other words, you need to validate your requirements.

[I]dentify who is the best leader for the situation, and who can take charge of each case or patient. This might not be pre-determined, as your regular "leader" may be incapacitated or unavailable. 

On your project, leadership roles can and do change. Sure - you are the Project Manager, but you need other people to take on different leadership roles as well - each of your team leads focused on different deliverables, for example. Besides, I am sure you will want to take a vacation some time, or might be down with the flu. In those situations you will need to have a second-in-command to keep things running while you are away.

[R]ecognize your limitations. You can't solve every problem or fix every situation, at least not on your own. You need the skills of a competent team around you, and you need to share the load.

When administering CPR they recommend you take turns every 200 compressions - that is a change-over every two minutes

"Pah! That's not very long - I can do it longer!"

Warning - If you 'tough it out' and stick to it for 10 minutes, it will take you 20 minutes to recover. If you swap every two minutes, it will take you only two minutes to recover. If you only have two rescuers including yourself, two-minute stints can keep the patient alive for a long time. With only the two of you taking ten minute stints, in twenty minutes you will both be exhausted - and your patient will be at a greater risk of dying because you over-did it.

Don't be a 'hero' - let others help, and you will collectively avoid burnout. You may even save a life - or your project.

[S]tabilize the situation,any which way you can. If your project is running off the rails, it is essential that you regroup, assess the situation and re-plan. When you identify what the current burning issues are, you have a better chance of dealing with them. Letting things run along un-checked is definitely not acceptable - and the best way to get back into some semblance of control is to gather your team together to tackle it.

In an emergency situation, it is not only the patients you need to stabilize - it is the whole situation and all the people in it. If you have other [healthy] people you are responsible for (children or adults), it is important to make sure that they are care for - and most importantly, keep them out of trouble. Boredom can kill - sometimes literally.

[T]ake a deep breath. One or two, or maybe count to ten. Taking a moment to pause and reflect will reduce stress in any situation. Smell the roses, take a short breather when things get overwhelming on your projects. You will find that things are not necessarily as bad as you think.

Tip: Those deep breaths are good, but not too many too close together. (In other words, don't hyperventilate - or you may need some First Aid yourself!)

[A]ssign tasks to others. Unless your project is very, very small, you will have a team of people to work on your project. It may be big or small, but it is essential that you delegate and assign responsibility for various project tasks to be completed. You can't do it all on your own, and it is a delusion to think that only you can do it the best.

In an emergency situation, it is critical to have an assigned 'patient leader' for each patient, even if more than on person is required to assist. The patient leader will be helping the patient but also keeping track of vitals and other information about the patient, ready to pass that on to the situation leader, so they can communicate with emergency services and get you any additional items or help you may need.

If you have a complex scenario with multiple locations, you need to extend that a level further, and add a site leader who is keeping up to date on the status of all of the victims in a specific area. They then report back to the main situation leader on a regular basis. Sounds a lot like a project team, right?

The key is to be very specific in the assignments, so there is no uncertainty around what you have asked them to do - and by when.

[I]nspire confidence in your team and stakeholders. If you are supposed to be in charge but look like you are falling apart (or don't know what you are doing), you won't be doing anyone any good.  Fumbling with a bandage and dropping it in the dirt in front of a bleeding victim may not give them much confidence in your ability to keep them alive.

Confidence is good - but it requires careful balance. If you act over-confident a lot of the time, it can come across as arrogance. Conversely, a person who is a fumbling, quivering mess is not well-suited for the leadership requirements of that role.

Note: We are all human - and in some non-emergency situations not being afraid to show your weaknesses can actually develop a stronger team. That is why you build up a team after all; each person has different skills and strengths, and the combination makes a stronger whole. 

If you have the strength and confidence to share some of your weaknesses - and show you respect the corresponding strengths in your team members - you can go a long way together.

[D]o your best. If you can't remember what was on page 57 of the "what you should do" manual, use your common sense, best judgement and make some stuff up to get you through.

At the time, we were all so busy trying to do the right things right that we didn't have time to think about anything other than making it through each scenario with (hopefully) "live" patients at the end. We made lots of mistakes - so I am glad we were not actually dealing with real victims. But that is what practice is for - to learn what to do before you need to use your new skills in earnest.

The point is to be as prepared as you can, and keep on trying.


The outdoor first-aid scenarios that followed were increasingly complex, but we began to work a little better together as a team as the day went on. It was also obvious that we were a long way from being experts, and we could all use a whole lot more practice.

The 'textbook' over-confidence from the classroom was long gone, and the reality of the situation was beginning to sink in. You don't know what you know until you actually try to do it, and hopefully you will learn from your mistakes and move on with more confidence in your abilities as you practice.

Probably the most important lesson, however, was that of recognizing your limitations - none of us were as good at responding as we thought we would be, and we all had a lot more to learn. 

The same can be said of our projects - just as you have 'practicing Doctors', we should really consider ourselves 'practicing Project Managers'. We will never be perfect, but with practice we can all hope to improve and apply those lessons learned on the next project.

Good luck with your projects, practice those skills, and keep your First Aid kit handy.

 Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

Friday, August 15, 2014

Guest Post: How To Plan A Project - My Light-bulb Moment

By Bryan Barrow

At some point in your life you will have had what people describe as a “light-bulb” moment.  That point where darkness is suddenly replaced with blinding illumination and where everything is revealed, removing doubt, providing insights and boosting belief.

There is another way of thinking of the light-bulb moment that is familiar to anyone who has seen an ”A-List” celebrity walk down along a red carpet.  It’s the popping of not one, but hundreds of flashes all going off within seconds of each other as the paparazzi lean in to take that perfect shot that they rely on to earn a living, and, if they are lucky, make a fortune for years to come.  

The effect is so dazzling that it can cause a physical response even for those who were not there at the time.  Watch the new coverage of a scene like this and you will often be warned beforehand that the video contains flashing lights. However, the true impact of the light-bulb moment comes when the scene illuminated by the flashbulb is frozen forever in that blinding light, every detail lit up and perfectly exposed so that future generations can see through the photographer’s eyes.  

I can’t say that I have ever had been photographed by the paparazzi.  At least not to my knowledge.  But I can tell you that I have felt the physical sensation of dozens of light-bulbs going off all at once, leaving me feeling dizzy with delight and boosting my belief that, without a doubt I had found a solution to a long-term problem. 

Picture the scene: A hotel conference room set out cabaret style, with 20 large round tables set some way away from the main stage.  Around one of those tables there were ten people, drawn from different parts of the project management community.  I was one of them.  

We were there for a workshop on facilitating project kickoff workshops.  The company that I was working with had recognised that too many projects were starting off without a clear plan of action and wanted to ensure that all project in future had a kick-off meeting.  

Phil, the workshop leader, had started to talk about a couple of approaches to planning as a team.  I waited for the inevitable mention of planning using sticky notes.  I wasn't wrong, but I was disappointed.

I’d long since lost faith in planning using sticky notes. I knew that it had its fans, but it also came with several major drawbacks including lack of consistency, an over-reliance on subject matter experts and a tendency to overlook the planning for quality assurance and good governance.  In my view it was good, but not good enough.

My own preference was for a product-based planning approach.  At that time I had had some success in using a RACI matrix to drive the planning of new projects as this overcome some of the shortcomings of planning with sticky notes.  However using the RACI matrix didn’t deal with one key problem; that of having to rely on subject matter experts.  It also added a new problem; that of having to hold multiple workshops or reviews to get through the long list of possible products in order to agree those needed for a given project.  In today’s fast-moving working environment the idea of having several workshops was a no-no, even though developing through iteration was the ideal.

I was only really half-listening when Phil moved on from the discussion about planning with sticky notes to talk about another method for collaborative planning, this time using Index Cards.  

Phil took us over to a table with about 30-40 index cards of different colours, folded in half and set out in neat rows, like tents in a field.  Phil described the approach as an alternative to putting notes on the wall and left it at that.  However it set off a whole series of thoughts, insights and ideas that were a physical shock.  This was my light-bulb moment.  Not the “single light going on” type.  No, this was the full “riot of flashbulbs popping” variety:

  • Flash! In one instant I saw how the cards could mirror the freedom and flexibility of sticky notes for capturing ideas directly;
  • Flash! In the same instant I could see how those same cards could be pre-prepared to minimise the need for writing and to maximise the thinking time in the workshop, making the workshop faster and more productive;
  • Flash! If we can print the name of the product on one side, we might as well print the product description on the other, making it easy to explain what the work products were, for those who were new to the organisation or to project management;
  • Flash! I could see how we could make the workshops much more collaborative than RACI workshops in drawing on the different perspectives of the participants, so that we got a much more rounded picture;
  • Flash! In the same instant I saw how to build in compliance with project and company standards by making some of the cards mandatory for all projects;
  • Flash! If we can construct the timeline and we have historical effort estimates from previous projects then we can quickly come up with an initial estimate of the overall project duration;
  • Flash!  If we can construct the timeline then we can also start to look at dependencies between teams that might affect the timeline, so that we can manage dependencies between projects, including dependencies on resources;
  • Flash!  If we know which work products are required to achieve the milestones, we can determine straight away which resources are required, so we can create an initial resource list immediately;
  • Flash!  If we know the costs of the resources, then we can create an initial project budget which will be much more realistic, as it is based on real data.  It should create a more accurate expenditure profile as it already incorporates timings, resources and dependencies;
  • Flash! If we can build in mandatory activities to ensure good governance right at the start then we can reduce the risk of projects going wrong later on.

The ideas just kept on coming and my mind lit up as I saw how powerful a process this could become. I scribbled down the formula for how to plan a project exactly as I saw it take shape in my mind: it was something simple, collaborative and easy to replicate time and time again.  

Here’s the image that was burned into my brain, the formula for planning workshops that I still use to this day:

  • Step One: Clarify the Goal.  Spend the first hour of the workshop on defining the goal, clarifying the scope and understanding what success means, for the business and for the team.  This clarity is essential.  If you don’t have the right goal you will aim for the wrong target.  If you don’t have the right reason for attaining the goal you won’t be motivated to pursue it.
  • Step Two: Introduce the planning exercise.  Explain how the Index Card Planning exercise will work.  Make it clear to the participants that they are responsible for planning the project and that your role is to facilitate.  Set the expectation for the outcome of the workshop but leave it to the participants to drive the development of the schedule.  
  • Step Three: Construct the High Level Milestone Plan.  Having clarified the goal and its importance to the business, divide the project into suitable workstreams and, for each workstream, define the milestones that could be used to signify success on the route to the goal. Let the participants describe the milestones in their own language because it will help them to take ownership of the plan.  Once the team have identified the key milestones, walk through the results and get agreement.  Take pictures of the result so that you can review them later.
  • Step Four: Construct the Detailed Plan.  With the high level milestones identified, select the Work Products that are needed to achieve each milestone.  These Work Products can be pre-printed to eliminate the time ordinarily spent writing.  The Work Products can be based on any methodology.  Leave it to the participants to select the Work Products, so that they are responsible for planning; let them work as a team to agree on what is needed. Once the Work Products have all been identified, review any that have not been selected and gain agreement that they are not required.  Go through the timeline and identify any key dates and dependencies. Again, take pictures so that you have a permanent record of what was produced.
  • Step Five: Review the results of the workshop.  Ensure that mandatory Work Products relating to quality assurance, project governance and risk management have been included; this will ensure that good governance is built in right from the start.  Go through the risks, issues, assumptions, dependencies, constraints and decisions and see if there are any more to add.  Agree the follow up actions; in particular, confirm that you will send out the results of the workshop so that people can add in any final thoughts or comments. 

Two days later I held my first workshop using the new formula.  The outcome was not just a success; it went exactly as I saw it in that first flash of inspiration.  I still use that formula today and it still inspires me.  It can inspire you too. 

(C) Bryan Barrow, 2014

Bryan Barrow is a widely recognized Project Risk Management consultant and Speaker, and the founder of Nova Consulting Ltd in the UK. Over the past twenty years has worked with Project Management Offices, Project Directors and both public and private sector organisations , helping them to improve project planning and rescue troubled projects. He also provides coaching and mentoring to help develop the skills of the next generation of project leaders.

Barrow is the author of Index Card Planning and The Project Planning Workshop Handbook. He publishes his subscription-only newsletter Project Leadership Tips every month. Subscribe at

Saturday, August 9, 2014

If only every Project ran like an old Honda Civic

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was in my late teens, I bought my first car. My friends were all doing the same - we all had our licenses and we wanted to put them to good use. Of course, not having a lot of money, we each ended up buying older, cheaper cars. I bought a 1974 Mazda RX4 from a family member, one friend bought an old Chevy Nova, another had an old sports car, and one had bought a 1977 Honda Civic.

CC Source:

All of these cars were made near the end of an era- close to the last generation of vehicles you could actually fix yourselves. All of them even had carburetors - no fancy fuel injection, and definitely no computer control systems. My car had only an AM radio, which I updated to AM/FM (but no cassette deck). When these cars were made, most computers filled a small room, and Personal Computers were not yet available.

Wheels = Freedom

Well, we were all very happy to have our own set of wheels, so we took good care of our cars - washed them regularly, learned how to do our own repairs, change the oil and spark plugs, the whole bit. Besides, we couldn't afford to send them in to the shop for anything but the most significant of problems; the rest we did ourselves, brake pads, shocks and all.

Although we had our own cars, we helped each other and worked like a team. We learned from each other, and each became the "go-to" person for a particular specialty. Brian went into auto mechanics in a big way, eventually extending it into a career that included welding and being able to fix just about anything. He quickly became the expert in everything automotive, and for anything major we all went to him for help.

As you would expect, Brian was the one with the best car.

However, at the time, we didn't think so. My RX4 was sleek and fast, the Nova was solid and gutsy, and our other friends' cars were sporty. We all kind of felt sorry for our mechanic friend Brian who only had a little red Honda Civic.

I mean, a 1977 Honda Civic wasn't really a serious car. Sure it was small, and good on fuel - but it wasn't much for show, not really. Not something you would want to take a girl on a date with, compared to any of the other cars we had. It wasn't gutsy, it wasn't fast, it wasn't much more than a tin can on wheels. Four or five people could pick it up and move it (and occasionally we did).

But over the years, Brian proved us just how wrong we were about his car.

We smiled when he put a tow-bar on his Civic.

And yet, Brian spent several summers in a row, tree planting in the mountainous interior of British Columbia. Everywhere he went, he drove his little Honda Civic - up and down steep logging roads, across creek beds - all while towing a home-built tent trailer nearly as big as his car.

When his car broke down every so often, Brian was able to get it up and running again in a matter of minutes - he was never stranded anywhere for long. He kept a toolbox in his car that he refined over time - and he kept that little car humming along, no matter where he went. 

When he had trouble with the ignition key, Brian just bypassed it and installed a push-button to start it, decades ahead of those hybrid cars. It may not have been very secure, but hey - who was going to steal an old Honda Civic?

When he went to the beach, Brian strapped his wind-surfer on the roof rack, and off he went - often with a car full of people. He could just squeeze in four passengers, all with their seat-belts on.

It even proved itself to be a stunt car - when it end up driving on two wheels after hitting a snowbank on the way back from camp one winter.

The car became a legend to us - it was practically invincible. It could go anywhere, pull anything, carry almost anything (including firewood and bags of manure). It was his pickup-truck, his 4X4, his go-anywhere-and-do-everything car, and he loved it to bits.

Brian finally admitted the car was perhaps close to its limits on one trip as he drove up the Coquihalla - the toll highway with a 20km long, continuous steep grade that once disabled my RX4 and killed hundreds of other vehicles. He had his windsurfer strapped on top, the tent trailer fully loaded and hitched on behind - and five people stuffed into the car. 

The car crawled up the hill at little more than a jogging pace, but it finally made it - all the way up, over and beyond to the campground, then all the way home again.

It was a marvel of engineering - and persistence, of both car and driver.

If only we all had an old Honda Civic on our Projects

We learned a lot of lessons from that old Honda Civic and our patient friend, aside from the practical car maintenance skills. Practical lessons that we took with us into our lives and various careers - and of course into my projects.

The legend of that car was spread far and wide, wherever we went - it became our informal mascot, and a symbol for achieving what others might think impossible. We grew together as friends around our cars, and that little car became the most respected of them all. It taught is the value of persistence, and looking beyond the surface to what lay beneath - be it a hunk of metal with tires, or someone you just met.

We could all use something as tenacious, persistent and resilient as that old car on our projects. Whether you use some kind of a mascot as a rallying point, or develop a vibrant common spirit that is instilled throughout the team, every project needs that little something to keep you going when the times get tough. We all sometimes need encouragement to realize you can do it (whatever your goals are), despite the odds.

Now, that old Honda Civic has probably been long recycled by now, and besides there was only the one that Brian had, so it would be hard to share it with all of you. However, I give you your own Honda Civic today, to help you survive your projects - in the form of some practical lessons we learned from it.

(H) ave faith. Even small teams can deliver amazing results, as long as you support and believe in them. Conversely, a team that does not believe in themselves will accomplish little. If your team is lacking in self-confidence, help them build it up through a series of small successes. The Honda Civic tackled each new challenge with caution, but Brian had confidence that they would make it through - and they always did, together. Over the years, that little Honda Civic even went places that heavy 4X4s dared not go.

(O) verlook the small flaws. No car or person is perfect, so don't expect them to be. If you look past the surface imperfections you will see a vast range of possibilities. I am pretty sure Brian looked at his little Civic every morning and saw the heart of a Monster Truck lurking within. You should do the same with your team - look past their quirks and odd habits and you will see their potential.

(N) ever give up. Brian never did - and as a result, his car never let him down. They had to work together to achieve it, just as your teams do. You can't do much on your own, but together in small groups you can accomplish amazing things - as long as you don't give up.

(D) o the impossible. Everyone else is doing the ordinary, while most of our greatest inventions were simply impossible - until someone made it happen. Projects exist to create change, to make something new or to make things better. Nothing is impossible unless you let it be so. Brian took it as a personal challenge to see just how far he and his little Civic could go - and he regularly amazed us all.

(A) lways look ahead. Sound advice when you are driving of course, but it applies equally to your projects. You won't make any progress rehashing past failures; you need to put the past behind you. Learn from it, certainly - but don't live in the past. You can't navigate while you are watching the rear view mirror. Whenever we got back from a group trip together, Brian was already looking forward to the next one.

(C) hallenge yourself. Without challenges, we don't grow in capabilities and confidence. Stretch your limits and get outside your comfort zone, and you will be surprised how far you can go. There is no doubt that Brian challenged his car to perform to the extreme limits - and beyond.

(I) nvest your time. Whether it is a hobby you enjoy, a new skill you are trying to develop, or trying to build up a team, there is no substitute for time spent. There are no true short-cuts in life; what you spend time practicing, you get better at. Brian invested countless hours in the maintenance and upkeep of that car, and from that he developed the skills and self-confidence to do almost anything mechanical. His skills expanded into a career working on all kinds of equipment - even building boats. If you want to build a better team - spend time with them. Spend time working to improve your own leadership skills, whether it is in the form of additional training, working with a coach or mentor, or simply applying what you have learned.

(V) ehicles need people - and so do you. On its own, the Civic was just a lump of old metal on rubber tires, slowly rusting. What made it special was that Brian made it so - his care, attention and dogged expectations that it could do what he wanted it to do is what set that car apart from all the rest. On our own, we are each a lonely individual slowly growing old - it is in our relationships with other people that we truly live.

(I) mprovise.You won't always have all of the answers, or the right tools at hand. Don't be afraid to step out on a limb and try something new. At one camp, we had walked all the way down the mountain from the tent site to go for a drive into town for some more supplies. Brian found out he had left his keys back in the tent - all the way back up the hill. Not wanting to walk all the way back up and down, he borrowed the keys from another Honda Civic - these happened to open up Brian's hatch-back, but not the side doors or ignition. With the back open and access to his toolbox, he climbed over the seats and quickly bypassed the ignition key with a push-button switch, and we were on our way into town.

(C) ongratulate yourself for finally making it there in the end. Whether it is for making it over the summit of the Coquihalla Highway, finishing your project or accomplishing a goal you set for yourself or your team - take a little time to celebrate. Life is short - enjoy it, and recognize a job well done.


We learned many lessons from Brian and his old Civic. Of course, the car was just a car when he bought it - but under Brian's guiding hand, it grew into something much greater. It was a part of our shared experience, and it had more heart and character than all of our fancier vehicles put together. Brian finally let the Civic go, years after he had bought a newer vehicle and the Civic was turning to rust in the yard. But its memory - and legend - lives on in each of us.

Good luck, and may all your projects run as well as that old Honda Civic.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP