I don’t want to make light in any way of the recent Metro-North train derailment in the Bronx, or speculate on the specific cause of the crash. My sympathies lie with the injured and the families of those who died.
But I want to point out three interesting facts that lead to a project management metaphor:
The train was going 82 miles per hour coming into a curve rated for 30 MPH speeds (132 and 48 KPH).
This curve has a tight radius and is a significant bend. See the picture below.1
The engine was in the back of the train, pushing it.
Metro-North claims that pushing a train is roughly as safe as pulling it. While this statement doesn’t square with the experience of anyone who owned a model train set, the physics of very heavy trains and very light models is quite different. But….
But…. When you’re driving from the front, what do you see? The nose of the locomotive, of course, but also the full expanse of where you’re going once you look beyond your nose.
What’s the view from the back? The car in front of you, mostly. You have some visibility at an angle to the front, but you can’t see the tracks in front of you. (Look again at that picture. The train was traveling from top left to bottom right. Again, I’m only speculating, but consider the view if you’re driving from the right. You see only the continuing scrubland along the Hudson River. If you’re driving from the left, you can’t really see the curve ahead because of the cliff face. Of course, it’s marked on maps, and this probably wasn’t the first time the engineer had driven this busy commuter route, but still, vision makes a big difference.)
Projects are similar. Your visibility increases when you drive from the front, when you pull rather than push.
Visibility increases when you pull, not push.
As a project leader, you can take this lesson to heart in at least two ways.
First, it’s easier – and more productive – to pull rather than push your project team. What does that mean? It means that you give them a clear vision, a direction, a destination. Then you empower and enable them to find their own path to the destination. The folks doing the actual work have the best visibility to the specific obstacles they’re encountering. Give them the tools to attack and overcome those obstacles themselves, and share a vision that enables them to overcome them in a way not too dissimilar from how you’d take them on yourself.
Second, look down the tracks. A lot. See what’s coming up, what might be coming at you. Lawyers who can be so good at spotting legal problems before they happen too often fail to apply the same assiduous logic to project problems. In other words, they pull the legal work but push the project, to use our train metaphor.
Anecdote from an old New Yorker. The train crash occurred at a place called Spuyten Duyvil. It’s Dutch for something like “Devil’s Whirlpool,” referring to the strong, swirling currents near where the tidal Harlem River meets the powerful Hudson. However, many New Yorkers claim the name stems from an early settler of New Amsterdam who needed to return to the Bronx after a day in Manhattan. The ferry was on the other side and the operator wasn’t around, so he figured he’d just swim across this fairly narrow body of water, about 100 yards (100 m), or two laps of an Olympic pool. Warned about the current, he insisted he would swim it “to spite the Devil.”
Anyway, it makes a better story than the “official” version of the name’s origin.
Focus more on what hires can do than what they can’t.
The Seattle Seahawks had an interesting football game the other night, as you may have heard.2
In the run-up to the game, an online Sports Illustrated reporter asked the Seattle and New Orleans coaches why their teams were so effective.
Their answers reveal a key to great hiring, one that is overlooked by too many hiring managers and personnel directors.
Focus more on what your players can do than what they can’t. That … point is subtle and underrated.
From Sean Payton, the New Orleans head coach:
I think most important is understanding … what you’re looking for and is there a role for that player? The other thing we talk about all the time with our players is once they enter the building, how they got here is of no importance to us.”
Think about the second sentence there. How often does someone tout a ten-year partner as, say, a Harvard Law grad? How well a person did on the LSAT twenty years ago is interesting… but does it really trump those two decades of experience?3 It also sends a continuing message to non-Harvard-Law partners akin to the old British your-accent-determines-your-status regime.
And from Pete Carroll, leading the Seahawks:
We’re looking for the unique qualities … in a player, and then we try to amplify those unique qualities [to create] a role…. We like to champion the guy’s special qualities, but also we’re trying to make really good decisions on what a guy is capable of doing, and what he brings, and not trying to make him something that he isn’t.
In other words, they’re hiring for what a person can do rather that what they can’t, amplifying strengths rather than shoring up (or running from) weaknesses.
By the way, that last sentence exemplifies what I try to do when I teach lawyers to manage their legal projects. I’m not trying to turn a great lawyer into a mediocre project manager, a quintessential lose-lose gambit. Rather, I’m trying to amplify their strengths in the legal world with some additional tools to support those strengths by helping them take control of the non-substantive – and sometimes annoying and frustrating – aspects of their work. Or as the Seahawks put it on defense, Go ahead and fly to the ball… but first control your gap so they don’t run by you.
Now get busy, Seahawks. Tough game coming up in San Francisco Sunday!
I have read4 that in the Tenerife air crash, at least some of the victims in the Pan Am flight died because they were in shock, unable to understand what was happening, and thus didn’t move even while others around them exited the fuselage.
When something unexpected happens, most people freeze. That’s not a bad strategy when faced with a rhinoceros, which has a nasty temper but little ability to pick out an object that isn’t moving.
Ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away is not a great strategy for most project issues, however – or for airplane emergencies.
My hunch is that the FAA knows that. By reminding passengers that they are seated in an exit row and that they may need to act in an emergency, they are preparing those passengers – reducing the likelihood that when they need to pick a response from the fight / flight / freeze list, they’ll be less likely to choose the last.
From this, we can draw two lessons for project managers.
First, if you will need a rapid response from someone in a time of project stress, prepare them! Whether it’s finding a last-minute replacement for a key member pulled onto another project or the possibility that you will need them to respond to a rushed deadline, give them a heads-up.
Second, if when you do have bad news to pass along, don’t just dump it on the recipient. Yes, you want to get the information to that person rapidly and succinctly, but give them a moment to get ready to listen to it.
Comply with the signs, placards, and crew instructions
No smoking – and keep your paws off the smoke detectors in the lavs
Where the exits are, and how to find them in the dark
Oxygen masks may deploy
Adjust your own mask first
Life vest location and operation… sort of…
The light on the life vest
Return seats to their most uncomfortable position
Review the safety card
Yes, all of these are important. However, one of these is non-intuitive, especially in a emergency.
In other words, which of these could make a real difference?
Sure, if you go in the water, knowing about the life vests can help. The problem is, some people know how to use them, and some don’t, and a ten-second mention isn’t going to change that.8
Likewise, finding the exits in a smoky landing is critical… but the floor illumination is actually fairly clear. (Note: This one is my #2 choice. I’ll describe why in the next column in this series.)
Which leaves… the oxygen masks, in particular the part about adjusting your own mask first.
Imagine: You’re a parent, traveling with your child. The cabin loses pressure. Down come the masks. What’s your first instinct?
Right, to help your kid. Only problem is, by the time you get hers situated properly, you’re out of air, pass out, and maybe die if no one puts a mask on you. And your child, seeing you in distress, probably rips off her mask to talk to you, cry out to you.
You’ve got to put on your own mask first. Your child will not die while you’re fumbling with it. Even a panicked klutz can probably get it on before your child passes out.
Conveying Project Info
The lesson, I hope, is obvious.
If you clutter up your project communication with less-relevant info, material that the recipient already knows or cannot act upon, they’re much more likely to miss the critical information. That likelihood goes up if you put the critical stuff in the middle of the “blah, blah, blah.”
Which is exactly what I’ve done with this column – put the critical info way down here at the bottom. I hope I was able to entice you to read this far. But that’s an awful lot of work that depends on my skill as a writer and your persistence as a reader. I recommend that for project materials, get all the other stuff out and get right to the critical piece(s).
Economics offers a powerful concept for figuring out what risks to accept in a project.
First, risk comes with all projects, and some risks will come to pass. The only way to eliminate risk is to do nothing. Even airplane design and nuclear-reactor design, two of the most cautious, appropriately risk-averse engineering fields, are subject to rare but real failures.
So how do you figure out which risks to accept?
How do you decide which risks to accept?
Efficiency requires calculating risk exposure (at least roughly and mentally). While I think this exercise is valuable – and it’s something I’ve done regularly, and mathematically, on my own projects – I suggest that a better (more efficient) first step is to consider whether to take a minimax or maximin approach to both risk overall and to particular significant risks.
I’ll define the terms in a minute. Let me offer an example first.
An Example of Minimax/Maximin
Taking my son to a soccer game two weeks ago, I had to choose from two obvious routes – go around Lake Washington, or across it. Crossing the lake was faster, but less sure. The bridge is often subject to sudden blockages, with two narrow lanes made even worse by heavy construction on the highway crossing it. On the other hand, little would affect the route around the lake on a Saturday morning. Take the bridge, and find an accident or a traffic halt for construction? Sit and wait it out. Take the six-lane surface road and encounter an accident? Alternate routes are available.
The traffic map showed both were relatively clear as I started out.
Which should I choose? The sure 35-minute trip? Or the hoped-for 20-minute trip that could turn into an hour?
I planned to leave 35 minutes before we needed to be at the field for warm-ups, but life intervened. (“Where’s my ball? Can you get the knot out of the lace on my cleat? And I have to go to the bathroom.”) So we had 25 minutes instead of 35, and Jeremy really, really didn’t want to be late.
In his eyes, late is late; his coach and teammates will get on him for being late whether it’s 10 or 30 minutes.10
So I took the bridge across the lake. (And arrived a few minutes early)
I made the maximin decision. I chose to maximize the likelihood of success (arriving on time), at the small risk of a large failure.
If we’d left on time, however, I’d have chosen the minimax option, attempting to assure success by minimizing the possibility of failure – i.e., driving the long but sure way around the lake.
We’re Economists and Don’t Know It
Most of us regularly make these kinds of decisions – especially when it comes to traffic. We make them subconsciously at times, and probably without knowing the technical terms for this decision choice.
But we make them.
Know your risk goal: Minimize error or maximize success?
The same choices exist when you consider risk on a legal (or other) project. Is your goal to minimize the likelihood of failure or maximize the chance of success? Minimize repercussions or maximize win value?
Or consider the litigator faced with the situation she hates: The witness has – maybe – opened a can of worms, but the attorney doesn’t have any idea how he’ll answer her follow-up question. Go for it, or “don’t ask a question you don’t know the answer to”? Minimize the risk, or maximize the possibility of a big win?
She makes the minimax/maximin decision based on her experience, the particular issue at stake, client needs, and so on. She may make it quickly or slowly, she make poke around at a couple of other items while she’s mulling it over, she may not think of it in minimax/maximin terms, but ultimately she’ll face that choice.
Project risks are no different. Maximize the value to the team (or firm or client, or all of the above), or minimize the possibility that something can go wrong?
Not making a decision is making a decision.
It’s not one-size-fits-all.
Effectiveness requires understanding first that you must make a decision here rather than simply winging it, and then making that decision based on the information at hand, client needs, and so on.
Then go calculate exposure and your risk premium. But first, decide how you’ll approach risks on this project.
This is the second article in a series. This particular and admittedly esoteric example probably makes most sense to those who’ve played some bridge, at least casually. (And if not, there’s still time to learn a wonderful, challenging game.)
The other night at a duplicate bridge game,11, I got a hand (below) that, by the book, called for one particular bid to describe it.
However, there was an alternative, very unorthodox but that would likely have worked with this particular hand. Play by the book, or bid unconventionally12 and maybe confuse my partner?
I played by the book.
I played efficiently.
And wrong. We wound up headed in the wrong direction.
Playing by the Book
As a semi-experienced (off-again, on-again) bridge player, I should have tossed the book for this one particular hand in this particular situation and bid efficiently. Done the right thing, without worrying about doing things right.
It’s a tough call. The book was the safe way to go… just not the best.
By the book was safe… but not best.
It’s common in managing legal projects to find yourself faced with this type of choice between no-one-can-blame-you and this-should-work-but-I’ll-look-stupid-if-it doesn’t. Effectiveness means striving for the best outcome in most situations, not just doing the same-old-same-old slightly better than yesterday.
Don’t fear the I’ll-look-stupid aspects.13 If you see a clear opportunity to be effective, go for it.
The rewards usually outweigh the costs.
(Next up: A guide to thinking about risk-rewards and costs.)
Long Digression: The Hand in Question
Long digression, for bridge players only. Here is the hand, as best as I remember it:
S: K Q J 10 9 x H: x D: A J 10 x C: A Q
I think we were both vulnerable. I was dealer.
I’d never played with this partner before, in a weekly three-table draw-for-partners game. In the 30 seconds before getting started we’d agreed to play Standard American.
The textbook bid is 1 Spade. (Oh, I miss Precision, which I used to play in college days!) I could also make a so-so case for a generic-strong-hand 2 Clubs.
Except there are only three places this hand is likely to wind up: 4 Spades, 6 Spades, or 6 No Trump.14 In a regular partnership, I’d probably have opened 2 Clubs, since regular partners would recognize I bid this a bit light (think distribution and those J-10 combos). I’d have full comfort that they’d explore ways to describe their hand. Most importantly, they’d paint a good picture even over a competing bid.
But my partner and I didn’t know each other’s games. So I opened 1 Spade, our opponents found their heart fit, and we let them steal it for 5 Hearts. Down one. Five Spades makes, losing the heart ace and the club king. 100 points rather than 650. A bottom rather than a top.
I should have opened 4 Spades.
I thought long and hard about it, then decided to go “by the book.” A 4 Spade opening is usually preemptive, at least a seven-card suit, roughly five losers, and less than 13 points.
Too strong, too short, right? Yet the hand has roughly five losers, I certainly want to play at least 4 Spades, and it will shut the opponents out of the bidding. The only thing that mattered was whether my partner had certain key cards, not how strong he was overall or what his suit, if any, might be. Even if he had been void in spades, we lose only one spade trick.15
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
In the brief post-mortem, I asked, “What if I had opened 4 Spades?” West said immediately, “You might miss a slam,” and we left it at that. But on thinking about it, I don’t believe that’s likely. My partner knows I have five losers, give or take, and solid spades. If he doesn’t have both missing aces, he’ll pass and we’re in decent shape, say down 1 if he has no entries. If he has one ace, he’s likely to figure me for only one and pass. We might miss slam if he holds one ace and either the king of diamonds or the king of clubs, but that slam is 50/50 – and hard to find in an unpracticed partnership. If he has, say, both aces but not much else, he’ll still pass and we’re good. And if he has both aces and a couple of kings, he tries Blackwood (we weren’t playing Roman Key Card), discovers we have four aces, assumes I have no kings, and we wind up in a reasonable 6 Spades. Yup, might miss 7 Spades/No Trump, but the perfect is the enemy of the good. Would we find grand slam via normal bidding routes, especially after my left-hand opponent overcalls with 3 Hearts? (This was the seventh hand of the night, and we didn’t really know each other’s styles and tendencies.)
In other words, I had an opportunity to bid – in this particular situation – “wrong” but with high likelihood it would lead us to the right place. Indeed, in retrospect the “wrong” bid was more likely that the “right” bid to get us a top board. But I failed to follow my instincts, doing things right rather than doing the right thing. Or maybe I just didn’t want my partner-for-the-night to think I was a complete flake and lose trust in my bidding.
Two reasons. First, efficiency is more often a byproduct of other efforts rather than a thing in itself one can just “do.” The command to “be efficient” is only slightly more effective than a demand to “sleep faster.”
Second, efficiency in the wrong direction is useless, or worse. For example, if I drive my (theoretical) electric car north with optimal skill, avoiding any leadfoot or jackrabbit tendencies, I’m driving quite efficiently – even if my destination lies to the south.
It’s time to focus on effectiveness, not efficiency.
Those “Eff” Words
In Legal Project Management parlance, efficiency is doing things right, but effectiveness is doing the right things.
Look at the work you’re doing. Are you effective? Are your “project” tasks (as opposed to your substantive legal work) making a difference to your team, to your client, to your firm or department? Are you solving problems – and not just any problems, but the right problems, the important ones?
Efficiency: Doing things right. Effectiveness: Doing the right things.
Ultimately, that’s the premise – and the promise – of Legal Project Management. Sure, efficiency will come, but as a byproduct rather than an uphill climb against that shape-shifting, hard-to-pin-down adversary “inefficiency.”
A colleague recently reminded me that in the long run, what I teach, what I write about, and what matters are business skills rather than “project management” per se. (That’s why I always use the modifier “Legal” before “Project Management” and capitalize the phrase.) Improving business skills – managing people, time, clients, money, and, yes, projects – leads to effectiveness.
Of course, once you’re heading in the right direction, you’ll want to get better at it, become more efficient as well. Legal Project Management will lead to noticeably increased efficiency – but most of all, it will point the way, help you find the right direction.
Also, coming up here, a series on effectiveness v. efficiency. If nothing else, I hope you’ll be able to use some ideas to respond to the do-more-with-less hecklers. They’re written, but I’m on an extended international trip teaching Legal Project Management, and it’s hard to format and post anything detailed from my tiny travel computer.
My son and youngest child Jeremy becomes bar mitzvah this evening and tomorrow, leading the congregation in the reading and studying of Torah (the bible). The important part isn’t the party,16, nor is it chanting from the vowel-free Torah in Hebrew, challenging as that may be.
Rather, this marks the first time he’s had to take on a totally abstract subject with no boundaries or real limitations, think deeply and coherently about one aspect of it, and then teach adults a new way to think about what they have just heard. That’s a major accomplishment, even a bit of a life-changing one.
He reads from what we call Tol’dot, the story of Jacob deleveraging Esau of his birthright. It is somehow rather fitting that he wound up with a portion of Torah telling the story of a son who pulls the wool over his father’s fading eyes.
He’ll use this reading to explore the difference between being strong and being wise, and how great leaders lead with wisdom rather than strength.
Mazel Tov, Jeremy Micah Levy. Your father is very, very proud of you.
It curves about 60 degrees in under 1000 feet (300 m) of track. For a train with implacable momentum, that’s a very tight turn.
Mostly, the only sports news Seattle fans get to cheer about is Seattle native Fred Couples driving the ball 300+ yards on the Senior PGA Tour – and he doesn’t even live here anymore!
Or is the problem that firms sometimes aren’t clear about why one lawyer is “better” than another, beyond their rainmaking scope, and so they fall back on this old metric-that-really-isn’t-a-metric?
I apologize, but I cannot find the reference right now.
It’s not always the cabin attendant. Sometimes it’s a recording, even a mildly humorous one – whose effect is preemptively negated by the CEO saying something forgettable before it all while obviously reading from a script.
And why can few airlines figure out which kinds of life vests are aboard which equipment?
This one is interesting in its own right, which I’ll discuss in the next article in this brief series.
As a long-time boater, I know how hard it is to get some people to figure out a life vest – and the vests on my boat were a lot better, and easier to use, than the devices on a plane.
Don’t be surprised if my son picks up the phone. We’re hanging out at our island cabin this weekend. I’m writing this while waiting for him to wake up.
No, they won’t, but that’s how he sees it. And it’s his game, not mine.
Where teams play the same hands and scoring is based on how you do compared to those other teams.
Bridge pun. Sorry.
In a few organizations, unfortunately, don’t-look-stupid is more important than do-the-right-thing. And the job market’s still tight.
If I learn my partner has both missing aces and at least one king, I’d likely “correct” 6 (or 7) Spades to No Trump to seek a top-board score.
6-6-1-0 spades? Okay, but then none of the north-south teams make anything anyway.
Technically, 13-year-old’s don’t have a bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for girls), they become bar mitzvah.
Steven's new book is The Off Switch: Discovering Your Work-Work Balance, available now from DayPack Books and Amazon. Steven's groundbreaking Legal Project Management: Control Costs, Meet Schedules, Manage Risks, and Maintain Sanity, is also available from DayPack Books and Amazon.