Project Management Failures: The Korean Ferry Evacuation

(I have modified this article based on new information.)

I have no inside information as to what caused the ferry to list and turtle (lean to the side and then go upside down), and my heart goes out to the victims and the families of the missing.

However, one part of the sequence of events is becoming clear from news reports. That sequence deserves a comment because it’s relevant to Legal Project Management.

Part of the timeline goes something like this:

00 minutes: Ferry starts listing noticeably
05 minutes: Announcement made to passengers to stay where they are (1)
05 minutes: Distress call made by ferry crew to shore authorities (2)
10 minutes: Instructions issued to passengers to don life jackets (3)
10 minutes: Two lengthy attempts to right the ferry, coupled with repeated instructions for passengers to remain where they were
40 minutes: Passengers told to abandon ship

Let’s take a project-management look at the four numbered items.

1. This is a normal announcement, and the media is making too much of it. (But see note #3.) It apparently was not clear at that time to the crew that the boat was in grave danger of sinking.1

If the passengers had all rushed to the open deck, what would have happened? First, mass confusion would have made impossible for the crew to get about, prepare lifeboats, etc. Second, some people would have undoubtedly gone into the cold water without life jackets – and with the possibility of being swept away from rescue in the strong currents. Third, they would not have been where the life jackets were! Fourth, the sheer weight of all of the passengers on one side could have added to the list and further endangered the ferry (in the view of the crew, assuming they still believed the boat2 was salvageable).

2. Apparently it took some time to communicate the problem to authorities. This is normal, unfortunately. We saw the same thing with Sullenberger’s USAir flight into the Hudson River, where the La Guardia (LGA) tower had trouble understanding the depth of the issue.

It’s hard to grasp unexpected bad news.

So here’s project management issue #1. It is hard to comprehend unexpected bad news – even for professionals who should be practiced at transmitting and receiving it.

When you deliver bad news, and even the best project managers will have occasion to do this, you need to prepare – prepare yourself, and prepare the recipient. Your own preparation is time-critical, since you want to be sure you deliver the news yourself, that the recipient doesn’t hear it from someone else first. You need to find your own balance among dealing with the news (and your emotional reaction to it), exploring possible solutions you’ll offer the recipient, and delivering the news.

You can give the recipient time to adjust as you deliver the news. Understand they’ll have their own process to hearing and accepting it, and that it may take a bit of time.

I’m curious as to whether the captain issued a pan-pan or a mayday call. Pan-pan3 means “stand by, we have an issue, and we may need help.” Mayday means, “Get here now because the boat and/or lives are at stake.” If he issued a mayday and didn’t get the passengers on deck, that’s a truly wrong-headed, stupid move.

3. Here’s where it gets interesting. It’s hard to move through the corridors with life jackets on, especially the cheap, thick vests usually carried by commercial large boats and ships. At this point, it appears that not only weren’t the passengers sent up on deck, they probably were not told to assemble in open areas with easy access to the deck.

Project management issue #2 is the disconnect between the order to don life jackets and the order to abandon ship. There are two possibilities for explaining the thirty minute gap:

  1. The crew, including the captain, was so busy trying to save the vessel that each thought someone else had issued the order to get the passengers on deck.
  2. The crew couldn’t process the information that they were about to lose their vessel.

These possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

From each of these comes a project management lesson.

First, fly the plane. When a disaster hits, make sure someone is responsible for basic operations. There have been plane crashes4 caused by the crew being so busy fighting whatever lesser thing had gone wrong that no one attended to the plane itself, which flew into a mountain. If something goes wrong with high intensity on your project, make sure someone is responsible for keeping track of “normal” stuff, from court appointments and deadlines to filing time sheets.

Next, remember the point from above – it’s hard to grasp unexpected bad news. Just as someone needs to be responsible for quotidian matters, someone also needs to step outside and see the big picture.

Fly the plane. Don’t let disaster multiply by stealing all your attention.

It now appears that at least some members of the crew had not practiced the various drills related to getting passengers off a sinking vessel. Of course, they never expected it to happen, especially in calm seas and daylight.

In addition, only a few lifeboats were deployed. Most remained in their storage positions.

Remember that when your own problems hit. You probably haven’t rehearsed your response. So make sure you recognize that your responses will likely be slow, disorganized, and partial.


I am finishing up my next book this month, which is why my posts here have been limited. I’ll have an announcement regarding the book shortly.

Alert: New Phishing Scam

If you get a link to a Google Doc, be very careful opening it.

Mail has been sent to a number of people with the subject line Document, containing a link to a Google Doc. The link appears to be – and is5 – a real link to a Google address. It’s even encrypted over SSL (HTTPS), just like the real thing.

Only… when you put in your credentials to log in to open the document, it steals your credentials and passes them on the the scammers. You may not even know it, since the rather boring document indeed opens seamlessly.

If you have a Google account, Google should already know who you are. This scammer page does not – because of course they want you to enter your user name and password! So be very, very careful.

Google has taken down the offending page, which was hosted on their servers.6 But a replacement page, along with a hundred copycats, will undoubtedly appear.

Exercise caution in opening anything you didn’t request. Remember, even a link that appears to come from a colleague can be a scam, since (a) it’s super-easy to make an email look like it comes from someone else and (b) Google and Hotmail, among others, have had repeated problems with stolen address books.

Dual Monitors and Productivity

Tech writer Farhad Manjoo gets it half-right with an article in the NY Times on using multiple monitors.

He says he turned off his second monitor because it had been distracting him with email and the Internet.

Right. And wrong.

Right: If you’re allowing anything but the task at hand to occupy that monitor, right. Don’t put email on there; it will take you off task faster than you can say “take me off task.” Don’t put up a web browser that shows and RSS feed or YouTube or anything else that is not research for the current task.

Wrong: If you’re reviewing a contract, for example, the second screen is invaluable. Or tracking a client’s (or manager’s) instructions against the work you’re doing. Or researching against a deposition. Or any one of a hundred other tasks that involve more than one window at one time.

What’s normally on my own second (smaller) monitor?

  1. The second (or third, etc.) window for multiple documents, such as revisions on a book.
  2. A program to assist me with slides for a presentation (e.g., a graphics editing program, given how visual my seminars and presentations are).
  3. OneNote. Any notes regarding a client project will go here, such as requests or the (at least micro-)charter I normally create.
  4. My calendar, which may share the screen with OneNote.

Not Outlook. Not a browser. Not Facebook. These are all hiding, minimized, on my task bar, ready for immediate pull-up should I desire their services, but otherwise out of my face, out of sight, and out of mind.

So, Farhad (and each of you), don’t ditch the second monitor. Rather, ditch the time-sucking, distracting stuff that you allow to occupy it.

Use the off switch. And, of course, The Off Switch.

The Lady, The Tiger, and the Dilemma of Decision-Making

You know the story of The Lady, or the Tiger.7

Luckily, few of the decisions we make have quite this import, though sometimes clients think otherwise.

But what do you do if confronted with a lady/tiger dilemma?

Let me offer four potential paths, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  1. Learn as much as you can.
  2. Understand your (or the client’s) position on the risk/gain scale.
  3. Wait.
  4. Flip a coin.

1. Learn as Much As You Can

If we have little information to go on, it is particularly hard to choose the better answer.

So try to learn as much as you can before deciding. This seems obvious, but some people love to be known as decisive decision-makers. Come to such a person with two options, and they’ll listen for a bit and then tell you which to pick – even if they have little additional relevant knowledge. Of course, if it works out well, they’ll take the credit. If it works out badly, not only will they pass the blame, but they’ll conveniently forget they were ever involved, so in their own minds they continue to believe they have great track records of picking winners.

There are two catches here. First, you may never be able to learn enough to clarify the decision. Second, small differences in outcome aren’t worth expending a lot of energy over. There’s a difference between choosing between a red v. a black tie and a red v. a black automobile.

2. Risk and Gain

How ’bout this: If I give you $200 and say, Based on the flip of a coin, I’ll either take $100 away from you or give you an additional $150,8 will you take the bet? Remember, the $200 is in your hand right now.

Or this: Based on the flip of a coin, I’ll either give you $100 or $350, or else you can skip the coin flip and I’ll give you $200. Will you take the bet?

According to Daniel Kahneman, in the wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow, a majority of people will reject the first bet but take the second – even though the outcomes are identical.

People in general don’t want to risk what they already have for potential gain unless the gain significantly outweighs the risk. I say “people in general,” because some groups of people – stock traders, for example – are far more comfortable than others in taking risks where the gain only slightly outweighs the loss.

How do you feel? How does your client feel? Find out. If the decision involves risks, your client may well prefer the choice that minimizes risk, even if it also minimizes gain. (Every litigator knows this. It’s the basis of most settlements before a verdict.)

3. Wait

Court decisions aren’t the only choices where ripeness plays a role.

The rule of thumb is, Make decisions as late as possible. In other words, if you don’t need to decide now, if deciding now v. deciding later will have no significant effect on the outcome, wait. As Edgar says in King Lear, “Ripeness is all.”

Note: Waiting is not the same as not-deciding. You wait until you know enough, or can’t wait any longer. But you don’t just punt. 

And when you’re just not sure, go to option 4.

4. Flip a Coin

If all else fails, stop agonizing. Flip a coin.

This option works in two ways. First, of course, given two equivalent options, no clear way to choose between them, and decision ripeness, you just have to pick one. So do it.

Second, while the coin is in the air, you’ll know which way you want it to come down.9

Brief Summary: The Lady, or the Tiger

In the 188210 short story by Frank R. Stockton, the princess takes a lover to whom the king objects. The kingdom practices trial by ordeal – what, you thought e-discovery was a modern invention? The accused enters an arena, with everyone watching, and chooses one of two doors. One contains a ravenous tiger, the other a bride whom he must marry immediately. The princess’s lover, forced into the arena, looks to her for a sign, which he receives: the door on the right. She has bribed and connived and discovered which door holds which fate. But…. did she indicate the tiger, because she can’t stand to see him marry another? Or the lady, because she doesn’t want to see her lover devoured? Either way, she loses him forever.

Here’s the climactic song from The Lady, or the Tiger portion11 of The Apple Tree, sung by Barbara Harris. The Apple Tree was a 1960s musical made up of three short stories, starring Harris, Larry Blyden, and Alan Alda – yes, that Alan Alda – that I got to see in the first few weeks of its run.

(Updated 8:58: Fixed a really dumb typo. C’mon, Steven, if you rewrite a sentence so that acting-on-something goes from verb to noun, you have to change affect to effect!)

Prepare for Disruption: Part 2 of the Netflix-Blockbuster Analogy

I recently wrote about how Blockbuster lost out to Netflix – and whether that story holds significant meaning for law firms.

I deferred one question to today’s article: Can anyone do anything to prepare?

As I wrote, I think the Blockbuster story offers little in the way of advice for today’s legal model. It represents one specific type of disruption, a type that is not guaranteed to occur and that would likely wreck current law firms anyway were they to fully gear up for avoiding it.

But people say disruption is coming.12 They’re probably right, even if the timeline is quite unclear. Here are some things firms might consider.

Note: These are structural suggestions based on many years experience running businesses, not implementation methods. Think of them more as thought experiments than prescriptions. Use them to stimulate your own thinking.

Understand Commoditization

Few people want the practice of law to become a commodity – least of all your clients. They need top lawyers (and their support structures, a/k/a the firm) when the you-know-what hits that other you-know-what. But:

  1. Not every matter is a bet-the-company or even bet-the-department issue.
  2. Too many people in house see only their own knothole and think my-job = bet-the-ranch.
  3. Many commodity businesses – but not all – turn into a race for the bottom.

To some extent, #2 is keeping the current model humming. CFOs are trying to change that. If, or when, they succeed, change will occur – lawyer by lawyer for some corporations, all at once for those where the CFO beats the GC in corporate arm-wrestling.13

Not all commodity businesses are bad (low-profit, high-stress) businesses. Get the wheels running smoothly, get the grit out of the gears, and commodity businesses can be effective.

Indeed, I have worked with many law firms that run parts of their operations as, in effect, commodity businesses. For some, it involves “spinning off” part of their work into a less expensive structure – say, an e-discovery specialty located in a lower-cost-of-living town, or even distributed across the country or beyond. For others, it is the recognition that some lines of work are repetitive enough to pound out quality work with very little waste.

I know many lawyers who enjoy this kind of work. It’s not super-partner-track stuff unless they run the department, perhaps, but it’s constant, relatively low stress, involves lots of actual legal work and little rainmaking or politicking, and they get to see their families. A firm can build a good – not spectacular, but good – profit stream by combining this work with the right teams.

Note that size and efficiency both play well in a commodity world.

That said, I think the market for truly repetitive work – e.g., primary doc review – at partner-model law firms will ultimately collapse. There are too many lawyers with too much debt chasing not enough jobs, which will drive prices down, down, down. (In fact, we’re already seeing lawyers working for eke-out-a-living wages on such work.) If it’s repetitive enough, it invites “automation” – whether predictive coding, do-it-yourself forms and websites,14 or offshoring.

It’s the work in the middle that can be profitable: enough parallelism to become highly efficient but not so much it can be automated or shipped to the absolute lowest bidder.

You have to do the right work in the right place with the right team at the right time and with the right compensation structure. (See Legal Project Management, below.)

Incorporating the LPO Model

Legal Process Outsourcing aims to take this work over, and to a large extent is already doing so in e-discovery – which many higher-end lawyers consider a good trade-off, since they don’t like doing doc review anyway.

You can, of course, partner with or hire an LPO to do some of this work. Or you can become your own LPO. You don’t even have to offshore to Bengaloora.15 Bozeman, MT works too. What’s to stop your firm from setting up shop in Bozeman and staffing it as your own “fully owned” LPO?

There are pluses and minuses to doing so, and I recommend highly Geoff Moore’s Dealing With Darwin for his analysis of core and context. (I got to spend some time with him many years ago and learned an immense amount.)

My point is this. The current model risks disruption and being undercut. Rarely can you be both the disruptor and the incumbent without trashing your own business, but as it become clear which work is tending toward commoditization, you do have that opportunity around parts of the model. If you can’t earn $100/hour profit for something, but you can earn $50/hour profit, isn’t that better than earning nothing?16

Understand and Rationalize Your Compensation Structure

How much do partners cost per hour?

You know how much salaried and hourly players cost you, per hour of “billable” time. (Or you should. Go figure it out. It’s important. I’ll wait.) But what does each equity partner cost?

You need to know to really understand who you can most profitably assign to which aspects of which matters. It’s not as simple as not putting someone costing $400/hour on a project billing out at $300/hour, though that’s a start. Profit is not the same thing as revenue. You can’t lose money and make it up in volume, as the old joke has it.

An avalanche usually starts with a small obvious problem that exposes that larger structural problem beneath the snow. Could the structural problem here involve too many equity partners across the industry being overcompensated relative to the total profit coming in? Revenue does not equal profit, and many partners are compensated on revenue. As profits shrink, the model becomes unstable.

The avalanche part is that equity partners at one firm, feeling undercompensated (relative to peers, or to expectations, or to last year’s model, or just because), become laterals to another firm. Enough lateral transfers keep pushing the problem around until it bursts free in a very big way – not just at one firm collapsing, but many firms at once being caught in the more-partner-demands-than-profits-to-satisfy-them bind.

I don’t know if it will happen that way. But I think the three problems are real: Actual partner costs per billable hour aren’t clear,17 there is no longer enough profit to go around across the industry (not necessarily at any specific firm) given the number of equity partners and their current compensation, and musical chairs doesn’t end well for most of the players.

The firms that figure this out will have a decided advantage should the model change. The trick is to get buy-in from the current set of partners, which requires everyone think long-term firm survival and long-run partner profits, and to make the change at the right time, just ahead of the tipping point.

I have no idea if we’re at the tipping point. I’d guess – but cannot prove – we’re not quite there yet. But we’re probably close enough that smart firms should be looking at this, say at partner retreats. It needs to be solved across the partner population, not just by the managing/executive partners.

Utilize Legal Project Management

Yup, you knew this was coming.

Remember, Legal Project Management is not traditional project management. It’s the management of time, money, the client, the team, and, yes, the project itself. It’s learning to be effective rather than getting wrapped around the axle of efficiency.

This site contains 200+ articles about using Legal Project Management, about doing it right. I teach classes in it. I’ve written the book that defines and describes the field. So for today, forgive me if I give short shrift to this critical option.

But you need Legal Project Management (the version with capital letters, the real thing) as an underpinning to support whatever you do in a changing model. It won’t solve the whole problem, even taking LPM in the broadest terms, but you can’t truly solve the problem without it. If you’re going to consider getting out in front of disruption, put in place a critical toolset and mindset that allows you to attack the issue from a position of strength, that allows you to consolidate any gains you make.

Final Note

This is a long article, a bit off the beaten track compared to what I normally write. I’ll slap myself in the face and do Moonstruck‘s “Get over it!” thing tomorrow. But for today, with the issue of disruption being raised in a number of forums, I wanted to contribute something based on my extensive business background that I hope will be both thought-provoking and helpful.

(Thursday 10:10: Updated to fix a typo.)

Any New World Looks Strange… and Useless

My friend and sometime-colleague Scott Berkun has an interesting article this morning about the first time he saw the Internet.18 It’s worthwhile in itself, but it’s also good supplementary reading to my own article earlier this morning about new ideas and disruption to the law-firm model.

The key lesson from Scott’s article:

The future often looks strange in the present. Any idea with the power to transform the world won’t make much sense at first.

Or as writer Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

(By the way, I know it’s no longer morning anywhere outside the West Coast. But in Seattle, morning light – actual, real, not-wet sunshine – is streaming through the curtains in my office.)

Netflix, Blockbuster, and the Law-Firm Model

The Three Geeks blog had an interesting post the other day about what the disruption of Blockbuster by Netflix might mean to the large-law-firm model. Ryan McClead’s thesis was that Blockbuster failed by not responding earlier to the Netflix model, and that by analogy large law firms risk similar disruption from new-law models.

Here’s the Netflix/Blockbuster revenue chart they used. Blockbuster had lots of stores and rented physical videos. They made a ton of money on late fees until the start of 2005. Netflix was originally in the business of physical disc distribution, but they were set up from the start to easily transition to streaming video.

I commented on Three Geeks briefly, but I want to raise a major point here, with more detail than I can put into a comment.

What can firms learn from this model?

More importantly, is there anything that firms can actually do based on what they learn from this model?

The answer, I fear, is not much, other than keep their eyes open for possible disruption.

Consider three basic facts about the graph and the situation.

BBNF 1Total Revenue: Instead of comparing the numbers, let’s add them.

We’ll make the simplifying assumption that together Blockbuster and Netflix captured all revenue in this market. They didn’t, but it’s close enough for what we’re considering. No matter what law firms do, for example, there will for the foreseeable future exist solos and small-town practitioners that capture revenue that won’t be available to BigLaw (or even MediumLaw).

Note that until about 2009 the total revenue remained constant. Let’s say Blockbuster had somehow incorporated the Netflix model – added it rather than moving to it. Does that suggest they should have become BlockFlix19, if they could have? Maybe. But so what? The amount of revenue they’d have added wasn’t all that much, relative to where they already were. And some customers went to Netflix because they hated Blockbuster, so it’s likely that some of that combined revenue wouldn’t have been available to Blockbuster anyway.

Now look at 2010. Oops. BlockFlix’s revenue went off a cliff. Can you imagine what would happen at a firm where revenues declined by almost two-thirds in a year? Dewey and Howrey weren’t even close to this situation, and we know how well that worked out.

BBNF 2Change Models, Now: Ryan suggests – and he’s not alone – that law firms should adopt the “new model” before things get out of hand. Leave aside the question of what exactly that new model is, since no one seems to know. We hear from Richard Susskind and Adam Smith Esq., to offer two very well known and respected names, that the current model is broken and that if it doesn’t change, firms will be in trouble. I’m not saying I disagree, but… to what model should they go? I suppose if any of us knew for certain, we’d sell the magic snake oil and retire to Tahiti.20

But back to BlockFlix. Consider the next chart. I assumed 2006 was a transition year in which Blockbuster began closing stores and incorporating the Netflix model. Um, who’s still working for them by 2007? All the good employees have undoubtedly left.

So revenue may be climbing back, slowly, but at what cost? Can any firm survive this? Even if you believe they can’t survive on the current model for the future, who could do something like this today? No one.

BBNF 3Do We Understand the Future? I have extended the graph to bring the chart up to the present.

Hmm, it’s getting better. You might think, If we could survive the chasm – we probably can’t, but let’s pretend – then we’d eventually be back on track toward steady growth and decent revenues.

When was the last time you rented a movie from Netflix? Not a TV series, not a six-year-old flick, but a current movie? Unless you want to watch the documentary Blackfish21, you’re out of luck. No Hunger Games: Catching Fire. No Inside Llewyn Davis. No Dallas Buyer’s Club. They won’t soon have American Hustle or Frozen, either.

But Redbox already has the first three, and will have the other two next week. Same for your local DVD rental shop, assuming you still have one.

Worse, most are available in streaming video. But not on Netflix. Or BlockFlix. On Comcast.22 Comcast also has Nebraska and Gravity and Twelve Years a Slave.

So your firm became BlockFlix and suffered through the chasm of disruption in 2007. And now… some other firm has swept up the business, re-disrupted you.

Netflix may yet be okay, if our viewing models move more toward TV and binge-watching, to Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Maybe. However, I expect to see this part of Netflix’s business disrupted by HBO and Comcast and network TV, who also have instant-delivery models and want to keep all the revenue for themselves. Who needs an aggregator other than Google (to search for a new series to waste time on binge-watch)?

Netflix may have something else up their sleeve, but I wonder how long it will be before their current model gets undercut.

Summing Up the Disruption Game

It’s great to understand that disruption can happen to anyone, and that it has at least a reasonable likelihood of happening in legal services.

What’s not great is this:

  • We’re not sure it will happen as an earthquake rather than a slow land movement.
  • To assume the earthquake and respond prematurely blows up the firm.
  • We don’t know what the new world (the “new normal”) will look like, let alone how to transition or even start anew.

The industry needs to be aware of disruption – as it should always be aware of client dissatisfaction and client needs. However, I don’t see anyone credibly claiming they can define the future model in enough detail for firms to implement it.23

In other words, the Blockbuster – Netflix analogy is interesting, but useless as a guide. It’s simply one more data point in a universe full of data points. And so far, no one knows how to connect the dots.

Can Anyone Do Anything to Prepare?

Ah, different question.

The answer is yes.

(I’ll offer a suggestion or two in the next article.)

Attacking Problems in “Exposure” Order

Yesterday I made a suggestion in passing about tackling problems in “exposure order,” and promised to explain further.

I detailed the concept of exposure in regard to risk a few weeks ago, where it’s the probability of the risk occurring times the cost to the project (and/or the client) should the risk occur.

Use a similar approach for deciding which problems to fix, assuming you have the luxury of choice – or are forced to make a choice because you can’t fix everything.

Consider the factors surrounding any issue:

  1. Urgency (time).
  2. Cost (disruption, dollars, client satisfaction, etc.).
  3. Solvability.
  4. Visibility/annoyance level.
  5. Client willingness to pay for a solution. This factor doesn’t necessarily infer actual billing. Rather, is the client willing to engage in whatever work is required from their side? Are they willing for you to slow down other work to attack this issue? If not, ignoring it or “putting  a Band-Aid on it” might be the right big-picture approach if it lets you get to more important issues.

Multiplying all of these together in some manner, akin to how we approached risk/exposure, is neither easy nor meaningful.24 Rather, build a matrix around each problem/issue, as follows:

IssueUrgencyCostSolvabilityVisibilityClient WillingnessTotal
Replace Jo on project
Meet with client’s client

Assign a weight to each element – 2, 5, or 9, based in whether you think it’s low, medium, or high. (Some people use 1, 3, and 9. It doesn’t matter that much. Pick values that make sense to you, but make sure that the each value is more than double the previous one.) No in-betweens, either; just pick one, or else you’ll dither forever without gaining useful insight.

For example, I know Jo Smith is going to get squeezed for available hours on the project in three weeks, which will cause a partial bottleneck but won’t be fatal to the project. Here’s how I might weight this issue:

  1. Urgency: Medium. Three weeks isn’t a lot of time, but I don’t need to solve it in the next ten minutes.
  2. Cost: Medium. Her limited availability be annoying and will affect others, but it won’t kill the project.
  3. Solvability: Low. I am not sure who can replace her, let alone have confidence that I can get such a person onto my project three weeks out.
  4. Visibility/annoyance level: High. It will disrupt the team, and maybe annoy the client.
  5. Client willingness to pay: Low. They like her and have confidence in her, and they don’t want to have to bring someone else up to speed on their business.

I’ve made equivalent assumptions around the second issue in our example, which revolves around figuring out the business-client’s real agenda. Here’s the filled-in table:

IssueUrgencyCostSolvabilityVisibilityClient WillingnessTotal
Replace Jo on project 5 5 2 9 2 23
Meet with client’s client 5 9 5 9 5 33

From the chart I see that as a project manager I should spend more energy addressing the second issue than the first.

Note that with a 1, 3, 9 scale my totals would have been 17 and 27, respectively. If you know that you have a tendency to over-sweat the small stuff, the 1, 3, 9 scale might be better because it significantly down-weights that small stuff.

What if you have an issue where “solvability” is not just low but effectively zero? Addressing the issue doesn’t always mean “solving” it. Letting the client and team know what’s going on and helping them understand the roadblock may have to stand in for a solution to the underlying problem. For example, the client complaining about the disruption-cost of producing email and documents for discovery is not really solvable on this particular matter, short of settling by the end of the week. You should probably take long-term steps to educate the client about both discovery itself25 and the concept that they should visualize anything they put in an email as a headline in the NY Times, but that won’t help you with today’s issue.

As a project manager, I don’t know that I ever did one of these tables for my own use. With experience came the ability to evaluate problems “in my head” for these factors. (The difference between a total of, say, 24 and 26 is irrelevant.)

However, I regularly used them with clients, with project planners (e.g., in which-projects-should-we-fund discussions), and sometimes with other teams where there was a chance of working at cross-purposes.


Fix the Easy Stuff First

Law Technology News offers four suggestions for dealing with vendor-technology problems. I love the end of #3 in particular:

Unless you are dealing with a major outage, fix the easy problems first, regardless of priority. Put some points on the board!

I like this advice for project-management disasters as well.

If you have a good working relationship with the client (or with the team members, for internal problems), it’s fine to tackle issues in “exposure” order, which I’ll cover in the next article. However, in rough relationships, which are too often the norm for vendor issues,26 your first job is to (re-)establish credibility. So as the article says, put some points on the board.


Risk and Your Projects: Lessons From Fukushima

Over the past two weeks, I published a series of articles focused on managing, mitigating, and responding to risks.

Today the NYTimes features an article on some of the steps taken at US nuclear plants that incorporate some hard lessons from Fukushima Daiichi.27

I do want to make one point in respect to the Times article that is slightly misleading. They quote the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison M. Macfarlane:

[Fukushima] woke everybody up and said: ‘Hey, you didn’t even think about these different issues happening. You never thought about an earthquake that could create a tsunami that would swamp your emergency diesel generators and leave you without power for an extended period.’ ”

Her quote is a shorthand discussing US operators. From what I’ve read,28 nuclear engineers in Japan did think about larger-than-expected tsunamis. In a political decision, plant designers chose not to address this particular risk because the likelihood was considered small.

That points to a risk issue well-known issue to project managers: At some point, lacking infinite resources, you need to decide which risks you will address, and/or the extent to which you will try to mitigate them.

With aircraft design, risk tolerance is extremely low. Designers try to mitigate almost every conceivable real-world risk.

Nuclear plant design is generally considered to hew to the same standard. Clearly it hasn’t – not just at Fukushima, but, according to the article, at US plants as well. The unmitigated risks are rare and – so far – have not occurred, but the exposure (cost times probability) remains very high, even in the face of low probability, because the cost of failure is so high.

Risk management is a collaborative effort between risk-avoidance/risk-aversion and political or client reality, sometimes skewed by money.29 It will always be a trade-off.

There are three ways to deal with trade-offs:

  1. Pretend they, or the risks behind them, don’t exist.
  2. Make random choices based on gut feeling, which may include what you had for lunch and who you had it with.
  3. Make informed, conscious choices.

The first is a loser from the getgo. The second is better, but still not a great option.

Go with the third option. Discuss risks, effects, possible outcomes, exposure, and so on – with your team and when appropriate with the client. Then make conscious choices.

That said, not all risks can be quantified. We don’t know what we don’t know, and even when we know that we don’t know something, we may lack the ability to learn more about it. In those cases, you’ll likely have to make a gut choice – or ask the client to do so.

But those kinds of risks are not in the majority. Even at Fukushima, the huge tsunami was not an unexamined risk, but a choice.

I sincerely hope all of our choices turn out better than that one. But the reality is that we can’t always avoid everything, mitigate everything.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Fukushima also had three choices with regard to large tsunamis:

  1. Write it off as improbable.
  2. Build a higher seawall.
  3. Put the generators out of harm’s way.

They did the first. The second option would have been very costly and would have affected the schedule. But why the heck didn’t they choose the third, which would have been close to cost-free? I’m still trying to find an answer to that one.

  1. If they did know and acted the way they did, well, that’s both criminal and as a long-time sailor hard for me to fathom.

  2. For some reason, ferries, no matter how big, are boats rather than ships.

  3. Theoretically pronounced “pahn-pahn,” though on the water I’ve heard “pann-pann” from pretty much everyone but the Coast Guard.

  4. Yes, crashes, plural.

  5. By a means too complicated to go into here.

  6. Again, long story, and not their fault.

  7. If not, I summarize it below.

  8. To be clear, I’m not actually offering to pay anybody any money here. This is a thought experiment.

  9. Not a bad thing to do with the client. Some clients will go for a literal coin flip. For others, you need to do the verbal equivalent.

  10. It remained on modern middle- or high-school reading lists at least through the 1960s.

  11. Couldn’t find a real video. Sorry.

  12. Of course, they’ve been saying this for five years now. On the other hand, it was only four years ago people were laughing at the idea of the Seahawks making a Super Bowl.

  13. Some GCs, such as Cisco’s Mark Chandler, are way out in front of this and have been for years. Is it any surprise that his BA is in economics?

  14. Which aren’t just for wills and mini-contracts anymore – there’s plenty of corporate work that will eventually get semi-automated.

  15. Nee Bangalore.

  16. Assuming you can separate it from the PPP numbers that attract the people you need most to keep. But that’s an accounting issue, not a structural one.

  17. Or not everyone at a given firm agrees on a single set of numbers.

  18. Scott worked on the first version of Internet Explorer and it’s subsequent four major releases.

  19. Someone actually owns this domain, though there’s nothing there. This article does not refer to a real company. Got it?

  20. I don’t know why I keep using Tahiti as an example. I’ve never been there and have little actual desire to go, let alone retire there. Still, it sounds good.

  21. Which is supposed to be pretty good, I hear.

  22. Probably on TimeWarner Cable as well, if they’re your provider.

  23. I have friends and colleagues who are trying. But it’s still only pieces of the puzzle, not the whole picture.

  24. You can multiply two approximations and still get useful information, but not five.

  25. The legal, technology, and business aspects.

  26. Even if you have a good relationship with the vendor, the users do not. They’re frustrated with the technology, and the problem, and by extension with you.

  27. The article may be behind a paywall, depending on how many NYTimes articles you’re read this month.

  28. I’ve been studying Fukushima for my next book about project failures.

  29. Money is a political reality, I suppose.