Category Archives: Risk

Four project management lessons from the BRIT awards

Listening to some of the coverage of the BRIT music awards and the problems that delays caused for star of the show Adele – and her reaction, reminded me of a conversation I had about project scheduling at the start of a major capital project.

The conversation involved me, experienced Project Manager Barry Ryan and our mutual client. In reality, I was a bit of a bystander but the message was valid. The conversation when a bit like this:

Barry: How does a project get to be six months behind schedule?

Client: I’ve done lots of projects but never got to the bottom of that one.

Barry: Well, its one day at a time.

Wise words!

So, what’s the message from this for project management [and time management and event planning for that matter]:

  1. You need to be vigilant from the start – especially if things slow down
  2. You need to understand what is important to all of the stakeholders
  3. You have to be clear about your objectives and
  4. You have to know what you can cut and what you can’t – understand the landscape of the project

If you don’t you’ll get no choice and will end up having to cut what comes towards the end – which may be the most important part.

Critical Thinking – First step to effective decisions

This is the first of the series of follow-up posts to Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking. This post covers Critical Thinking.

Let’s start with what we mean by critical: unfortunately, the word critical and the related idea of criticism have gained an implication of negativity – this is not helpful. Critical thinking is about getting beyond the obvious, adopting a probing, challenging and investigative stance, not taking the information provided at face value but looking at both the evidence and our thought processes objectively.

Often in business, as in other walks of life, information is assembled to justify decisions and stances adopted based on personal biases, cultural norms and “rules of thumb”. The “Ladder of Inference” originally proposed by Chris Argyris and developed by Peter Senge and his colleagues [The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook] illustrates how these biases can be built into our thinking.

Important decisions should be based on careful consideration of the needs, facts and situation.

One of the most accessible examples of the required process is that referred to in the original post, the film “12 Angry Men” – in which one Juror in a murder trial dissented from the views of his colleagues who wanted a swift guilty verdict.

The “obvious” conclusion.

Juror #8 [Played in the 1957  Sidney Lumet Film by Henry Fonda] was unconvinced of the defendant’s guilt and wanted to explore the evidence in more detail. He pressurised, cajoled and browbeat his fellow jurors into a comprehensive review of the evidence.

  • Could the elderly witness have really reached the top of the stairs to view the defendant’s exit?
  • Could the woman witness have really made an identification from distance, across a railway line without her spectacles?
  • Could the defendant have delivered the fatal blow given his stature relative to the victim?

He also brought into question the motives of his fellow jurors for making a rapid decision:

  • Tickets for a baseball game
  • A business to attend to
  • Escaping from the stifling heat of the jury room

Gradually all the jurors came round to the view that the young man was innocent of the murder and they returned a “not guilty” verdict.

This illustrates the power of a sceptical, challenging and probing approach and the willingness to confront your own biases, faulty thinking and ill-founded theories.

The approach is to:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Scrutinise and test the validity of the evidence *
  • Examine the thinking processes

Applying this  to your business decisions will reap rewards.

You need to be particularly careful when there is apparent unanimity of thought without thorough discussion of the topic. I am reminded of Alfred P Sloan’s famous quote when confronted with such a situation in the boardroom of General Motors:

If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.

Failure to engage in effective dialogue when considering important discussions is a route to “Groupthink” – but that is another story!

So don’t be afraid to force a critical approach, to encourage dialogue and to challenge the majority view. Play the “Devil’s Advocate” if necessary and bring in an independent facilitator if you feel it would help.

* The BBC and Open University joint production radio show “More or Less” is excellent at highlighting biases in the presentation of information and statistics.

One small step – from good idea to effective action

You’ve a burning idea to improve your business, you would like to move it forward but it’s still a bit fuzzy. You are not sure how to get going or even how to describe it to others. Perhaps that’s stopping you from doing anything but it is critical that you take that first step as the classic quote says.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Here’s a suggestion on how to get things moving in a positive direction.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous quotation is a great way to start structuring your ideas.

“I keep six honest serving men: They taught me all I knew:

Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who”

At early stages you should concentrate on:

What you are trying to achieve

How things will be different

Why it is a good idea

Who you ought to involve

The most important issues are to put some structure on your idea, test its validity and generate some support – if you don’t it won’t go any further.

You can focus on the details of what precisely you are going to do and how you are going to do it later. You will probably find that the people you engage with will have different and better ideas about the details – you can’t plan the journey until you know where you are going!  They are also likely to have some good suggestions of other people to get on board.

Critical Stage

Many projects and change initiatives go wrong at this stage because the participants end up doing the wrong project [and sometimes they all end up doing different projects!], so it is vital that you explore the issues and potentials fully at an early stage. This should be an expansive stage, gathering ideas from everyone who has an angle, don’t discount anything at this stage [you can’t generate ideas and evaluate them at the same time], even the seemingly crazy ideas may lead to something really useful.

Value Differences

Surround yourself with different types of people, if they all see things in the same way and bring the same skills, knowledge and experience to the table, you are very unlikely to get any radical ideas. You need to encourage everyone to speak their mind, table their ideas and explain their understanding.

Faciliate the process

To get effective dialogue you will need someone to facilitate the process, so you need to either develop the skills or preferably bring in someone who is skilled, experienced and independent.

If you don’t get into effective dialogue at this stage, then you will find out later than what you deliver is different to what someone was expecting – even if it is possible to put it right later, it will cost a lot more.

See my earlier blog post That’s not what I thought I was getting! for more details.

Key Issues

So at this stage, three things are important:

  1. That everyone is agreed on the destination
  2. That everyone is happy that they’ve had their say
  3. That you take the first step.

Focus on

Focus your attention on three types of reaction to proposals:

  1. One group or individual is keen to have a particular feature and others don’t see the value of.
  2. Ideas which are dismissed without any effective debate
  3. Ideas which are accepted without any effective debate

The first may well mean that there is a lack of shared understanding between the groups / individuals and the others may indicate that whilst everyone is using the same words, they actually mean different things. You need to facilitate the debate and make sure that the aims and objectives of the proposal are understood by all.

If you don’t do this now, you’ll regret it later!

It may be obvious to you but …

Just a quick post based on an incident this afternoon.

I was in the Bureau de Change waiting to buy some Euros for a trip next week. A couple of people ahead of me in the queue was a woman in her sixties. She approached the desk and said “I’d like to give my grandsons £30 in Euros each” and then waited. The assistant sat and waited for a while and when it was clear that no further information was forthcoming, she said “How many grandsons have you got?”

It was a scene reminiscent of “The Graduate” where Benjamin is talking to Mrs Robinson on the phone at the hotel and she says “Isn’t there something you need to tell me?” He then goes into a bit of a monologue about how grateful he is etc. and she interrupts with “The room number Benjamin, the room number!”

Sometimes we forget to communicate important bits of information because it is obvious to us – we need to be aware that it may not be obvious to others.

Have you ever done anything similar?

What can you do to avoid similar problems?

Logical Developments … well maybe not!

If you are looking to develop your business and call in outside help, you are likely to be told to:

  • Be clear about where you are trying to go [some form of vision or mission statement]
  • Analyse what is going on in the market / world [STEP and market analysis]
  • Examine your strengths and weaknesses [SWOT or resource analysis]
  • Produce a plan to help you get there

Different advisors will use different jargon for each of these stages but they all mean the same thing – a logical analysis of the situation, a logical assessment of your capability to compete and a logical plan for moving forward. A very logical approach.

Usually, this is sound advice, particularly  if you want to improve gradually and it is certainly better than not doing any analysis but… there is a hidden danger.

if it is logical to you, it will be logical to everyone else!

and that will make it easy to copy and hard for you to differentiate yourself.

To make a step change in your performance and open up new possibilities, you sometimes need to think differently, look at the market differently and act illogically.

Aircraft landing at Nice - Cote d'Azur

(c) Jim Yates 2011

Think about Stelios and EasyJet for example: He didn’t say… “how can I make air travel a bit cheaper?” – “He thought ..”If I can make it as cheap to fly from Liverpool to Malaga as it is to get a train from Liverpool to Edinburgh – enough people will go to Malaga for the weekend to make it profitable!” [You can insert your own choice of cities – the idea’s the same!] By doing this, he created a profitable niche in a very challenging market [and acquired a lot of imitators over time!]

It may sound logical once you get to the idea but you wouldn’t get there by logical, analytical thought processes. You might be able to construct a logic for how you got there by working backwards but you’d never get there in a logical linear fashion.

So how can you look at your product, service, market from a different angle and come up with an offering that excites new groups of customers?

Do you have the skills to help your team to come up with radical, illogical answers?

How can you encourage new ideas and more importantly stop crushing them?

To catch a fish – you need to go fish!

Early in my career, I worked with an outspoken, verbose and loud senior Engineer from the Southern States of the USA. He had a machine gun delivery talking at 50 to the dozen and could be hard to follow.

He always started every day with the same question.

Are we going to cut bait, hook up or go fish?

It took me a while to catch his meaning but once I did, I realised it was an excellent way to start the day – preparation is necessary but at some point you have to take action. No action – no results.

So are you ging to:

  • Cut bait
  • Hook up or
  • Go Fish


Spend it, Spend it – just a little bit

It is interesting that sometimes several seemingly unconnected bits of information provoke a new line of thought [or reopen an old one].

Last week, Management Today reported on-line that UK corporates were sitting on over £70 billion of cash reserves and quoted an influential forecaster as saying they needed to start investing.

This week we got the GDP figures for the first quarter and they’ve generally been welcomed as they suggest we’ve avoided a double dip recession [so far]. However, it was noticeable that the figures for the Construction Sector fell by 4.7% in the last quarter.

We also had an announcement that a severe shortage of component manufacturers was threatening the future of car production in UK. This suggests a need for developing some high quality modern manufacturing capability.

As long ago as February 2001, I together with my colleague Keith Plumb commented [in a paper presented to the Institution of Chemical Engineers] on the advantages of investing in capital projects during downturns. The key element of our argument was that you get better value for money and get your new capacity earning profits while your competition is still thinking about it.

Empire State Building 2007

(c) J A Yates 2007

We illustrated this point by reference to the best known structure of the Great Depression – The Empire State Building. The drawings for this were produced in 2 weeks [OK they were what I call “Blue Peter Engineering” – modified from “Here’s one I prepared earlier”. Hopefully, you get the point: people were keen to deliver] The building [all 105 floors of it] was built in just 410 days [it can take longer than that to get planning permission these days!] and the building cost came in at just under 50% of budget! Wouldn’t you love to get that?

Our estimates at the time was that those spending in the least busy parts of the cycle could expect average tender costs to be about 21% lower than those at the peak. Given the low interest rates and higher inflation rates, the cash in the bank is gradually becoming worth less, so surely it makes sense to invest in capital projects!

A future post will discuss the results of a survey I’ve done on LinkedIn which questioned the main reasons that good ideas don’t get implemented and it was notable that funding came well behind Organisational Culture, Business Systems, Policies and Processes and Risk Aversion / Self Confidence. This suggests that the barriers to investment are predominantly internal.

Now would also be a good time to invest in training and developing staff so that they have the skills needed for up turn when it comes.

So what’s the point of sitting on the cash – it won’t hatch!

Don’t just sit there!

In the Open University Business School MBA module I tutor [“Making a difference”], the students are expected to undertake an evidence based initiative in their own organisation. As they move through the process, we suggest that they use a mnemonic “CATUR” to assess the:

  • Complexities
  • Ambiguities
  • Tensions
  • Uncertainties and
  • Risks

associated with their proposals. As you might expect, there is quite a range in the skill with which these elements are applied.

There does however seem to be one reasonably consistent theme, which also echoes my experience with consultancy customers. Most students and businesses are very good at identifying the risks associated with the actions they are proposing. Sometimes, they even do some formal quantified risk assessments taking account of the probability and potential impact of a wide range of events.

Most, however, fail to consider the risks of not taking action and rarely weigh them against the possible benefits of doing something.

In the current uncertain times, it can seem appealing to take the low profile option and keep ones head down. This might seem the safest way to protect your job but it will hardly get you noticed either. There is always the danger that the company’s position will get worse without an intervention. The best policy may be to try something adventurous, be seen to be doing ones best and perhaps coming out with an enhanced profile in the business and beyond.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment… If it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.

Doing nothing might seem to be the easy option but it may not be the safest.

Don’t forget that it is often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission [Grace Hopper], particularly if it is demonstrably in the business’s best interests.

What can you do to make a difference in your business?

What is stopping you from making a start?

Back to the future?

It is easy to convince yourself that progress only depends on finding new and better ways of doing business but sometimes it is more about rediscovering what has always worked. I found myself in this position this morning at the launch of Cheshire Business Focus in Winsford. Not the place for revolutionary business ideas you might think but you’d be wrong.

As with most great ideas, the concept is both simple and challenging: Chairman, Mike Worthington introduced the approach powerfully, eloquently and passionately. He also demonstrated how the idea had worked to get the group to where it was today – he showed that it could work and explained how it could be developed.

The questions

In an era where publicly funded support is reducing, how can small businesses survive, thrive and prosper?

Where can they get the support they need?

What can they do to improve their chances of success?

The answer

The answer is co-operation, self-help and sharing resources, skills and capabilities.

The Idea

The idea is to create a network where all the members contribute something to benefit each other, not in financial terms but through contributing their time, expertise and enthusiasm.

As I listened, I was taken back to my childhood in a rundown part of the North East of England – we didn’t have much but everyone was willing to share what they had, to help each other out and muck in! We had some great times, some unbelievable stuff got done and there was a fantastic sense of community.

It struck a chord which echoed back to the founding of the Co-operative Movement which has been the subject of a recent series of TV adverts. Much has been said recently about the Government’s concept of the “Big Society” but in reality, it all starts with small, local outcroppings of mutual support, concern and contribution. I hope it works for all of our sakes and I am proud to be involved!

The networking event which followed was markedly different to the many others I’ve attended over the years with everyone explaining how they could help, what they could contribute and making suggestions on what could be done. There was a real buzz about the place.

I was reminded of the neat adaptation of John Kennedy’s Inauguration Speach that was made by Roy Sheppard at the first networking “training” event I ever attended: “Ask not what your network can do for you: Ask what you can do for your network”. He sowed the seeds that one needs to be helpful before seeking help.

I’m already looking forward to the next meeting in a couple of weeks time and discussing with my associates what we can do to help.

Could you expand this thinking to your network?

Could something similara be done in your area?

How can you all help each other to succeed?

If I have to tell you …

The knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours that get you a particular job are unlikely to be the ones which mark you out for promotion to the next level. You rarely get promoted because you just do what it says in the job description [however well you do it!]. This is particularly true for management jobs.

As you progress up the management ladder, there will come a point where your boss is looking for you to take the initiative and start making decisions and changes for yourself; for you to demonstrate initiative and leadership.

You need to step outside of both your comfort zone and the strictures of your official role and demonstrate that you can move to the next level. And here’s the rub – if you have to be told to do it, you haven’t got what it takes and are unlikely to be seen as being capable of making the grade!

Yesterday’s Dilbert strip played on this concept – in this case, it is the manager who is out of touch but you should get the idea.

This struck a chord with me because a lot my work is with professional service organisations who want their managers to work more effectively in customer relationship building and business development.

So if you want to move up in the organisation, you need to be seen to be making a difference.You need to balance the risks of taking action with those of not acting. The latter may be more difficult to see but they need to be thought about and be taken into account.

Remember also  that it is usually easier to ask for forgiveness than permission – especially if what you do demonstrates that you have the organisation’s best interests at heart!

If the culture makes it difficult to change things for the better then you might ask where both the business and you are heading!