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Is the danger real?


Author: Mark Thompson, Founder & Managing Director

A few weeks ago, a warning light flashed on my dashboard. My brake pads needed attention. Apparently, I could proceed but should ‘drive with caution’.

But what did that mean? And what should I do?

I detected no change in handling. And heard no strange sounds when I braked. In the old days, I’d have been oblivious until the pads started screeching, or I rear-ended another vehicle.

So, I had four options:

[1] Ignore it
Which might incur additional costs later from related causes, or even risk an accident.

[2] Wait for the regular service
Still several months away. Did I want to have this nagging worry till then? And, worse, have to stop driving like Steve McQueen?

[3] Do it myself
I trained as an electrical engineer, but I’ve never been much of a car mechanic. I Googled ‘How long do brake pads last after dashboard warning’ (answer: ‘It depends’). Numerous YouTube videos offered to help me change the pads. But really, I don’t have the time.

[4] Take it to the mechanic
A hassle and possibly money spent for nothing. After all, it may have been a ‘false positive’ with the electronics.

In the event, I did what anyone would do. I ignored it.

Now if you’re expecting a dramatic crash, I’ll have to disappoint. It niggled away at me for two weeks, then I called the car dealer for a service who, oblivious to my warning light concerns, couldn’t fit me in for a month.

So I swung by my local mechanics who confirmed it was the brake pads and not ‘just an electronics issue’, and offered to fit me in next week.

What’s all this got to do with large complex feats of engineering?

In our experience, project leaders don’t pay enough attention to their gut feeling that something’s not on track. And even if they do get early warning signs, they press on, figuring they’ll avoid an incident.

Metaphorically, trying the dealer was like doing your own project review. They’ll fit it in when it suits them. Whereas my local car mechanic, an independent specialist, swiftly diagnosed the problem and suggested a remedy, offering instant peace of mind and timely support.

‘Project mindfulness over corporate conventions’

A key maxim of ours is ‘project mindfulness over corporate conventions’. So if you’re picking up weak signals of potential issues, get the team to check it out. Or get someone not directly involved for a ‘cold eyes’ review.

Large projects do require reviews at key stages, of course. But they tend to focus on stage-gate submission requirements rather than the project’s general health. Often, they become an audit of process compliance rather than a real diagnosis of any symptoms presented.

Better still, get an outside view as soon as you can. Almost every job we do starts with an appraisal—an independent view showing the gap between expectation and reality.

No one wants to start their car and see the warning to ‘stop driving this vehicle immediately’. Why wait for it on your project?


[Image credit: Nick Fewings,]