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Keeping the train on the track


Author: Mark Thompson, Founder & Managing Director

On a recent dreary Sunday afternoon, the Frank Sinatra movie Von Ryan’s Express was on TV. At one point, a train driver coupled some train carriages together. Hardly a pivotal scene, but the chains linking the buffers, I noticed, were very slack.

Scrolling through LinkedIn a few days later, I saw a job ad for a Project Manager to join a team to ‘do things that have never been done before’. Intriguing, especially given that the position was for a ‘new construction’ team and not R&D as you might expect.

What does this have to do with an innocuous scene from a dodgy old war flick?

Innovation, novelty, and uniqueness are all variables of large, complex projects. And so is coupling. Describing a project as tightly or loosely coupled indicates how the project’s approach allows for recovery from setbacks. Coupling should ideally loosen in proportion to the challenge level you face.

Before the project begins, knowledge of its outcome is limited. Wise project managers, therefore, build in room for manoeuvre, rather like Von Ryan’s ‘slack’ train carriages, to deal with the increased level of uncertainty. But how much is justifiable? And how much is too much?

We expect R&D projects to be fairly loosely coupled. Naturally, there’s a budget and timeframe, but the goal is to prove a concept or design idea with no fixed expectation of value to be delivered.

Large complex feats of engineering, however, almost always have a commercial dimension. To maximize the return on capital invested, time is pressured. In this context, then, ‘doing things that have never been done before’ is a riskier business.

Data from Project Horizons, our project diagnostic tool, reveal a paradoxical pattern. Projects that respondents identify as their ‘bread and butter’ are often also defined as ‘loosely coupled’. Meanwhile, projects pegged with significant novelty are often so tightly coupled that those involved must doubt the expected value could ever be delivered.

Murphy will strike—you just don’t know when, or where. It sounds so obvious to decouple projects as much as possible by minimizing dependencies or adding time buffers. But when aspirations and optimism run high, it’s easy to ignore or even deny risks.

Murphy will strike—you just don’t know when, or where

To identify, understand, and consider as many risks as possible upfront, we use Peak PRM (Project Risk Management). Picture a 2×2 with known/unknown quadrants. You first want to know all that’s ‘obvious’ to you (known-knowns). Then a ‘cold eyes’ review, including past lessons, seeks things you’d otherwise be ‘oblivious’ to, but which you should build in or anticipate (ie, unknown-knowns).

The goal is to maximise your understanding and the size of the ‘obvious’ and ‘probables’ buckets (known-unknowns). Of course, you’re always left with ‘unknowables’, or the unknown-unknowns.

To paraphrase the title of another Sinatra movie, if you want to be ‘the project manager with the golden arm’, it pays to do Peak PRM—and get an independent view.


[Image credit: Von Ryan’s Express on AVForums]