Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Best Laid Plans ... and Then Life Happens!

You've been working hard at planning and carrying out your new project or program. You’ve put a great team in place (see Hire Adults, Expect Results!). You’ve put together a great project/program plan that takes into account contingencies and plans for the unexpected. You’ve thought about the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns, and even the unknown unknowns (see Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!), or so you think. You think you’ve got everything covered … and then life happens! A critical person on your team gets sick or injured in an accident. The spouse or child of key person suddenly becomes seriously ill, and the care of that person takes priority over everything else. The downturn in the economy forces funding and support for your project to be significantly cut back or even put on hold. Your primary (or worse, only) customer decides they want to go another way or that they want something significantly different from what you had planned. A technology you were depending upon develops problems that make its use uncertain, impractical, or impossible. A huge storm hits and power is out in the entire area for weeks.

In work and in life the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. You can try to anticipate the unknown, and whatever you do in this regard can often help greatly, but all of your advance planning and anticipation generally won’t cover personal emergencies, company or customer changes, catastrophes, or acts of God. What do you do? How do you keep your head while others around you have seemingly lost their minds? How do you regroup, rethink, replan, and restart? What can you use and what must you scrap?

If you have indeed put together a great team (see Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!), then it is time for that team to show their true mettle. They need to come together when times are not good, when it means more than discomfort, when it may mean survival. In some cases it may mean survival or delay of the project, but depending on the circumstances it could also mean personal survival, group survival, department survival, company survival, or even societal survival. Sometimes it may not even be survivable.

OK, enough for predictions of doom and destruction. Let’s take things one at a time and think about what can be done in some specific situations.

First, let’s take the case of the sudden absence of a key member of the team for any of the possible circumstances illustrated above. If the team has really been properly structured, the project/program should not fail due to the loss of one person. There should be sufficient cross training among members of the group such that knowledge is sufficiently spread and others should be able to step up to the plate to carry the load of that key person. I understand that this may be very difficult if your team is small with diverse critical skills, but as the leader of the team, you need to ensure that the project or program doesn’t suddenly grind to a halt should something bad happen to one member of the team. If this is not the case, then your “great” project/program plan isn’t really so great and you’ve got work to do right now to incorporate this all too realistic scenario into your project or program planning. This would fall into the category of a “known unknown” – you know it could happen, but you don’t know the impact … unless you plan for it in advance.  So do that! Think now specifically about what you would do should one or more of your people suddenly not be there, and then do it. Make sure other team members can carry on the work and continue to make effective progress.

Next, let’s take the case of business conditions forcing a cutback in funding and/or staffing. The first thing to do in this situation is to examine the situation forcing the cutbacks and objectively rate your project/program in realistic terms of its impact on the financial situation. If you believe that your project/program can make an immediate or near-term impact on the financial situation of the company, then make this known, not in an emotional plea, but in a facts-based presentation. Objectively demonstrate the benefits and the costs and show how continuation of your project or program can help to improve the near-term financial situation (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table). Be prepared to be told that it simply isn’t enough, but also be prepared to more forcefully make your case if you truly believe it. If you don’t see direct ways your project/program can help immediately or in the near-term, but you see ways that you could apply your and your team’s efforts in other ways to make an immediate positive impact, then present a proposal that demonstrates benefits and costs of what you and your team can do to help, and let the executive team decide whether or not this makes sense. If your project/program or team still can’t make an immediate or near-term impact on the financial situation of the company, then you probably need to accept the cutbacks and see what else you or your team can do to best help improve the financial situation. That may mean cutbacks to your team or even to you. If it does, try not to take it personally. If the company dies, everyone loses their jobs. 

Next, let’s take the case of your primary customer deciding they want to go another way or with another company’s products. If this customer is currently a significant portion of your company’s revenue, such a decision has far broader impact on your company than just to your project/program or team. It spans virtually every organization in your company. If your customer wants to go another way but stay with your company, then there will be a flurry of activity to determine what can be done quickly to address this desired change in direction. Do whatever you can do to help, and show flexibility and an ability to quickly react and propose solutions, and not complaints, to help quickly remedy the situation. If the customer wants to go with another company’s products, it can mean life or death for the company or, sometimes worse yet, your company living in limbo. This almost certainly will lead to major layoffs and a significant restructuring of the business. Much of this is often beyond your control, but if you believe you can see ways with current, modified, or planned products to rescue this customer loss, make your case immediately to the key players in the company. This will show your flexibility, initiative, innovation, and determination to help rescue a bad situation. Still, the situation may not be recoverable, and you and many others in your company may be adversely affected.

Finally, let’s take the case of acts of God – storm, fire, flood, etc. Your company should have well considered disaster recovery plans in place. Make sure they do, and understand them thoroughly. If disaster strikes, there may not be a lot you and your team can do, other than to offer your services to do whatever is needed to help get your company back up and running. This may mean tough manual labor or offering technical know-how others may not have. Do whatever you can to help your company and yourself. It is simply the right thing to do.

So, do all you can to plan to the best of your ability. Try to incorporate contingencies and uncertainties into your planning. Think about reasonably realistic situations, such the sudden loss of a key person, temporarily or long term, by making sure no one person is irreplaceable. Think through as thoroughly as possible the known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. Still, even after you do your very best, you can start with the best laid plans … and then life happens!

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