Skydiving without parachutes…

23 Sep

The other day I posted a comment that “The only time skydiving without a parachute is dangerous is if you were planning to use the parachute.”, and this raised a few questions.  Some were regarding my sanity – which is to be expected – but others were more of the common variety and centered on project management, several people wanted to know how I dealt with the issue.  So, what did I mean by that? 

If your being told by management “You’re going skydiving.”, the first thing you’re going to want is a parachute.  Unless of course things dictate that parachutes are not allowed… in which case it’s just a very cool backpack that serves no purpose, and the whole process of packing it, carrying it, etc., is just something that gets in the way. 

There are, to my knowledge,  only two ways to survive skydiving without a parachute… the first is planning, the second, is insane luck. 

Planning, Planning, Planning… it’s all in the planning…

And you may, quote me on that.  In fact, make that your mantra.  Just wander the halls mumbling “Planning, Planning, Planning…” – it won’t solve your problems but it will get you on Youtube, and that’s always fun right?

Now, what will solve your problem is getting details and planning.  The first thing you need to do in any planning, is get information.  “Can I even survive skydiving without a parachute?”, and “If I can, and even if I can’t… what are my options and what are my next steps.”.  So – plan, define options, and know what’s coming – even if it’s the ground at high speed. 

Options and Context are your wings…

If you have options, and you understand the context of the problem – odds are you will locate solutions you didn’t know you had.

A classic example of this is one I had tossed out at me in an interview yesterday.  The question was framed as a ‘no-win’ scenario.  You have the project defined, and you’re already over booked.  You’ve got 4 features, you’ve got 35 bug fixes, and you have 3 week test cycles with 5 weeks to ship – and management says, “New Feature MUST get into this release.”.  

You cannot change, resources, you cannot move or slip your ship date, all of the features are promised and Pri 1’s so can’t cut them… what do you do?

Well first thing – don’t panic.  Second thing, determine the priority on this “new feature”, next look for ways to improve efficiency to use the resources I have, and then – ask myself if my team really needs to be the one that actually creates it – maybe I can license it, maybe someone else has solved the problem for me.

No one ever said the feature HAD to come from me.  Granted, and this is something I felt was arguable – I am adding resources effectively by doing this.  But it’s an example of reviewing the problem – and checking if it can’t be solved any other way within the context – can it be solved outside the context?  What variable is the best one to change? 

Was this trip really necessary???

What are my real options?  If this is not the first question asked when an unreasonable request (like jumping out of a plane without a parachute) is asked of us… you have serious problems which require medical attention.  Really. 

I sometimes think people need to tattoo this on their forehead so they’ll never forget it… There are NO obvious or stupid questions!!  Asking if you really have to do something – and finding out WHY you really have to do it is always acceptable.  If you don’t know why you’re in this position – then you need to find out, because you can’t determine the context of the problem – until you know the context of your own environment.  Maybe you find out that the plane isn’t actually leaving the ground – or that you’re skydiving in one of those wind tunnels – and a parachute isn’t needed.  Find out context, discover the problem, ask questions, and discover your options.

Now, I’m not going to go all rosey picture here… sometimes, you will discover that you have none.  No Options.  It’s  a real plane.  It’s really at 10,000 feet, and you really are jumping without a parachute, glider wings, air bags… heck they just handed you a cinder block and pushed.   There is NO way out of this one. 

Which brings us to…

Sometimes… bad things happen to good projects…

Really – they do, you’re not imagining it when it happens to you, bad things – sometimes really bad things, happen.  Sometimes, you are, effectively Ordered to jump out of a plane – with no parachute.  I have done this several times (not literally – just metaphorically in the sense of project management).  It’s not fun, but it does happen.  Be prepared for it.   Plan for it.  Part of that plan… will be what you plan on doing – after you fail. 

You will need a response.  You will need forward steps from that point.  Make that a part of your plan.  Maybe you can’t win this one, but you can do it with professionalism.  Own it.  Make it yours.  Don’t lay blame, don’t point fingers.  You were responsible for the project.  Doesn’t matter what happened when it failed, people frankly will care less about that – than they will about how you handle it. 

If you want to be a leader.  You have to lead.  Leaders own things, that includes failures.  So be willing to support the findings of your root cause, and be willing to accept responsibility for the project failure.  If you’re the PM – make no mistake, you owned that.  Why it self destructed, or the fact that it was doomed from the moment they handed it to you – will not matter.  YOU own it. 

So own your failures with the same pride you would your successes.  Don’t stand around moping – provide the next steps from there, and move on.

If you do this, often, most people will never remember your failed projects – because they’ll only remember that you had next steps.  To them – and most people – it may even look like you just saved it.  Really.  I’ve seen it happen many times.  The only way you can do that – is if you plan for it.  Know what you options are – even if it’s hitting the ground, and provide the next steps.  Open-mouthed smile

Occasionally, we all get something that there is no way around, over, under, or through.  Like the Skydiver approaching the ground without a chute – if they haven’t planned for this event – then all they can do is curl up in a ball, hope for a miracle, but expect dirt at 180 mph (give or take) followed by crunch and a splut kind of noise.  If they’re really lucky… it’s over quickly.

So the question is – do you want to know you’re about to die and there’s nothing you can do about it early?  Or just before you hit?  Or not at all?

Studies actually show, believe it or not – that people react, and handle bad news early best.  In fact, they tend to add to the bearer of the news’ credibility rating, making them more likely to trust that person in the future.  That, by the way is sort of the ‘good news on bad news’ studies because they also show, that bad news – can be as damaging psychologically as a full blown psychological disorder and people (sometimes within minutes of receiving the news) go through pretty much the same stages as people being told they are dying. 

They will need to move through these stages – before they can move on.  Which, is another reason why you need to tell them as soon as you are sure and have your facts.  They can’t move on with their projects – until they’ve gone through that.  Really – sounds silly doesn’t it?  But studies show it’s actually true within minutes of hearing a project has failed people who are stake holders often go through… Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. 

Be prepared for that – it’s coming.  You may, ironically, when you first realize that you’re going to die… err… crash …err fail – go through these as well.  But most certainly all the stakeholders will, there will be Denial, there will be Anger, there will be Bargaining, and finally Depression and Acceptance.  Once you’ve seen all five of these – you know the worst is over and it’s time to move on. 

In fact, people will WANT to move on.  So, know what the next steps are so you can give them one.   

Studies – btw – also show that if you know your about to experience pain (physical or emotional) that you actually feel it less if you know precisely what’s going to happen and how bad.  So, don’t sugar coat – be honest, not brutal, and tell the truth to everyone as soon as you’re sure of your facts.  Present facts, not speculation – and you’re actually doing them a kindness as well as increasing your credibility with them. 

Surviving the fall is easy.  Just get up and walk – not away from the project – but to your next steps.  This is very very important.  Because in reality it is the only 100% method I’ve ever had that actually works every time to survive skydiving without a parachute.

Never walk away from where you land.  Have a plan, and walk to where you want to go. 

That’s my thoughts on it.  They were the last thing that went through my head… never mind… bad joke.

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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Uncategorized


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