The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world
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Let’s Not Talk About the Vampire in the Living Room

Some parts of a project are just: slam dunk. They’re straightforward, sweet, smooth and easy. Everybody knows what to do, does it, and it works: with no blood left on the floor. Then there are the issues that make everyone roll their eyes: areas that are high risk. But not just any kind of “clean” risk: it’s scary risk, like challenges related to personality quirks of top managers, or the counter-productive behavior of the key architect, or just awkward huge things like lack of funding, broken business models, or a competitive landscape that looks like the battlefield of Verdun after a heavy bombardment.

That’s when every prefers to focus their attention on little tiny risks that can be dealt with: like the structure of a database, or the second sourcing of a component. That’s stuff we know how to handle.

The big risks get avoided because they provoke too much anxiety. I’m all for a reduction in anxiety. Paradoxically, the best way to reduce those uncomfortable feelings: both in you and in the rest of the organization: is to face that monster in the living room and understand it to death. We all know the dangers of analysis paralysis, and that should not obscure the reality that most scary project-type challenges suffer from a lack, rather than a surfeit, of understanding.

The automotive industry has developed a great tool, after years of facing the risks associated with automotive engineering. A poor fuel line design doesn’t just mean economic loss: there can be human lives at stake. But all the risks have to be put into a rational context that assigns them the right value. The tool they have developed to put a name to the monsters is called FMEA: failure modes and effects analysis. Here’s a good overview: http://www.reseng.com/overviews/fmea_overview.htm It’s rare to see an FMEA that addresses anything other than pure technical and business risks, and I believe that it’s high time we started getting comprehensive about putting ALL the risks on the table and into the FMEA. That’s where we can start assessing them and managing them. They won’t seem so scary after that.

I’ll talk about the vampire if you will too. :-)

Happy holidays to all.

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About the Author

Stephanie Oberg has a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MS from Stanford University, both in Materials Science and Engineering. She has held general management and project management roles in many industries, including telecom, supercomputers, defense electronics, semiconductor devices, displays, and most recently, consumer electronics. She...oh what the heck, she can talk in the first person. I am data driven and also focussed on people as the most challenging and wildest cards in any organization, high tech included. I'd like to share my vision of a project manager as someone who does not simply endure, but thrives, as the nexus of people, technology, and practicality. Just like cleaning out the refrigerator, the reward may lie more in the results (anticipated or actual) than in the details of the process.
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2 Responses to “Let’s Not Talk About the Vampire in the Living Room”

  1. Yikes! The vivid imagery of the vampire in the room woke me up! As a matter of fact, the number one mistake people make with risk is identifying it but doing nothing about it. This happened to a team I worked with several years ago. I recall one of several shocking incidents when a predicted problem that we all knew was a problem hit us like a ton of bricks. We were completely blind-sided by a problem that was on our risk list. We blinked incongruously at one another and then asked “Are we just stupid? How could this happen?” Bottom line, we were all scrambling to deal with the immediate blizzard of challenges and we had allocated absolutely no bandwidth to watching out for the next wave of disasters. With our peripheral vision down to ZERO, we fell into a trap of our own making . . . repeatedly! With all of us running around hepped up on adrenaline, no one was thinking clearly enough to do anything about the vampires we’d identified. In retrospect, we should have assigned someone to keep an eye on the big pitcure, crucifix and wooden stake at the ready!

  2. Let’s Not Talk About It…

    From the realm of project management, some good advice on anxiety and communications…….

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