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Planning for chaos

News Analysis
Oct 06, 20035 mins

Learning to expect the unexpected helps bring order to project management.

The project appeared to have all the ingredients for success. Implementing a consolidated campus network would generate a 30% reduction in monthly telecom bills. Capital costs were less than $500,000, senior management endorsed the project and required resources, the work breakdown and milestones were documented and approved, and the critical path of key events necessary for the project to be completed on time had been identified.

Nothing should have gone wrong. Yet the project was completed over-budget and behind schedule. New hardware requirements for video connectivity and remote access were added at the last minute, resulting in cost overruns of nearly $200,000. Early snowstorms delayed the fiber installation, while equipment manufacturing and shipping backlogs caused implementation delays that eliminated three months of projected savings. By the time the network was finally live, it was a bittersweet success at best.

No matter how much we plan, unforeseen events appear to create havoc with a project’s budget, scope or timeline. According to chaos theory, this is inevitable. For in our seemingly orderly world, one of the fundamental processes that pervade our universe is chaos. Philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche proclaimed “out of chaos comes order,” and theorists such as James Gleick say chaos is the breeding ground of order.

Extrapolating the theoretical into the practical, it might be impossible to avoid chaos. So instead of trying to deny it, we should plan for it and even cultivate a controlled chaos in projects to reach the order we seek.

Five years ago, a typical project required this series of events: Identify a need, develop a solution, write and approve a business case, assemble a project team, develop a project plan, approve the budget and launch the project. A project was considered a success if it is was implemented on time and under budget.

The pace of business has quickened, and overall timelines have shortened drastically. The sequential events of yesterday need to be the parallel events of today. Business cases often need to be written while solutions are being developed. Project timelines need to be created before all the tasks and resources have been completely identified.

This new fast-paced paradigm is a breeding ground for chaos. To be successful, project managers need to be flexible, creative and able to respond to events quickly. Instead of assuming the solution will work, have an alternative plan in case it doesn’t. Instead of assuming that key resources will be in place throughout the project, identify other people who can jump in and take over if necessary. Instead of assuming that the budget is final, know how to cut expenses by 10%.

My own philosophy is that a project manager should be like a sheepdog. Sheepdogs set up a boundary for the flock, allow a certain amount of freedom within that boundary and nip the heels of those who try to cross the boundary. Instead of trying to control the individual sheep, the sheepdog focuses on moving the entire flock to the stated goal.

I tried the command-and-control method of management early on in my career with little success. Instead of listening to my reports and asking for their input, I tried to tell them how to manage their systems, design their networks and implement security. After my arrogance led to the loss of some key employees, I realized that my staff wanted respect for their skills, acknowledgement of their ideas and a certain amount of ownership over their work.

I set boundaries, asked for input into key decisions, sought their expertise, gave them control over aspects of their job and allowed a certain amount of controlled chaos to reign in solutions development and implementation. As a result, both my success rate and team morale rose.

Recently, I was handed a VPN project that was already behind its initial time frame. In order to reap the anticipated cost savings, the solution needed to be implemented quickly. The short time frame necessitated creating the business case, engineering design and project plan in parallel.

Instead of trying to control every aspect of the project, I worked with the project manager to establish boundaries. We allowed a lot of chaotic movement within those boundaries and nipped the heels as needed to keep the team moving toward the goal.

We involved the project team in brainstorming various scenarios to develop risk-mitigation plans. We identified and documented the assumptions used, and worked to ensure project sponsors and senior management were aware of all timeline and budget risks.

During network planning sessions we cultivated controlled chaos and allowed a free exchange of ideas, sometimes playing devil’s advocate to insure all options were reviewed. We facilitated intense technical discussions concerning vendor-provided vs. in-house networks, IP Security vs. generic routing encapsulation VPNs, and pre-shared keys vs. certificate authorities. When discussions wandered off the track, became personal or overran the project scope, we would nip heels as needed to bring everyone back into focus.

Even after a decision had been made on hardware, our timeline contingencies let us accommodate additional chaos and incorporate newly available equipment from a different vendor that brought added value, but required a redesign of ordering, shipping and configuration processes.

From outside, the project often appeared to be in total disarray. There were times when the proposed design changed on a weekly – and sometimes daily – basis. Many times the project manager or I had to meet with the project sponsors to assure them everything was OK.

We let chaos reign, but it was controlled chaos. Like sheepdogs, we constantly circled the team making sure that timelines were met, solutions were in scope and equipment was in budget. Ultimately, out of the chaos came order.

By both planning for chaos and cultivating controlled chaos, within 90 days of final budgetary approval we implemented a solution that not only met all customer requirements, but also provided a scalable platform that would accommodate network growth. Nietzsche would have been proud.