As the leader of the forces opposing evil in the universe .. you’re fired!

Epic tales are a lot of fun to read – the struggle of good and evil, the climactic moment of truth when the future of humanity or the world hangs in the balance.  They also can provide good insight on managing complex projects .. or rather, how not to.  There are some great lessons to be learned from the bungling incompetence of fictional heroes (and yes, this point of view can make you a real buzzkill, so you might want to keep these thoughts to yourself!).

Risk Mitigation and Contingency Planning

The worst sins of omission are basic risk analysis, mitigation, and contingency planning.  Very brittle plans are made, with no effort to figure out a Plan B if something goes wrong.  That makes for great drama, but it’s lousy planning.

Let’s start with Lord of the Rings.  It’s a great story that I have loved since I discovered The Hobbit as a ten year old – it has edge of your seat excitement with a richly detailed universe as the backdrop.  But come on .. what kind of a grab-ass plan was that for saving the world from evil?  We’ve got a group of clueless hobbits wandering to Bree with the Nazgûl charging around and almost catching them. The hobbits are supposed to hook up with Aragorn, but they don’t even know what he looks like – would it have killed Gandalf to give them a description?  How about an escort?  The great civilizations of Middle Earth are facing Armageddon, and they can’t scare up a couple of people to help out?

On Star Trek they are always beaming the ship’s top officers onto a potentially hostile and unknown planet, leaving the Enterprise with mostly junior people to run it.  What’s up with that?  They probably shouldn’t be sending most of the senior officers into harms way in the first place.  And, a Constitution class starship is a massive investment and a jewel in the crown of the Federation .. how come they don’t have enough seasoned officers on board to be fully covered even if four or five of the most senior ones insist on wandering into danger all the time?

In the wonderful fantasy series “The Dark is Rising”, they almost lose the ancient artifacts that determine the victory of good or evil because .. somebody left a note with a family and they happened to forget to deliver it.  Really?  Come on!  If that’s the best you can do, time for a new project manager who has a clue.  To drive a complex and crucial initiative, think about the aspects of your plan that are fragile and could easily go wrong, and build in defense in depth.

The Dark is Rising heroes not only made one dumb and potentially fatal arrangement, they keep doing it.  Don’t be like them.  If you see a particular breakdown, think about the underlying causes and address them.  Don’t settle for the obvious explanation – dig deeper.  Say you are running an online service and it went down .. why did it happen?  Well, there was a bug in the code.

  • Sure, but why did the bug slip through?  Do you need better tests?  More tests?  More realistic load testing?
  • Why did it happen in the first place?  Was there some communication breakdown?  Is the architecture of the system too baroque?  Are there missing levels of abstraction between system components?
  • Why was it hard to find and fix?  Do you need better diagnostics?  Better logging?  Better monitoring?
  • Why did it affect so many people?  Could you have a more loosely connected system?  Could components be more resilient when others fail, and degrade the user experience more gracefully?
  • Why were you down so long?  Does it take too long to deploy a fix?  Too much time to restart components that depend on it?

In running a project, you often have to make bets and take gambles – that’s part of the game.  However, you should think about the key bets you are making, and what will happen if your bet is wrong.  How quickly can you tell that you made a mistake (and be fairly sure about it)?  What will you do to reverse course or mitigate the failure?  Are you keeping anything in reserve so that you have some resources you can apply to help rescue the situation?  If you are making an unrecoverable bet, are you clear about that and about the due diligence you need to do up front?

Defining Roles

One of the common sources of confusion and inefficiency in a team is not knowing what role everyone is supposed to play.  Often, you can muddle along until something really important comes up, and then under stress the team works very poorly to resolve the issue.

Think about Boromir and Aragorn – after Gandalf fell into the cavern fighting the Balrog, they hadn’t resolved who was left in charge of the group.  Boromir deeply disagreed with the strategy Aragorn laid out.  Frodo decided he didn’t want to be with any of them any longer.  Since he was the ring bearer, ultimately it was his decision .. but nobody had given much thought to it.   It’s critical to figure out how the most important decisions are going to get made, and it’s a lot easier to do that before you are in the middle of a stressful situation with emotions running high (though hopefully you won’t be getting attacked by the Uruk-hai).

Thinking Out of the Box

It’s easy to get trapped into conventional thinking.  We’re all prone to unconscious assumptions – how things are supposed to be done, constraints we think we have to live with.  For example, Gandalf is close friends with the eagles, who can .. fly.  While carrying riders, and even outmaneuvering the fell beasts that the Nazgûl are riding later in the story.  So why is the Fellowship slogging their way through the mines of Moria and playing tag with terrifying ancient spiders, when they could get to Orodruin in a couple of hours?  Maybe with some Legolas-class archers along to provide suppressing fire in case anybody tries to interfere?  The whole thing could have been wrapped up and the hobbits tucked cozily back in their beds after a nice end of the day snack, before Sauron had a clue.  This idea is hilariously developed on “How it Should Have Ended”.

In life, it’s impossible to identify and question all your unconscious assumptions .. but you can tease out the most important ones.  Ask yourself what you are assuming, and whether you have the evidence to back it up.  Ask “what do I have to believe?” in order to justify a proposed course of action, and see if you can get some kind of backup that those things are really true.  Or a way to notice that they aren’t, so if you are on a delusional path, you’ll figure it out as quickly as possible.

Learn From Everything

I have found that there are great lessons to be learned about accomplishing your goals from every life experience.  Learn on the job, by all means, but I try to make everything grist for the mill – books, stories, movies, tales from history .. it all provides insight and inspiration to help you pick the goals that matter to you and to find ways to achieve them.  And before you decide that “actually, hope is the plan”, remember that in real life, you aren’t the main character.  There is no author who will turn your heedless folly into an exciting story of success against all odds.

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