Project banana skins
The discarded peel of the fruit of musa acuminata has been used by many cartoonists and animators to extract a few laughs while making a point about unexpected and unforeseen dangers. Project management jargon refers to such hazards as unknown unknowns, a term that got some media attention a few years ago through the the near-poetic utterances of an erstwhile Secretary of Defense. The perilous peel provides an excellent metaphor for unknown risks that can cause project managers to slip up.
What I like about the banana skin metaphor is that it suggests ways in which project managers can prepare for unforeseen events that could derail their projects. These risk mitigation strategies, as they are referred to in the Advanced Project Pedant’s Dictionary, are well known. However, the analogy affords an opportunity to view these from a different perspective. So here they are – simple strategies for avoiding project banana skins:
Watch where you’re going…: This has got to be at the top of the list. If you don’t look ahead, you’re definitely going to make involuntary metatarsal contact with any peels that are in your path. Yes, I know it’s impossible to foretell the future, but it is often possible to foresee potential problems by staying in touch with what’s going on on your project. This includes being aware of status of deliverables, potential problems (as seen by indivdual team members) etc. etc.
…but look around too: Perhaps you see no peels in your path at present. However, that doesn’t mean one won’t appear later – people eat bananas all the time, and not always within range of a garbage bin. Often project managers focus on their work to the exclusion of all else happening in the organisation. Always remember that there’s a larger world out there, one which can affect your project in unexpected ways. An example: a senior developer defects to the competition unexpectedly. It is therefore important to stay informed of developments that could have consequences for your project. A good way to do this is by developing informal channels of communication within the organisation.
Pad your posterior: Despite your best efforts, you will at some point go heels-over-head on account of a fruit peel. Padding your rear can help reduce some of the nastier consequences of the encounter. Such protection against unforeseen occurrences is sometimes referred to as management reserve in project (and risk) management jargon. This usually amounts to a monetary allowance for the adverse fallout – for example, funding for a contractor to replace the disloyal developer.
An authoritative source claims that present-day pedestrians possess immensely improved peel perception. It now remains for project managers to follow suit. The foregoing suggestions may help.