A crude solution


“A Workaround is a solution to an unanticipated problem. Not to be confused with a contingency, or backup plan, which is conceived in advance, a workaround is a far less elegant solution to the problem. Typically, a workaround is not viewed as something that is designed to be a panacea, or cure-all, but rather as a crude solution to the immediate problem.”

The above is taken from an excellent resource for PMs – a blog called Project Management Knowledge.  They have a glossary and this is the definition of workaround.  We like it.  That is, we like both the site and their definition of ‘workaround’.

At the time of this posting, the Ron Howard movie Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris, is showing on Home Box Office (HBO).  Also at the time of this writing, the Gulf oil spill continues and repeated attempts to fix it have failed.  Attempts with names like Top Hat, Junk Shot, Top Kill, and the latest, Slice and Cap, are a strong giveaway that what we’re working with here are, in fact, clearly workarounds.  In fact, we understand that James Cameron has been invited to help solve the problem, based on his work with advanced underwater robotics from his film The Abyss.

The reference to crude, the fact that the new mission of Apollo 13 was to get the astronauts back to Earth, and this being a blog called EarthPM combined with the crude that is pouring into the Gulf and the workaround(s) being attempted to fix that problem seemed to me to have way much too much ‘karma’ to not generate a post – a valuable one, we hope.  Oh, wait, there is the other connection of movies to the Gulf with the James Cameron invitation.  Wow, that is a lot of karma!

I suggest you start by watching this scene from the movie.

OK, if you have seen the movie, that was a good refresher, right?  And if not, suffice it to say that at this point, NASA is furiously searching for a way to save the lives of the astronauts, having scrapped the original objective the moon landing project long ago – just as BP is furiously searching for a way to stop the leak, the lawsuits, the damage to the environment, and to minimize the reputation damage they’ve suffered, to say nothing of avoiding criminal charges, having scrapped the original objective of the well (drawing oil from it to make money).

So let’s bring this back to Project Management again.

When we manage a project, we do a thorough job of Risk Management Planning, including the creation of  a Risk Management Plan – to tell us how, in general, we’ll deal with risk on the project.  This includes the ways in which we’ll identify risk, and general broad brush plans for contingency management.   Up front, in the project, we go through Risk Identification, Analysis (both qualitative, to see which ones have the highest risk factors, and quantitative, to further analyze those with the highest risk factors).  Only after we really have a handle on the project’s risks do we go through the details of responding to risk.

Furthermore, even after all this is done, we don’t stop.  We monitor and control risks to see, for example, if new risks have popped up, or if our current assumptions are still valid, or if the risk response plans we’ve put in place are working.

So, all that said, what if our risk response doesn’t work?

That’s where the word contingency comes in.  Contingency is money, time, or resources (like a life-saving flotation device) set aside to minimize the impact of the risk that is now triggered.  These are thought of in advance.  In the Apollo 13 dialogue, you hear the engineers actually use this phrase (“we didn’t have a contingency for this”).

On a cruise ship, a fleet of lifeboats on a cruise ship is part of their contingency planning. If contingency is a house pet, a workaround is a very different animal.  A workaround, unlike a contingency, is not fed with foresight, softly petted with preparation, not pampered with planning .  Instead, a workaround is like having a wild boar, or even more descriptively, a griffin suddenly appear in your living room, hungry, flailing, snorting, and growling.  It’s unexpected, and you must deal with it NOW.  And it’s really the dealing with the griffin that is the workaround, not the griffin itself, although the imagery was just too good to avoid.

griffin5That’s what BP and Transocean and Haliburton and Cameron International (manufacturer of the Blowout Preventer) are facing now.  That’s why they’re calling in movie directors and engineers, and 25,000 workers to put together Top Hats, Junk Shots, Top Kills, and Slice and Caps.  There was less of a contingency than there should have been to deal with the impact.  Once again (and we’ve blogged about this), why wouldn’t the oil industry as whole (if not BP in particular) have had a fleet of the Kevin Costner -funded boats ready to clean up the spill to at least buy a little time?  That’s a form of contingency that would have kept the griffins at bay.

Now BP has said that it had a contingency plan, and it’s working – incredibly, they did actually say that, just a few days ago.  Read that story here.

Let’s wrap this unusual posting in the following way:

It’s worth it to put the time in up front in a project so that you really understand the risk factors (the probability multiplied by the FULL impact) of all of your risks, and it makes sense to put the time in up front on contingency planning on those risks.