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Jangling the Triangle of Truth


This expands upon points made June 14, 2010 in a post at MillikenProject.blogspot.com.


        When in doubt, hesitate. Makes sense. If you don't know what to do, why on earth would you do anything?

        Because you're a project manager, that's why. Of course you don't blindly launch off a cliff in the dark, but you don't dither or dally, either. Your specialty is to make decisive action possible in situations that offer no assurances that your decisions are correct.

         It's your process that creates objective justification for action, and your approach builds trust among your stakeholders that the action will work. That it will meet reasonable standards of schedule, budget and outcome – the three corners of the Triangle of Truth in project management.

        The awful case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico opens questions as to the quality of the project management practiced by British Petroleum and its partners. I don't have any more information than anyone else who's likely to read this, but the facts now out in the public domain provide grist for rumination. It does look as if the Triangle of Truth has been loudly jangled by the intrusion of unmanaged risk.

        The absolute basis for sound project management is comprehensive and pitilessly objective gathering of information, opinion and intention from all corners at the birth of a complex innovation.

For BP, this would include not only its own extensive history with exploration, but that of everyone else in the industry. A project of this magnitude demands creation of an encyclopedia of relevant fact covering all that is known about such projects, but also what is unknown – that is, a compilation of risks or areas in which unknown risks could arise.

        Risk management negatively impacts the three corners of the Triangle of Truth – time, cost and quality. The very time required to research, debate and organize risk management activities can take a lot of time and money, and can cut into the perceived pay-offs from the project. So there is some motivation to slide over risk management, and project management professionals are on guard against any tendency in that direction.

       That could be an issue in the Gulf. From what has been reported, there is suspicion that BP's basic documentation contains gross inaccuracies to the point that the data cannot be trusted at all. Also, the federal Materials Management Service, whose job it is to oversee the planning and operation of oil rigs, has been accused of such laxity that that its enforcement could be considered virtually nonexistent.

      There have been a variety of accusations and speculations, and the entire matter is far beyond the competence of this blog to evaluate. Instead, we're looking at how relevant the Gulf events are to you, me and our projects.


      As a project management obsessive who pursues this kind of stuff for a living, I can fully understand how the whole Gulf thing could have happened. In a minor way, it's probably being replicated right now in a project near you.

       People don't like to plan, often because they've never seen a planning process that did any good, and they especially don't like to give risk anything close to a careful, thoughtful treatment. It's scary and uncomfortable, and maybe it won't happen anyway. If BP seems to have exhibited a cavalier attitude toward the enormous risks it incurred, it's got plenty of company.

        It might not be a bad idea for project managers around the world to use the occasion to make some headway against the ho-hum dismissal of serious planning and process discipline in their organizations. This is an opportunity to preach cost savings, schedule efficiency and general seriousness of purpose in organizing and conducting innovations and other group activities.

       The typical “planning” process frequently involves a bunch of nodding, agreeable people in a conference room, viewing a PowerPoint presentation by someone who has sweated out the detail required to get something done. If the viewers see anything wrong with it, chances are they'll keep that fact to themselves. Or maybe there will be recreational nitpicking to give the local egos a run in the yard.

      In no case does anyone other than the presenter – and sometimes not even that person – feel any particular need to openly account for what it will be like to slog through the specific actions that will be required to make this plan work in the real world.

      Everybody has seen countless plans and numerous initiatives and doesn't need any reminders that these things come and go, and even the ones that get taken seriously are going to be messy, difficult and short of expectations.          

     Most never get off the ground at all.

     That's the way it is, because that's the way it's always been. In a perverse sort of way, that's the way it's in essence planned to be.

     The jangling of the Triangle of Truth ought to be loud enough for a wake-up call.


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