Monday, May 18, 2015
Playing it safe -- or not
In his book Augustine’s Laws, Norman Augustine discusses the problems of process-oriented cultures, among them too many regulations and the dangers of “playing it safe.” One of the arguments that Augustine presents against the growth of regulations is: “The fallacy in using regulations to prevent problems is that if managers could ignore the old regulation, they can ignore the new one, too.” Still, Augustine asserts that “Regulations grow at the same rate as weeds,” as demonstrated in the following example: “… in 1946 the US Atlantic fleet was comprised of 778 ships and sailed under regulations contained in a 72-page pamphlet. In contrast, today’s Atlantic Fleet may only have 297 ships, but it is well equipped with regulations—308 pages of them.”1
Terry Little, the Director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence, believes that in today’s dynamic environment we must unlearn the old way of thinking, and in particular, we must stop “playing it safe.”
A lot of processes that we have are built on lack of trust. When you hand somebody an 11-page specification rather than a 100-page document, however, you are sending a clear signal that you trust them to do the right thing. My belief is that, as an individual project manager, you can go a long way in that direction by starting not with the notion that someone has to earn your trust, but starting with the presumption that they’re trustworthy until proven otherwise. It allows things like an 11-page specification. My biggest disappointment in the past has been when I have given project managers the opportunity to innovate, and they don’t know what to do with it. They demand processes, rigidity, templates, and prescriptions. It is as if you give them a blank check and they write it for a dollar. What you’ve got to do, is to “unlearn”… all of our processes that are not oriented toward speed or credibility, but are oriented toward not making a mistake, playing it safe.2
As demonstrated by Scott Cameron, the Global Process Owner of Project Management at Procter & Gamble, successful project managers do not “play it safe.”
I have noted during my career that there is a never-ending amount of rules and restrictions forced upon project managers under the guise of helping them “be successful” in managing their projects. It appears to be a one-way street; many regulations are added, but few (if any) are removed. I had the opportunity to help clean out such a closet [of standard procedures] as part of a project management leadership team I was part of.
Scott reports that although the “cleaning out” required three consecutive review cycles, eventually they sharply cut the number of standard procedures. Instead of 18 technical standards and 32 standard operating procedures, project managers at Procter & Gamble are now employing only four of each.
The project management community was delighted with these reductions and felt empowered by them. It gave them more flexibility to manage their projects and develop their own personal management style. The streamlining process enabled us to reduce the effort, costs and time required to maintain these standards. 3
Developing a successful project culture requires learning to trust and unlearning the “play it safe” approach.
1. Augustine, N. (1986). Augustine’s Laws. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 101-7.
2. “Speed Merchants: A conversation with Scott Cameron and Terry Little” (2003). Ask Magazine, 11 (March): 26-9. http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html
http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html“Cleaning Out the Closet,” Proctor and Gamble, Ask Magazine, 20 (November): 19-21.