Eeyore and the Unintended Consequence

Posted by Steve Beyer on Jan 4, 2017 5:00:58 PM


A phrase that often gets used when projects go awry is "unintended consequences." On the surface it's a simple-enough statement, declaring that there were outcomes to some actions taken that (usually) ran counter to the intent of the project, and generally they were not desired.  In other words, "some bad things happened that we did not expect."

But when one digs a little deeper, it is not unusual to discover that the undesired outcomes were in fact predictable, quantifiable, and knowable.  Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that they were also "avoidable."

But how can this be? How is it that capital projects, in particular, which often receive a great deal of planning, resources, and attention, manage to get themselves into situations where there are circumstances and outcomes that are undesired, and sometimes even harmful to the primary objective of the project?

First of all, projects don't run themselves. People do. And when we fail to take responsibility for and fail to seek to account for all of the foreseeable outcomes and not just hoped for ones, we greatly increase the risk set for the project, jeopardizing the value of the whole effort.

Also, many projects get launched with only  the predetermined singular outcome in mind.  Efforts tend to be focused on optimizing the positive aspects of that activity. Very often, little regard is paid to the ancillary activities of identifying, quantifying, and mitigating the risks and thinking about downstream and peripheral consequences. If your project management style, and indeed the orientation of your organization's culture, is about accentuating the upside and dismissing those who identify risks, then your project (and your organization) runs the risk of being created in an artificial environment devoid of the realities of risk and negative outcomes.

There are those within organizations who may often get labeled as an "Eeyore." That is, those who only see the downside or the risk or the black clouds around an activity. When those individuals however are framing their perspective in data, experience, and mitigation plans, then they are a project managers best ally. 

Employ a strategy of science, and perhaps the art, of thinking broadly and being able to define a complete set of possible outcomes (both the positive and negative).  This will expose the team to all the positive and negative outcomes that can be conceived.  Certainly not all potential outcomes can be imagined or predicted. However, most teams neglect the downside or any other outcomes beyond that which is the intended goal of the project. They run the risk of missing additional opportunities to positively leverage their work, as well as missing signals and likely consequences of their actions that with the right modeling, team members, and other factors could be avoided.

In planning our industrial automation and plant expansion projects on behalf of our clients, we strive to consider all of these factors, and more. Using simulation tools, the years of experience of our team members and partners, as well as other engineering and design tools, we are able to forecast where the benefits and risks of a given project are going to go.  While there are certainly many schools of thought and practice around excellent project execution, many fail to take into account the planning for negative consequences, their anticipation and mitigation. While we at Optimation are by no means perfect, we strive on our clients behalf to think about and plan for all of these. Now are call to action here is: What can we help plan for you?

Topics: Resource Planning, Project Management

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