A Black Swan in Oklahoma

Much of the conversation about project risk management approaches the subject from a negative perspective.  Project risk is just as much about improving the chances of a positive event as a negative one.  The PMBOK states that “the objectives of project risk management are to increase the likelihood and impact of positive events, and decrease the likelihood and impact of negative events in the project.”  In Tom Kendrick’s book, Identifying and Managing Project Risk, he describes the industry term “black swan” as “a large impact, hard-to-predict, rare event” and proceeds to primarily focus on the negative impact of a black swan to an organization.  In this post I would like to propose that the term black swan, while having primarily negative connotations, can be a positive event.  

In project management a schedule dependency is what happens when you have a task that can’t begin until another task is finished.  It is entirely possible that the preceding task can be done much later than originally planned creating a black swan situation or the task can also be done much earlier.  I initiated a project while I was in Oklahoma.  The project turned into an annual event and was passed along to another project manager for its second year.  The new PM was responsible for coordinating with all of the agencies and offices involved and building the planning documentation used to for internal and external communications.  He couldn’t publish the plan internally until these other requirements were met.  The schedule he was committed to required the earlier tasks to be complete before the latter.

The assigned PM started building his products and working the plan only to discover several notes I had left behind. These notes referenced a folder on a shared drive and a binder in the office.  In it he found that while I had coordinated the resources for the first year, I also scheduled several of the resources for the second year.  On the shared drive he found that when I closed the project from the first year I had already applied the lessons learned to the planning docs for the second year as well.  The hundreds of hours of planning he budgeted were reduced by several fold.  That level of detail and foresight was rare in the organization and certainly serves as a positive example of a black swan.

Negative examples are more commonplace in project management conversations.  It’s not hard to understand why.  They can easily create poignant feelings about certain project aspects.  They also make for good hero stories where the PM team overcomes the challenge they faced to slay the impossible dragon and create victory from chaos.  I love a good hero story, but I love a good project that doesn’t have the problems that turn it into a hero story.

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