Shoot down the plane (destroying the idea)
I find amongst project and program managers an optimistic outlook in the initial phase of the project; a childlike view that everything will be fine. As the project elapses this view often becomes tarnished by the harsh reality, which was, casually ignored.
This attitude has the potential to pose significant issues, especially when we find poorly developed ideas, or ideas without merit transition into seemingly irreversible projects.
For many a project is like a baby; it’s an idea which they want to protect and nurture until it can sustain itself. This approach embeds an attitude of positivism which makes especially the idea creator overlook initial risks. The propensity to move forward with the idea seems at this point a force much stronger than our rational and generally critical view to assess risk.
When in this state, we are blinded by our own cognitive bias; the false sense of optimism, we tend to only pay attention to information which supports the idea whilst being quick to discount information which goes against it: affirmation bias. The issues magnify as we find ourselves moving deeper and deeper in the development of the idea with this mentality.
I have seen many projects become victim to this, to be honest I am myself not immune to this condition and have suffered episodes in the past. Whilst I have not found an over-the-counter solution to medicate against it, I have found success in group therapy.
Let me paint the picture, working as a Project Director I had a great deal of latitude on project development and selection. In many cases, there were no ‘checks and balances’ ; if I thought it was a good idea, there was very little stopping me investing the company’s money, creating a project and assigning some poor person to manage it. In retrospect, this was part of the problem.
Without an external party critically assessing the project during its infancy stage I found that some of the stupid ideas I dreamt up were turned into reality, often not living up to my initial expectations. So as any great Director would do I started attributing the issues to the person managing the project.
The reality was however, the idea itself was the problem; it sucked. Handing it to the project manager was effectively like asking him to polish a turd; it was never going to smell great.
It was around that point I started putting a child lock on my own ideas before they turned into projects. This was simple, but it wasn’t something I trusted myself to do; after all I had the optimistic bias- I wanted these projects to go ahead.
To combat that I used the people who didn’t particularly care if this project didn’t go ahead, people who hadn’t drunk the cool aid (cult reference) and had no background of the idea. Initially I used staff from other departments, as I got bolder I used other Directors and stakeholders. The idea was for them to give me all the reasons why this project was a bad idea.
I quickly found that once people knew they could attack my project without fear of loss of promotion, job or repercussion, the ideas flowed strong and fast. The first session I ran was great, so great I immediately scrapped the idea.
I did feel however that I had lost; I felt that the time I had spent fleshing out the idea was wasted, I felt pretty shit; so, I went surfing. In the surf and with a clearer head I started thinking: what if I had kept going with the idea, what I hadn’t had this session? For one I wouldn’t be surfing.
I started smiling.
As I played out all the possible scenarios, it became clear, the idea was in fact a bad one. This activity had actually saved myself and more importantly my team countless hours in resources and cost. I stopped looking at it as a loss, but as a win.
I have since repeated this activity for myself and many clients with great success. Over the years, I have refined it and still make adjustments based upon the environment I’m in, but it’s still based on one underlying principle: People love to tell you why your idea is a bad one, give them the opportunity to do so before you invest in it.
Shooting down the plane- the pilot’s manual
For this activity to be effective you have to do some ground work; the best results will come from a well-planned session.
Step 1: Break down the idea to its core: this will be one sentence where you can easily explain to someone (other than yourself) what the idea is about.
Step 2: Explain the problem you are trying to solve or the opportunity you aim to realise (the reason why) and any pertinent background information.
Step 3: Create a high-level Project Charter (how you plan to implement the project)- Max 1 page
- Define the scope of your idea; what it will and won’t do
- Include a rough project schedule, showing the key activities- this helps later in structuring the session
- List the resources you believe are required
- Estimate time and cost
- List any assumptions you have made (the more the better)
Step 4: Get a group together, the more diverse the better, organise a room, some time (even 15 minutes) and bring some food; muffins work well.
Step 5: Explain the rules of engagement (something like this- I vary it based on the group and topic)
Brief Intro: “The aim of this session is to shoot down this idea before it becomes a project; A project we will spend money on, a project someone will have to manage. I want to know all the reasons why not to get this project off the ground”.
- Leave emotion out of the room
- Be critical
- Be specific
- There are no stupid ideas- we want quantity
- You have 5 minutes to individually write down all the reasons why this won’t work; I want issues big and small
- As a group we will start listing the reasons- we are not looking for solutions just problems (never thought I would ever say that).
Once the group is sharing ideas (tip the more food the more they share; it’s a reciprocity equation) work as a facilitator trying to get to the specific problem or issue; keep using the “Why” technique; for example;
“it won’t work”- WHY?
“because it will never get approved” – WHY?
“because it breaches our company policy on information sharing” – Great!
The more you use the “Why” the closer you will get to the specific issue.
Once the session is complete, collect all the responses. These can then be treated as risks, threats etc. A simple risk register can be used to rate the risks and conventional risk management can take over from this point, with the logic being: if we can’t reduce the risks to an acceptable level, the idea is out.
There are some variations which I have found work well:
- Have an independent (but experienced) facilitator
- Have a diverse group of stakeholders
- Consider the culture of the organisation- It may be better to include external people
- Consider the constructs of the group- I try not to include managers and their direct staff
- Consider the sensitivity of the information- Should we be having this session?
- I have also conducted these sessions over phone, video conference, email, chat programs, I have found that the best results however have been in a face to face environment.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about diluting your enthusiasm and preventing innovation. It is about avoiding the wrong project so you can actually implement the right ones.
I would love to hear your feedback after trying one of these sessions; what worked, what didn’t etc. Feel free to make an ongoing lessons learned in the comments below.