While writing today’s chapter, I was struck by my unconscious use of project management techniques in planning and working on Major Projects. Â Some of the methods are obvious – estimating speed on a portion of the project to figure out how long it will take, planning milestones to make sure the project will finish up about when I expect it to.
But today I was writing a chapter on how to integrate new techniques on a project that simplyÂ mustÂ come out well – a show piece, for example – and I realized I was really writing about a fundamental project management skill: managing risk in projects.
Often very experienced people will say that to have a project come out well, you should stay within the boundaries of your skills and only expand them slowly. Â I don’t do that. Â I usually expand my boundaries in leaps and bounds, tackling things at which I have only nominal skill and learning as I go. Â And yet I can turn out excellent show pieces. Â How does this happen?
It’s mostly byÂ managing risk. Â Because I manage projects for a living, one of my mental reflexes is to think up all the things that could go wrong with one stage of a project. Â Then I estimate the risk of that thing going wrong, and multiply by the potential loss if it does go wrong, to arrive at the estimated loss from that risk. Â (Statisticians will notice that this is just assessing the Â expected value of a particular risk.) Â I also take note of catastrophic risksÂ – things that have a low probability of happening but which would completely ruin the project if they did.
If I don’t like the risk profile of the project, I take steps to mitigate the risks. Â I look at the potentially expensive losses – both catastrophic losses and estimated ones – and think of ways to reduce the expected loss. Â This can happen either by reducing the risk of a screwup happening, or by reducing the potential loss from that screwup.
As a simple example of reducing risk – if coffee spilled on a garment will ruin it, don’t take coffee anywhere near it. Â In fact, keep it out of the room entirely! Â This reduces your risk of catastrophic failure from “possible” to “zero”. Â Another example might be cutting out the pieces of the garment – an irreversible step that has the potential to ruin a lot of veryÂ expensive handwoven fabric. Â To reduce this risk, I cut a pattern piece for each piece, and lay out every pattern piece on the fabric before making a single cut. Â Then I cut single layers of fabric, making sure to match each piece against its pre-cut, neighboring pieces, before I make the cut. Â Because this step is irreversible and mistakes are extremely expensive, I am absolutely draconian about reducing the likelihood of making a mistake. Â I have even considered making a “pre-flight checklist” for cutting out pattern pieces!
As an example of the alternate strategy, reducing potential losses, consider screen printing. Â This is a new technique to me, and the odds of screwing up are pretty high. Â I can try to reduce the likelihood that screwups will happen, but that would involve practicing a lot of screen printing before working on my project, and I may not have time to develop those skills. Â So instead, I can try to reduce my potential losses from a screwup. Â In other words, I don’t screen print directly on that garment I just spent eight months making. Â I might screen print on the yardage – where I can either cut around my mistakes or throw away a small amount of cloth (but not lose the time I put into making the garment) – or I might screen print on a small piece of fabric and then applique it to the finished garment. Â That way if I screw up, at least I only lose a scrap of fabric. Â Applique is a simple technique and one I’ve already mastered to my satisfaction, so screen printing on a cheaper fabric and then appliqueing the results reduces both potential losses and the risk of those losses.
And so on. Â I do a lotÂ of risk mitigation in my projects, usually unconsciously. Â It’s such an embedded reflex that I don’t even think about it, I just do the assessment, fix the risky parts, and move on. Â But it’s the central reason I can go way, way past the recommended boundaries of my competence and still turn out excellent show pieces.