While writing today’s chapter, I was struck by my unconscious use of project management techniques in planning and working on Major Projects. 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 simply must 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. I don’t do that. I usually expand my boundaries in leaps and bounds, tackling things at which I have only nominal skill and learning as I go. And yet I can turn out excellent show pieces. How does this happen?
It’s mostly by managing risk. 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. 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. (Statisticians will notice that this is just assessing the expected value of a particular risk.) I also take note of catastrophic risks – 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. I look at the potentially expensive losses – both catastrophic losses and estimated ones – and think of ways to reduce the expected loss. 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. In fact, keep it out of the room entirely! This reduces your risk of catastrophic failure from “possible” to “zero”. Another example might be cutting out the pieces of the garment – an irreversible step that has the potential to ruin a lot of very expensive handwoven fabric. 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. Then I cut single layers of fabric, making sure to match each piece against its pre-cut, neighboring pieces, before I make the cut. Because this step is irreversible and mistakes are extremely expensive, I am absolutely draconian about reducing the likelihood of making a mistake. 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. This is a new technique to me, and the odds of screwing up are pretty high. 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. So instead, I can try to reduce my potential losses from a screwup. In other words, I don’t screen print directly on that garment I just spent eight months making. 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. That way if I screw up, at least I only lose a scrap of fabric. 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. I do a lot of risk mitigation in my projects, usually unconsciously. 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. 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.