Be careful not to drown in a mirage.” — Terri Guillemets

Last week I wrote about denial as a potential cause of engineering failures. I have seen too often that otherwise rational people under great pressure come to irrational conclusions.

For example, I have worked with projects whose team members are under great pressure to meet a deadline. There is ample evidence that the team will not reach the deadline with all the content they have promised. Key suppliers have failed to provide the vital elements they need to complete the work. One of their key technologies has failed to achieve the performance desired. On top of all of that, they have an estimated 30 weeks of work to complete in 10 weeks.

I asked, “Will you be done on time? If yes, how do you know?”

They answer, “Yes, we will be done. We know we will be done because we know we have to be.”

I asked readers to write in about how to avoid becoming a sane person who comes to insane conclusions. Readers wrote in. Here are the top five answers merged with the advice I provide to my clients.

  1. Collect data that is meaningful and useful.  Focus on data that is predictive of outcomes.
  2. Believe your data. When your data says you are significantly behind schedule, do not ignore it. Accept it. When you feel that the technical risk is high and is likely to happen, believe it.
  3. Seek a trusted objective viewpoint. Your sense of time and space can be warped by the great pressure you are under. Seek the wisdom of someone you trust who is outside the pressure cooker. What do they think? Believe them.
  4. Listen to your body.  Ask yourself if the project is in trouble. If your words say that the project is fine, but your stomach is in a knot, your shoulders are tense, and your neck hurts, recognize the discordance within yourself. Listen to it.
  5. Speak up. Denial in these environments is practiced en masse. No one is saying anything because no one else is.  Speak up and watch the river of denial evaporate.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett

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