When failure is not an option

When fix-on-failure is not an option

There are projects in which some, maybe even most, of the possible outcomes are so threatening that their occurrence cannot be tolerated. Should something go wrong–should it not go to plan–there is no mitigation available. If you are driving a car and the engine malfunctions, it can be annoying, even frightening, but it’ll be a whole lot more final if the engine malfunctioning is in a spacecraft!

There are degrees of criticality, ranging from safety-critical performance in a nuclear power station to life-and-death rescue missions, to correct compliance to regulations set out in legislation–and in each case project failure always incurs severe penalties.

In these projects, the avoidance of risk drives the planning. This forces a modification to the usual planning process. The focus is to avoid the possibility of events occurring that cannot be managed; it is on the use of processes where the known performance indicates very high levels of reliability with no surprises.

Planning–the only way out

U.S. Support for Missing Thai Nationals in Tham Luang Cave

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) prepare for dive operations July 2, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. At the request of the Royal Thai government, the United States, through USINDOPACOM, sent a search and rescue team from Okinawa, Japan to assist Thai rescue authorities in locating 12 youth football players and their coach. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)

In July 2018 the world held its breath as a skilled team fought to bring twelve boys and their coach out of a water-drowned cave. There is an excellent documentary on this are by ABC News Australia.  You can find it here.

The planning is a perfect example of the planning approach when there can only be one acceptable outcome for a project. That outcome wasn’t, by the way, that there would be no fatalities. Firstly, there was a fatality, the tragic loss of the brave Thai SEAL. Secondly, and this is abundantly clear in the documentary, all of the planning was done under the acceptance that there was likely to be casualties among the rescued. However, and this is also clear, the condition that had to be met by the planning was that no deaths would be caused by the process of extraction.

Let’s look at the planning and why it was carried out the way it was.

First, there are no standard processes or work practices to implement. The crucial planning decision was to get world experts in this specialist field of cave diving rescue and to ensure that the tasks were allocated to the most suitable expert.

Second, there were risks that they could not handle. One of them was if the boys panicked while being shepherded out in the very frightening conditions. No management action guaranteed a good result. This meant that a way had to be found that eliminated the possible event called ‘boy panics.’ It was this risk strategy of avoiding the risk event that led to a solution in which the boys were sedated. This, in turn, required that an innovative solution be found: how to move sedated bodies safely while submerged and in the pitch black?

The third observation was that having found a potential solution–a five-point attachment face mask, and a carrying strap–the approach was tested again and again with volunteers in a swimming pool. The planning had triggered a sandbox moment, no improvising! And the introduction of this solution underpinned much of the rest of the planning. The critical risk translated to making sure that the precious mask was never accidentally dislodged throughout the transit because that would break the constraint: no deaths caused by the extraction.

It is well worth watching the short film, or at least some of the clips as it is an example of courage, humans at their best, and a tour de force in project management planning where failure is not an option under difficult circumstances.

The role of risk in planning

As we so often have to repeat when teaching risks in our workshops, risk management is not a back-covering exercise. We do not create long lists of risks so when the problem occurs the project manager can respond with “I told you so!” If a risk is on the risk log it means you have chosen to do something about it; and that means costs, time and management attention. So, when you agree with the client or other stakeholders that a risk should be included on the log, you are making an agreement as to what risk strategy, and what set of management actions have a place in the plan.

The normal way of dealing with risk financially is through the allocation of contingency–a budgetary allowance for the known-unknowns.  Project managers often complain that while they may highlight risks to stakeholders, the next natural step of making allowances for them in the scope, budget, or schedule is blocked. It turns out; nobody really likes paying up front to prevent or reduce the probability that something that might happen. It seems to rankle in the mind of some operational managers who would rather wait and see if it happens, and if it does, then… No wonder projects can find themselves “up the creek without a paddle”!

In end-date and cost-constrained projects ‘wait until it happens’ approach is untenable, but, in mission-critical projects, it can result in, literally, death. The infeasibility of mitigation–that is fix-on-failure–in mission-critical projects justifies and forces the special approach to planning required. What might appear as a contingency, and therefore to some extent optional, in other projects, is fully incorporated in the budget. In mission-critical projects, the level of contingency set aside will either be considerably less or zero.

Project management when the tolerance of risk is low


With any luck, you will never have to run a mission-critical project, but there are aspects of the approach to their management that are worth considering when planning your own projects. For example:

  1. In what ways do you think this affects the way you approach planning and executing your project?
  2. Do you routinely adopt mitigation as the favored risk strategy?
  3. What do you do to gain acceptance for strategies such as risk reduction (paying ahead of time to reduce the likelihood of an event) and risk protection (paying ahead of time to reduce the impact should it happen)?
  4. Have you found yourself discouraging innovative approaches when planning and executing a project? Can you explain why?



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