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  • John Chambers, PhD

Lessons from Louisiana

"It's tough to get over it."

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.

Folks from the Big Easy still ain't easy. The angry buzz from the bayou is tremoring, days after the “penalty-that-wasn’t” decided a game.

But it did not decide it.

Apologies to the Saints faithful and my colleagues around the jazz stops of Bourbon Street, but the ‘miss’ was not the cause of the ‘loss.’

The window of gridiron action leads us to our own playing field within the firm -- the corporate project, with start and end dates, promises of execution excellence, milestones of completions, and our own versions of the 60-minute timeline.

Whether old-fashioned waterfall or nimble agile, you are sprinting toward a goal. When you hit your milestone, you “move the chains.” If you succumb to a three-and-out, you’ve lost that series forever, forced to compensate with better performance when you get the ball back. If you get it back. An ugly scrum on the field is akin to an ugly scrum in the Agile development office. A slide of the schedule is akin to a sack. And then your commitment to product launch is now dependent on the “hail Mary,” later in the cycle.

I wish we could say that the landscape of project delivery was dramatically different than decades ago. But Gartner’s probability estimates of large-scale project success are still as meager as the Oakland Raiders getting to Super Bowl LIV next year. Well, perhaps not that bad.

Twenty-odd years ago, Tom Demarco wrote The Deadline, a novel about project management, wending international espionage and drama through a software journey. The book spun a fun yarn, simultaneously and didactically offering management lessons. The PM principles he espoused were not earth-shattering, one-of-a-kind catches, but he wrote with aplomb and intrigue. The lessons were sound, articulate and timeless. One seemingly trivial note struck me as hard as Robey-Coleman’s illegal helmet-to-helmet against Lewis, paraphrasing:

A missed deadline early in the project is as significant as a missed deadline near the project’s promised completion.

The principle has ramifications in all we do, as it did when Drew Brees was robbed of a goal-line do-over. I can hear his head pounding, “If we only had that chance… if we were at the one-yard line… if.….”

In business, we live in an exciting yet harsh environment, as wild as twenty-two men’s acrobatics on artificial turf, and as unforgiving as a gun that signals “game over.” The Saints’ echoes speak to all humanity’s echoes in the face of missed chances and injustices, small and large: woulda-coulda-shoulda.

The disastrous ending to our contests, to their contest, could have been averted if only things went better earlier. But it shouldn’t have gotten to that point, any more than a product release should depend on all-nighters, caffeinating last-minute testing groups, and rousing 24x7 software rescuers, trying to correct squeezed windows of time.

A respectable argument during the game regards the timing of the episode – when the injustice is so late, isn’t it more significant than anything that happened earlier? I would offer this – it is no doubt the Saints might have had a compelling opportunity to take the lead, leaving the project clock with only seconds left, a mighty task for the Rams to respond with air-bombed, low-probability passes. Maybe. But there were also referee gaffes all along the way, such as the missed facemask penalty on the Rams’ Jared Goff. And what if that call had been made? What if the yellow flag advanced the Rams to the one-yard line, with a high-probability chance to score their own touchdown? The answer is, “We don’t know.”

We only know that there would have been five minutes left in the game, rather than 50 seconds.

In empirical sciences, the hypotheses often depend on robust regression analysis. And within that, the statistical significance relies upon assumptions (expectantly thoughtful and reasonable) of ceteris paribus – “all else being equal.”

Depending upon scenario, we can devise a highly likely probability of something occurring. But in the playing field of professional football and in the innumerable variations of product and project development, there is no assurance. “Ceteris paribus” is exceedingly difficult to conjure. As program heads and managers, we are left to risk mitigation, understanding that your plan of attack depends on sound execution from the very start, never being comfortable that an early miss has few Ram-ifications. Dynamics are ever changing. There is no ceteris paribus.

During your project plan and execution, there shall be missed opportunities, coding and integration errors, oversights in functionality and gaps in user experience.

We are human.

Every time we miss the first down marker, we must adapt.

Out of necessity, we must call on our creativity and flexibility.

We are asked to make up for the failure in the previous sprint, the missed milestone, the late supplier, the weather, the sick staff member, the blown penalty call.... because a slip early in the project is as significant as late in the project. And those early slips increase the probability of not winning, demanding that your team pulls off the miraculous, last minute drive.

As project leader, your MVP makeup is in operational rigor, risk mitigation, and responding to uncertainty. That is the lifeblood of successful coaches. As manager and executive, you are always coaching.

In the aftermath of the Saints' heartbreaking loss, coach Sean Payton remarked, "It's tough to get over it." Emotionally, that's a truism. But in a different sense, his words are also a truism over lost opportunities. Reflecting on mistakes that occur earlier in the game, or earlier in a project, it's "tough to get over" those missteps, as they morph into unlikely comebacks when the clock nears the end.

Ensure rigor early in your game. Management athleticism is about thoroughness and versatility.

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