Lava Lessons in Project Management


While on a quest to see an active volcano up close (or as close as one can safely get), Payson Hall learns a thing or two about project management and keeping an eye on the big picture from Mrs. Hall.

I wish this were a story about my asking the right question at the right time. While on the "Big Island" of Hawaii recently with Mrs. Hall, we heard that one of the volcanoes was actively spewing lava into the ocean. Lava in movies is exciting! Here was a chance to see it live!

We drove to the lava fields-the end of a highway that once circled the island. Sometime in the 1980s, lava flowed through a subdivision, across the highway, and southwest off of the island into the Pacific in a broad swath several miles wide. The effect from a distance is that the highway disappears into what looks like a huge expanse of asphalt. Upon closer inspection, the "asphalt" is actually black volcanic rock similar to obsidian. In some places it is smooth as glass for dozens of yards. In others, it looks like a freshly plowed field from the perspective of a gopher-huge furrows, five to ten feet deep and dozens of yards across. The texture is amazing-the furrows quite steep and the rock that they are composed of extremely rough, uneven, and very sharp. Picture climbing a heap of butcher knives and broken bottles set in cement and you have an idea of the worst of it.

We had good shoes, no children, and enthusiasm when we set out at 10:30 a.m. for the lava flow four miles away. We carefully had hiked our way through the treacherous terrain for forty-five minutes when Mrs. Hall dropped the bombshell question: "Babe, how far do you think we have come?"

Looking back, I was surprised to see we had only gone about half a mile. "Half a mile, maybe ... do you need to rest?" I panted gallantly.

"I think we need to turn around now," she said with resignation.

"What?!" I said, incredulously. I had wanted to see a volcano since I was a little kid.

"It's 11:15. If it takes us forty-five minutes to go half a mile, then it will take an hour and a half to go a mile, and six hours to get to the lava flow four miles away. That puts us there at about 5:30 p.m. It gets dark at 7:00 or so, and there is no way we can safely walk through this stuff at night. So, unless we plan to sleep in the lava field, we can stop now."

I looked ahead and saw more of what we had been through. I briefly tried to deny the reality of what she said:

  • "We could go faster now that we have practice ..."
  • "The trail might get smoother ahead ..."
  • "Maybe four miles was an exaggeration to discourage dilettantes ..."

I heard myself sounding like a despondent project sponsor who really didn't want to cancel a doomed project and was trying to rationalize his way out of the inevitable. But, in the end, her logic was impeccable. She was right, we needed to turn back.

This true story encapsulates two very important project management truths:

  1. It's essential to manage both the tactical and strategic aspects of a project
  2. Sponsors are human and can be irrational when confronted with unpleasant truths

Balancing the tactical and strategic perspectives of a project is both essential and challenging. It's difficult because the urgency of the tactical can make it seem more important than the strategic. On our excursion through the lava field, I was focused on the tactical-navigating, scouting ahead and finding the safest path through the treacherous terrain. My wife, the better project manager of the two of us, let me manage the tactical while she continued attending to the strategic big picture. Managing both is important. We needed to make the trip safely (tactical) and get there and back successfully (strategic) without spending the night in the lava field-a deal breaker for this particular project.

Anyone who has delivered bad news to a sponsor will recognize that my initial reaction of denial when confronted with reality is common. I was extremely disappointed and it took a little time for me to reconcile what I wanted (see lava) and the new information about what it would cost (sleeping in the lava field without provisions). Mrs. Hall is an experienced project manager who recognized the pattern and was patient with me-giving me time to consider the implications of her reasoning. I love and trust her, so it didn't take me too long to come around to the unpleasant truth. In the face of my denial, less experienced project managers might choose to become belligerent and argue-which just slows things down and can damage relationships, or become placating and allow themselves to be talked out of their position by a desperate sponsor-to everyone's future dismay. Good project managers try to deliver timely and accurate information and give their sponsors a little space to deal with their disappointment and return to rational thinking. In the end, I wasn't happy about turning around, but we didn't end up sleeping in the lava fields either.

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