Why Less Is More
The Backpacker's Approach to Project Management
Deliver to the requirement, no less, and just as importantly, no more, is a core yet underappreciated principle of project management. The majority of projects continue to be challenged with meeting scope, schedule, budget and quality demands. Why does this occur, and is there a mindset project managers can adopt to help with every aspect of their work? The answer is yes: learn to think like a backpacker.
Backpacking is the ultimate exercise in project efficiency. Why? Because every decision made has an immediate, measurable, and lasting impact on the likelihood of the trip's success. Every item chosen to carry adds to the burden. Grams add up to ounces, ounces add up to pounds, and pounds add up to underperformance or failure. Nothing should be carried that is not absolutely necessary and that does not contribute directly to the backpacker's goals. This “lean ethic” is at the heart of backpacking and should be at the heart of every project.
This paper looks at a backpacker's approach though the lens of the five project management process groups and gleans lessons that can be used to improve performance on any project. Any hike is a project because it is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique result (PMI, 2004). The duration of a backpacking trip can vary from less than a day to a months-long expedition, but the trip always has a beginning and an end. Even a hike of a familiar trail repeated frequently is unique due to changing environmental conditions. A group of individuals hiking the same trail will each have a different experience due to different individual perceptions, motivations and abilities.
The primary aspect of backpacking that offers the most lessons for the project manager is the extremely constrained nature of the activity. The goal, whether it is to climb a local hill or to summit Everest, must be achieved with what can be carried on one's back. (See Exhibit 1). Everything in the backpack must perform its function at the lowest possible size and weight. Each item in a pack should be adaptable to multiple purposes to further increase efficiency. For example, a bandanna can be, by turns, a handkerchief, towel, bag, hat, bandage, signal flag, etc. A backpacker must make do with what is at hand because he may be miles from civilization or the nearest human being and literally cannot acquire anything else. In the best case, underperformance in a backpacking project can result in lowered satisfaction; in the worst case, it can result in death.
This need for efficiency and self-reliance aligns with many of the constraints placed upon the project manager. The competing demands of scope, time, cost and quality—and arguably the other five knowledge areas—often place absolute limits on what is allowed. The project manager must attempt to get the most utility possible out of any techniques and processes applied to the project to maximize efficiency. Although it is sometimes possible to go outside the constraints for more resources, it is usually painful and damaging to the perception of the project and the team. Fortunately, death is not a probable outcome in most non-military projects, but usually the blame for anything that goes wrong for any reason in a project is placed, rightly or wrongly, on the project manager.
No single decision in project management has more importance than choosing which projects to perform. When choosing the projects that go into the portfolio, any idea of strategy or prioritization is often lost. Projects are initiated at many levels without any overarching strategic planning and then schedules and budgets are arbitrarily trimmed to fit the emergent needs of the organization. The most underappreciated concept in all of initiating is that of opportunity cost (von Wieser, 1889). For every project we select to do, we are giving up the opportunity to do an essentially infinite number of other projects. This is easily seen by adopting an individual backpacker's perspective. If I choose to hike a certain trail this weekend, I give up the chance to hike any other trail, and, in fact, forego the opportunity to do an infinite number of activities besides hiking. If I spend money to go snowshoeing in Yellowstone, that money is not available to go kayaking in Australia or to buy new ultralight gear, etc. Even though an organization has more financial and human resources than an individual, the basic principle still applies. Choosing the right projects is the foundation for success in project management.
Setting realistic and properly sized goals for the project is a critical aspect of initiation. In backpacking the likelihood of a successful trip is inversely related to the weight that is carried. Less weight generally means more distance and altitude covered and/or more free time in camp to do other things with less fatigue. Minimizing the scope of a project is one of the primary success factors in projects (Standish, 2001). Exhibit 2 shows the effect of project size on success—defined as delivering the approved scope for the approved cost in the approved time.
Too often the customer approves an inordinate amount of scope during initiating without addressing the effects on time, costs and resources in any realistic sense. The project has fallen prey to scope creep before planning has even started. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, stakeholders develop unrealistic expectations for project scope relative to what is, or will be, possible in terms of project achievement. The earlier in the project that this situation is recognized, the better the chance of correcting it. When this happens, it is up to the project manager to align the expectations with reality by altering the conditions preventing sufficient achievement or by helping stakeholders adjust their expectations downward. The perception of success is largely a matter of lowering expectations.
Deciding on the approach that needs to be taken—day hiking, backpacking, fastpacking or undertaking an expedition—is the first step in planning a trip. These four basic approaches apply in project work as well and will determine the amount of rigor and detail in the plans.
A day hike will, as the name implies, be finished in one day with no need for an overnight stay. Usually very little thought or planning go into a day hike, which make it one of the riskiest possible trips (Gonzales, 2003). Many projects adopt the day hike approach and likewise get into trouble. A project seems so small and simple that an organization thinks it can “just do it.” Although smaller projects do have higher success rates (see Exhibit 2), the day hike approach can turn into an extended descent into disaster. Even when day hiking, certain essentials should be carried: water, food, extra clothing, knife, first aid kit, etc. Likewise, no project should start without the basic planning outputs: scope statement, budget, schedule, risk management plan and so on. These don't have to be formal, detailed documents for very small projects but must be addressed somehow before execution starts.
The backpacking approach would be similar to the planning put into an average project. Tailoring the plan's documentation and detail appropriately for the size, complexity and risk involved in the trip should be done. In a group trip, a leader (project manager) should be clearly identified, along with other roles and responsibilities, and a consensus reached on the trip's objectives, route and timing. If a sufficient level of formality does not go into these components, the team will almost certainly struggle to achieve its goals.
Fastpacking attempts to cover the same distance as a backpacking trip but does it in a radically shorter amount of time. This can only be done through extensive physical conditioning, planning and an extreme trimming of the load. For a 50-mile, weeklong trip in moderate conditions, a backpack might start out at 60–80 pounds. A fastpacker may complete the same trip in two days while carrying less than 20 pounds. It is obvious that when schedule compression is paramount, something else has to give, yet many organizations deny this reality. An otherwise well-planned project will frequently have its schedule slashed without any corresponding reduction in scope or increase in resources.
In expedition mode a trip has enough scope, duration, risk and participants to justify formal, rigorous planning. To get a team in a position to attempt to summit Everest takes months of planning, preparation, approach and several tons of equipment and supplies. An expedition could be considered similar to a mission critical project in an organization and requires the same level of planning.
Blank sheet thinking is essential in the next phase of planning but must be balanced with the use of organizational process assets to avoid “reinventing the wheel” or doing redundant work. Everything should be removed from the pack, all closures undone, compartments opened and the pack shaken upside-down vigorously. On more than one occasion I have had rocks and other “souvenirs” (such as dead scorpions) fall out after a hike. Every item should be subjected to the same two tests that are used to verify a WBS (work breakdown structure): the test of sufficiency and the test of necessity (PMI, 2004). Are all the items in the pack (or WBS elements and project management processes) sufficient to achieve the objectives, and, even more importantly, is each absolutely necessary?
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint Exupery (Brainy Quote)
The Just enough mindset is essential to translating the product requirements into the appropriate level of functionality. The largest causes of project failure are poor communication, poor requirements definition and poor stakeholder management (Standish, 2001). Our project and product should contain just enough processes and work to create just enough scope, at the specified time for the specified cost. It is very hard for even experienced project managers, let alone executives, to understand that a project that is under budget and ahead of schedule is just as bad as one that is equally over budget and behind schedule. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were designed with a lifespan of three months and have now been running for over three years (BBC, 2005). Although NASA loves to paint this as an immense success, we have to consider the extra money, time and effort that went into exceeding the design life, not to mention the opportunity cost of other projects not performed and the approximately $30 million dollars in additional operating costs. Successful projects need to deliver to the baselines, no less, and just as importantly, no more.
“An uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project's objectives” (PMI, 2004, p. 373). This definition of risk is even more important to the backpacker since her very life may hang in the balance when something goes wrong. Performing risk planning and having a first aid kit for the hike that can accommodate problems that might arise with one's person or gear are essential. In most cases, fatalities occur due to not having the right equipment, having it and not using it or making poor judgments (Broze & Gronseth, 1997). Carrying the single most essential, multipurpose item in the repair kit is of paramount importance. For backpacking this is duct tape; for projects it is contingency reserves. (See Exhibit 3.)
Planning can be seductive in nature to the project team. There is a certain comfort in the conceptual world of designing the work effort compared to the bumps and bruises inevitably encountered in getting it done. Any plan can be elaborated indefinitely and can provide a great deal of anticipation and satisfaction itself. Sorting a pile of gear and tweaking its placement into a pack while determining the perfect route on a crisp, new topographic map can be far more fun than trudging for thousands of steps up a brutal incline while sweating under a 50-pound load. Nonetheless, at some point execution must begin and we must balance the amount of planning with incrementalism—doing one thing and then doing the next logical thing—in essence, putting one foot in front of the other.
Hitting the trail on the right foot, or starting execution the right way, can be a key precursor of how the overall project will turn out. A final check of the plan by an independent SME (subject matter expert) before starting the work can be invaluable. This “reality check” can often reveal places where our enthusiasm curve has led us astray (Jolly, 1997). If the team's attitude is not positive at this point, as reflected by statements such as “my pack feels like a ton of bricks” or “that no-account supplier won't commit to a delivery date,” the project manager has to act quickly. It is up to the leader of the hike or project to maintain the vision, to keep the team's motivation and actions aligned with the objectives.
Monitoring and Controlling
Comparing the performance of the hike or project against the plan and recognizing the trouble signs is at the heart of monitoring and controlling. Constant awareness of conditions prevents us from ending up on autopilot and getting lost by continuing to walk down the wrong trail. We then often refuse to recognize the problem and attempt to distort the physical world to fit our mental map (Gonzales, 2003). Any mechanic or doctor will tell you that, in general, diagnosing the trouble is the most difficult part of the resolution. We must stop what we are doing, particularly if it is panicking, and analyze the situation. The first bit of advice given to any beginning hiker should be, “If you have the least doubt of where you are, sit down and think.” Likewise, the project manager must take the time to devise rational options to address variances. Any course of action should be carefully considered, executed and reviewed.
Change to any backpacking or project plan is inevitable, but one principle must remain paramount, TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) (Heinlein, 1966). Anything, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, has some sort of cost. The tempting sound of a waterfall and the prospect of soaking your tired feet in some cold water won't take any time or carry any risk. Wrong! Every detour added or extra step taken during a hike decreases the time and energy that can be applied to the main objective. A new team member added to the project with no salary burden can have no possible costs or downsides. Wrong! He must be brought up to speed on the plan and current status, trained in the project's processes and integrated with the existing team. No should be our default response to any proposed change; a more politically correct response is, “Help me understand the value of this so that we can weigh it against the costs.”
The backpacking mindset of “less is more” carries seamlessly into monitoring and controlling. When a hiker realizes that the trip is at risk, she will first look to lighten the load. There is nothing sweeter to meet when struggling down a trail than a fresh, still clean group of hikers with no true idea of what is ahead. A savvy person can give them all the excess food and gear that they are willing to part with for free (TANSTAAFL). It is amazing how little the monetary cost of something matters when weighed against the thought of hauling it another 10,000 steps. Less palatable, but just as necessary, is considering a reduction of the goals of the trip. Too often a completely fatigued hiker will refuse to give up the summit, with disastrous effects. Projects should likewise examine their processes and work products for any that can be trimmed or altered and be willing to “rescope” the project. Requirements must be prioritized at the beginning of the project to prevent throwing out the wrong items.
“He gave me an apologetic look. ‘I threw out the brown sugar too, so there won't be any sugar for the oatmeal.’ Ah. ‘Actually there won't be any oatmeal for the oatmeal. I left it in New Hampshire.’ He looked at me. ‘Really?’ then added, as if for the record: ‘I love oatmeal’” (Bryson, 1998).
Dealing with risk appropriately and at the correct level is a challenge on any project. Organizations often use the terms issue or problem to describe a risk event that has occurred but usually has no clear differentiation. “An issue is only known by the project team” can be a tongue-in-cheek but very useful description. A team resolving an issue on its own is clearly preferable to it having a wider visibility and the involvement of others. Any hiker wants to overcome issues or injuries on his own rather than become a problem for a search and rescue team. A carefully considered plan made under controlled conditions should always be followed instead of the desire under stressful conditions to “push just a little farther,” when good judgment may be compromised. The project manager, or backpacker, must adhere to the response plans previously made. Difficult hikes are planned with bailout routes, go/no-go decision points where an alternate trail can be taken to avoid a severe risk or terminate the trip altogether. Likewise, projects should have phase or stage gates built in where critical deliverables are verified and validated before proceeding. Cancelling a hike or a project should not necessarily be seen as failure; only by constantly measuring the return on investment can we be sure of proceeding down the right trail.
Measures of success need to be clearly established early in the project and used during closing. Any safely completed trip is a good trip, even if compromises were made. If completed safely and all the goals were met, it can be considered a great trip. This may be more lenient an assessment than most project teams are allowed, but good practice dictates that meeting the defined scope, time and cost baselines inside the allowable tolerances should define a successful project (Kinser, 2006). Too often organizations see any deficiencies in these as failure. The ultimate test of any stakeholder's satisfaction is to simply ask, “Would you do this hike [project] again?”
Leave no trace is the modern approach to spending time in the wilderness. The adage take only memories and leave only footprints is a distillation of seven core principles that form the framework for ethics in the outdoors (Leave no trace). Likewise, the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct guides us on a parallel path for projects. We should take only the deliverables and lessons learned from our projects and leave the surrounding projects, organization and all external environments in as good, or better, shape than we found them.
About the time you finish doing something, you know enough to start. We end a hike the way we began it, by emptying the pack. In the search for lessons leaned, we examine every item in detail and ask one key question: “Did I use it?” If the answer is no, then we must seriously consider cutting the item from our load for the next trip. The only exception to this rule is the first aid kit for a hike, or the risk response plan and reserves for a project. If these last items were not used, we can consider ourselves lucky but must not become lax in our risk management. In project work we must apply the same discipline to all of our inputs, tools and techniques, and processes. An objective examination must be made of every process and document, asking not only did I use it, but also did it yield sufficient value for the burden it imposed? A hammock is a wonderful thing for enjoying a break at the end of an arduous day, but if used only one hour on one evening, was it worth carrying those 14 ounces for seven days over 50 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain? (See Exhibit 4.) Only through the ruthless application of the “less is more” ethic can we hope to improve our performance.
Gathering lessons learned without active transitioning of the knowledge is one of the most common sins committed by organizations. Examining the backpacking trip again, if we leave the hammock in our pack at the end of this hike, we may find it there, unused, at the end of the next. If we note a frayed strap on a pack or ripped netting in a tent, but don't fix it now, we may be cursing the loss of our sleeping pad or swatting mosquitoes on the next hike. Only by trimming the bloated process, editing the incorrect form or notifying all project teams of an encountered risk can we efficiently make use of our lessons learned.
By adopting the “less is more” mindset of a backpacker, a project manager can impact every aspect of a project in a way that will increase efficiency and the likelihood of success. (See Exhibit 5.) By using the concepts in this paper a practitioner should be able to accomplish the following:
- Think like a backpacker when selecting projects in light of opportunity costs.
- Apply the “less is more” ethic to every aspect of a project, from initiating though closing.
- Start execution on the right foot by maintaining the vision.
- Adopt a rigorous control mindset to defend the project from unnecessary change.
- Use lessons learned efficiently by transitioning the knowledge immediately.
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© 2008, John Kinser, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Sydney, Australia