PM Articles > Kent McDonald > Hawaii Uh-Oh

Hawaii Uh-Oh

by Kent McDonald

There is an inherent danger in writing about your job on a regular basis—you begin dissecting everything that happens in your life and try to apply it to a lessons learned in that particular field. Experiences on trips seem to be an exceptionally easy target for these lessons learned stories. I mention this downside because I am about to use my recent vacation to Hawaii to discuss risk management, and managing scope and schedule changes when things go bad . . . well, let's say, when things stray from the plan.

Getting There is Half the Battle

My wife and I were on the second of our four flights on the way to Kauai the Friday before Valentine's Day when I heard one of those things you never want to hear over the loudspeaker of an airplane. "If there is anyone on the plane who is a nurse, doctor, or paramedic, please identify yourself by ringing your flight attendant call button, we have some questions for you." That sparked the following series of events:

  • A fellow passenger was having a medical emergency. I do not know all the details, and I will spare you the few I do know since I am munching on popcorn as I write this.
  • Our plane landed in Denver to get this passenger medical attention.
  • Our plane then landed at Los Angeles, already an hour late, and spent another 30 minutes waiting for airport staff to figure out how to work the jet bridge.
  • Passengers continuing on to Honolulu took the layover time in Los Angeles to call on their connecting inter-island flights from Honolulu. We all found out that a popular thing to do in Hawaii on Valentine's Day weekend is to be on any island other than Oahu. All inter-island flights on our airline were booked for the rest of Friday and all day Saturday.
  • We landed in Hawaii 2 hours late, and despite what seemed like a brilliant divide-and-conquer strategy, discovered that every flight on every airline was in fact full until Sunday.
  • We found a hotel on Waikiki beach that had rooms available (probably because everyone was heading to Kauai) and checked in there to regroup and figure out what to do.

Now I realize that few people reading this will feel sorry for me. There are many places much worse to be stuck than Honolulu, especially since we were coming from Iowa and just missed the 19th snowstorm of the season. All the same, this was a serious impact to our travel "project." We were going to miss out on two nights at the condo we had rented (pre-paid), on top of which we would have to pay to change our flights. (It wasn't our connecting airline's fault that our Los Angeles flight didn't land on time.) Because of this large impact, and because this is an article on a project management website, I thought it could be informative to dissect this from a project manager's viewpoint.

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

I did not do a formal risk assessment of the trip—I am not that obsessed about applying project management to everyday life. But I did consider the risks involved in travel when I was making my plans, based on past experience. The mere act of taking four flights on two airlines through Minneapolis in the winter would seem to be fraught with risk. My risk mitigation strategy was to ensure that we had what seemed like sufficient time between connecting flights, and to make sure that the last leg was not on the last flight of the day. That approach had always worked for me in the past, so I figured I was relatively safe. Also, when I considered these risks, I considered the risk was that a flight was delayed. I did not get hung up on why a particular flight was delayed because regardless of the cause of the delay the impact on the project—my trip—is effectively the same.

While this risk mitigation strategy has always worked for me in the past, this time it failed miserably. My wife and I were left to develop a contingency plan on the fly. Luckily, we had about five hours to ponder the situation as we flew over the Pacific Ocean. (Although, much to my annoyance, my wife was formulating and running ideas past me as I was trying to sleep.) We identified a series of options and an order in which we would explore them, starting with checking all of the inter-island airlines for available flights when we arrived in Honolulu, and ultimately finding a decent hotel at which to stay the two nights until we could get to Kauai. We had to establish some criteria for evaluating our options, including the relative importance of our constraints. Cost was not a fixed constraint, which allowed us more options, and also allowed us to stay a nice hotel on Waikiki Beach (although sharing our sob story did help us get a fairly good rate at the hotel).

Just Another Day in Paradise

So there we were, unexpectedly spending two nights in Honolulu. We got up the next morning and surveyed the situation. May as well make the best of it, we reasoned. I am a big history buff, and had always wanted to visit Pearl Harbor, but had not had a chance in our previous two visits to Hawaii. My wife and I are also avid hikers, and it turned out that our hotel was within walking distance of Diamond Head.

If the outcomes delivered by the trip were measured based on enjoyment, the overall value of the project was reduced because we were not able to enjoy our rented condo and sit on the beach or hike on the Garden Isle. However by changing our scope and enjoying experiences we hadn't originally planned on, we were able to take advantage of the opportunities presented by a negative risk that came to fruition, including seeing a very important place in American history and giving my wife an opportunity to prove that she's in much better shape them I am while we scaled Diamond Head.

Extending the Metaphor, but Not the Vacation

Of course, another benefit of our adventures getting to Kauai is that I was provided with a set of great metaphors to discuss some of the finer points of project management. I'll sum those up, so I can resist the urge to extend the metaphor to the point of absurdity.

  • Focus on the important risks on your project and establish plans for addressing them, but don't waste effort parsing out root causes that have no impact on your approach.
  • Expect that some of your plans for addressing risks will fall through and you will have to enact one or more contingency plans. It's best to have those contingency plans established beforehand, but don't be surprised if you have to determine contingencies on the spot, especially if you discover key pieces of information that change your initial approach to the risk.
  • Understand the relative flexibility of your constraints when considering different contingency plans. In my vacation scenario, my wife and I were willing to spend a little bit of money to be comfortable while we were inconvenienced, which opened up more possibilities and allowed us to focus on options that would get us to Kauai sooner.
  • Scope and outcome are not the same thing. Outcomes are the results of the project—how the world is different as a result of the project compared to how it was before. Scope is the list of deliverables or activities required to deliver the desired outcomes. In the case of the trip, the outcome was enjoyment and relaxation and the scope was what we did to experience enjoyment and relaxation.
  • Different scope items can lead to the same outcome, just via different means. If you are focused on the desired outcome when you start the project, you give yourself a lot more flexibility on how you arrive at that outcome. In other words, start a project with the problem you are trying to solve instead of fixating on a particular solution.

When I went back to work (the day after arriving home nine hours later than planned—a story for a different article) I found myself telling people that our vacation was "great once I got there, until we had to come home." I'm sure that as time passes I will remember the great times I had when I was actually in Kauai, and the interesting project management lessons learned along the way. Aloha.

Related Links
Kent may not be obsessive about applying project management techniques to everyday life, but some of us are. If you need some ideas for brainstorming project risks (on the clock or off), consider our Project Risk Checklist. When considering the difference between scope and outcomes, keep the bottom-line requirements in mind. (This case study may help.)

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

As we say in Argentina (paraphrased) - "In the ironmongers house they eat with wooden chopsticks."
I think this story serves well to show how excellent PMs in a business environment seem to leave their toolbag at home once they leave the office. I've experienced many similar situations myself and learnt that the world at large is simply riddled with many unknowns that I will live freely in such..and keep my PM skills for the smaller office environment.
Thanks for sharing.

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