Plan Analysis: Ideas, Inspection and Intuition

In my posting Know what you're doing (Part III) I introduced the concept of engineering a plan. One of the key steps in engineering, plans or products, is analysis.

This is the fourth in the series of analytical techniques for plans, and includes three fairly simple items to finish out the list: Ideas, Inspection and Intuition.

Ideas

As a young engineer, fresh out of college, I recall getting a small project from my boss. I worked on it for a while and then got stuck. I struggled with a specific problem for a day or two, at which point I felt defeated. In disgust, I went back to my boss to tell him I couldn't handle the task. He was upset, to say the least. "Why didn't you ask me earlier?" he asked. He already knew the answer. Engineering is not a college test or term project. He told me that the best engineers are often lazy, and lazy engineers borrow (Copy? Steal?) ideas from others. It's more efficient to find a solution that already exists and works well, instead of inventing a new solution for every problem. In school, you're rewarded for doing your own work and not copying from others; in engineering, you're rewarded for copying as much as possible.

When working on a plan, getting ideas and information from others, especially more experienced people, is important. There are many ways to get ideas -- reading others' work, asking, brainstorming. Just don't feel like you have to solve planning issues in a vacuum.

Inspection

Everyone makes mistakes. We're human. We forget things. We're not always thorough. We don't always think everything through. Every process must assume human error, and work to ensure that the cost of human error is minimized.

When engineering a product, it is common to invite peer engineers to inspect the design. Another engineer may look at a design and identify logic flaws, raise questions about the design's tolerance to errors, or just ask questions that cause the author to re-think his own work. When engineering a plan, we should have a process to invite peer project leads to inspect the plan. Like a code walk-through or a schematic page-turner, the plan author and inspectors should walk through the deliverables, tasks and measurements that make up the plan.

In my blog postings, you may have noticed I avoid the the word "reviews" and instead use "inspections." The reason is partially semantic: Dictionary.com, for example, defines "inspect" as, "to look carefully at"; while "review" can mean, "a general survey of something." When you hold a "review" participants may feel invited to casually scan the material; when you hold an "inspection" participants tend to feel more of an onus to pay close attention and review the material in fine detail. [In a later posting I'll blog about an effective inspection process.]

Beware that your boss (manager, marketing, venture capitalist) is not a peer. Your boss's goal may be to encourage you to reduce cost and reduce time to market, while also increasing product features and holding firm on quality. That's their role -- to try to get more for less. The project lead's role, on the other hand, is to engineer a realistic and achievable plan. On several occasions I've had project leads come to me when their manager has told them that a plan's schedule was too long, and they needed to pull it in. They naively believed their manager was trying to help come up with a better plan. They weren't; they were trying to get the plan to align with some other strategic milestone. If the project lead has done a good engineering job on the plan -- they've done their analysis, used independent methods like CoCoMo to confirm their measurements, and have had peers inspect their plan -- then the only response to their manage should be: If you want to reduce the schedule, we either need to add people or drop features.

Intuition

My definition of intuition is: A subconscious analytical process based on historical data and personal experiences. In other words, when that little voice in the back of your head tells you something is wrong, it's probably because you subconsciously have analyzed the situation and found a problem. The trick is getting your subconscious to cough-up the details.

The subconscious is a powerful analytical engine. Years ago I worked at a videoconferencing company and learned about lip-sync -- the degree to which the audio (a person's voice) is synchronized with the video (a person's lips). If the audio and video are out of sync, even by small amounts, most people can not identify the problem, but their subconscious reacts; they feel discomfort, stress or nausea (in my case, it was the last). For an example analysis, see Effects of Audio-Video Asynchrony on Viewer's Memory, Evaluation of Content and Detection Ability. Interestingly, people can tolerate when the audio lags the video by up to 45 milliseconds, but they are bothered when the audio leads the video by as little as 10 milliseconds. This is probably because the human brain has learned that sound travels slower than light, so it is normal to see motion first, then hear the associated audio. But it is completely unnatural to hear the audio first, and this causes the brain to rebel. Subconsciously, the brain processes the auditory and visual stimuli, determines what is appropriate and not appropriate, and notifies the rest of the body that something is very, very wrong.

Similarly, a person with significant experience may look at a project plan and feel uncomfortable, stressed or even nauseous, but not be able to identify the problem. When you ask them what's wrong, they might say, "I don't know. It just doesn't feel right." It's tempting to ignore their comments, but I've learned that what they're really saying is, "My subconscious is using my many years of experience to analyze your project plan, and it's finding major issues, but I don't know yet how to verbalize the results of that analysis."

How can you help the person identify the real issue that their subconscious is flagging? Using the audio/video lip-sync analogy, you might cover up all except part of the screen, and ask if this corner of the image is bothersome. If not, repeat the process using another portion of the screen. Eventually when you uncover the lips, and the audio is not perfectly synchronized, the person will immediately feel discomfort. And with their attention focused on the lips, they will consciously recognize the lip-sync problem. The same can be done with a plan. Draw the person's attention to the high-level list of deliverables. Is this the problem? If not, ask about the detailed tasks and deliverables, the staffing, the schedule, the risk remediation and contingency plans, the list of required equipment and space needs. Hopefully, once the person's attention is drawn to a specific area, they will be able to verbalize their specific concerns.

Trust your own intuition, especially if it has a good track record. And trust the intuition of those who have been successful in the past.


Other Plan Analysis Techniques:
Copyright 2007, Robert J. Hueston. All rights reserved.
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