Friday, June 23, 2017

Respond and Act With Agility

photo by Emilie Reutenauer; permission to reuse under terms of GNU Free Documentation License
and under CreativeCommons

While frequent communication has a vital role in the early identification of problems, coping with unexpected events often demands quick action. Certainly, project managers may need to use creative improvisations to quickly deal with such events. In fact, Brian Muirhead, who was responsible for the development and launch of the Mars Pathfinder flight system, had this to say: “Everybody understands the need for a plan…. But in a world of Faster, Better, Cheaper, improvising should be seen as an inseparable part of planning, the other half of a complete process.1" However, most unexpected events faced by today’s project managers are not associated with extreme contexts and constraints requiring excessive improvisation (for more on the importance of improvisation, see our blog story from September 2014. What they do require are immediate and agile responses.

During our consulting work with numerous construction project managers, we watched them repetitively respond with agility and take immediate actions to cope with unexpected events that frequently plagued their projects. Here are four brief examples:

The blackout curtains to be installed in a large hospital were supposed to hang somewhere between 1/16" and 1/4" off the floor. In several rooms, the curtains were not meeting the requirement because the floor was not level. After discussing the problem with the project's carpenter, the project manager decided that the inconsistent curtain height could be compensated for by using metal beaded chains and connectors. After receiving approval from the client, the project manager made a quick trip to the local retail store and purchased the parts needed to complete the fix. The issue was resolved in less than four hours.

The steel supplier fabricated the support steel for some air-handling units using outdated drawings. The steel arrived on-site before the mistake was caught. The project manager was left with two choices: Send it back and have the supplier fix the mistake (at no cost), or have the team members fix it in the field. The project manager, along with his superintendent, decided that even though fixing the mistake on-site would cost the team a few hours of extra labor, it was preferable to waiting several days until replacements arrived from the supplier.

The drawings of the equipment did not arrive when expected. The electrical contractor was threatening to stop all his underground rough-in until the information was received. Stopping all the work would have had a serious impact on the schedule. The team met on-site to review what information was still missing. Based on this information, the project manager decided to install junction boxes at the perimeter of the equipment rooms so that a majority of the work could continue, leaving the rooms to be roughed in at a later date.

The plumbing contractor was told to install 1.6 gallons-per-flush toilets in the building. After the original decision to use these toilets had been made, the owner hired a new sustainability manager, who wanted lower-flow toilets instead. There were concerns with the functionality of the lower-flow toilets, so the project manager recommended installing a mock-up of each type of toilet. After testing the mock-up, everyone was in agreement on the preferred fixture. Using the mock-up to resolve the concerns allowed them to avoid a schedule impact.

Why is it crucial to take fast action to resolve such problems? Due to the organizational structure of projects, in which tasks are tightly interconnected, when unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks may also be quickly impacted. For example, affected contractors may decide to move their workforces to other projects, making it difficult to bring them back on time once the problem is resolved.

To be successful in practicing responsive agility, a project manager must operate within an organizational culture that acknowledges the unavoidability of unexpected events. According to Steve Kerr, Chief Learning Officer of General Electric, “The future is moving so quickly that you can’t anticipate it…. We have put a tremendous emphasis on quick response…. We will continue to be surprised, but we won’t be surprised that we are surprised.”


1.                   Muirhead, B. and Simon, W.L. High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. 1999, New York: HarperBusiness: p. 193.

2.                   Malhotra, Y. “Knowledge management for organizational white waters: an ecological framework.Knowledge Management 1999; 2(1): p. 18-21.