“Failure is not an option.”
Mission Control spoke those famous words in the quest to save the crew of Apollo 13, at least if you believe what you see in the movies. We remember that phrase – and believe in it – because the project team did not fail.
How do we deal with incipient project failure in the world of legal projects, however? It’s instructive to explore some of the difference – and similarities – between our projects and Apollo 13’s return from the moon.
Recognition of Impending Doom
Few project failures are as easy to recognize as Apollo 13’s. An explosion, even a small one, will get your attention, let alone an explosion in a space capsule.
Legal projects rarely come with flashing warning lights and abnormal telemetry readings, though there may be occasional explosions from a client, partner, or judge.
On Apollo 13 there was likely little lag between the alarm and the recognition that something was wrong, probably very seriously wrong.
Both those on the ground and those moon-bound were professionals used to dealing with trouble. They had no difficulty accepting that they were facing a problem. Any denial phase lasted seconds at most.
Project leaders often have so much personal investment in the project’s success that they remain in denial far too long. (The converse is the project leader who cries wolf daily, which will put the rest of the team into denial when real problems arise.)
Lesson 1: Be honest about problems. Minimize the denial stage when serious threats to the project arise.
The Single-Point Failure
Apollo 13 had what is known as a single-point failure, where a breakdown of a single part could jeopardize the mission/project. (Single points of failure are extremely rare in many-lives-at-stake systems today, such as commercial aircraft, but the cramped Apollo platform had little room for – or experience with – redundant or fault-tolerant systems. To get extremely picky, it wasn’t a single failure in that multiple components were involved, but it presented – and was perforce treated as – a single-point failure. Also, that single failure cascaded into multiple problems. Like the movie, I focus here on the most immediate, the ongoing rise in carbon dioxide toward fatal levels.)
Legal projects rarely have single-point failures. When they do, they’re unlikely to be recognized as they happen; spotting them in the rear-view mirror can help you fix them only on the next project.
That said, they do occur. Your putative client does not actually possess the decision-making authority he claims. The judge won’t overlook your dilatory e-discovery tactics. Your project-critical resource gets pulled onto another matter. The budget numbers or schedule are such that you can’t even pretend to meet them.
If you have a single-point failure, stop. Deal with it immediately. It won’t go away if you ignore it. It won’t get better with age.
Lesson 2: Attack single-point failures as soon as you recognize them.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
The Apollo 13 team shared the news with their colleagues a) immediately and b) calmly.
When you have confirmed that you’re facing a project threat, neither keep it to yourself nor panic.
Lesson 3: Inform the team about the problem calmly and quickly. And ask for their help.
Up All Night
The Mission Control team attacked the problem nonstop, full-time, eschewing sleep. Just like lawyers often do.
Be aware, though, that lack of sleep can cause us to engage in sloppy work and muddy thinking. (It can also unlock creativity – occasionally.)
Few legal project problems can be solved in a couple of days. Don’t work around the clock if that’s not the case. You’ll bill a bunch of hours, but you won’t be doing your best work.
Lesson 4: Plan how to use your time effectively in responding to project problems.
Life or Death
Legal problems are rarely life-or-death in a literal sense, unless you’re filing a death-row appeal. Respect your team. You and they are in it for the long haul.
The Apollo 13 team built a solution out of duct tape and tubing, what technical folks call a kluge (usually pronounced to rhyme with rouge, and a great word to add to the non-technical vocabulary). They saw no shame in using such quotidian materials for unintended purposes. Indeed, the team took pride afterwards in the unexpectedness of the solution.
When you encounter a problem, don’t fear inelegant solutions. The only criteria that matter are whether it works and whether you’re remaining within ethical guidelines.
Lesson 5: An ugly solution that works is worth more than a pretty attempt that fails.
Duct Tape and WD-40
Was it luck that the Apollo 13 team had duct tape on board?
Nah. Every physical-world project manager understands that the two most important substances known to Homo sapiens are duct tape and WD-40, one to stick together that which has become uncoupled, the other to free that which is stuck.
You, the project manager, must be both the duct tape and the WD-40 of legal projects.
In the next article I’ll write more about learning from project failures, in order to minimize them on your own projects.