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ProjectManagement 101.1-TheEarliestResponsibleMoment

all promises are implicitly contingent."

'Projects' exist as networks of explicit commitments, promises to produce something within some time frame. These promises might be represented as tasks on a timeline schedule, but often exist as no more than verbal agreements. Even when a promise is responsibly made, by which I mean uncoerced, it represents no guarantee, but rather a statement of good intentions. Good intentions might not even qualify as necessary but certainly can't be sufficient to assure expected delivery, and everyone should properly acknowledge this inescapable fact. By agreeing to fulfill the assignment, an individual commits to two apparent contradictions: 1) They confirm that they believe themselves capable of delivering as expected and 2) They agree to renege upon that promise at The Earliest Responsible Moment, which means just as soon as they realize that they probably cannot make the expected delivery.

The Earliest Responsible Moment will not come after weeks of painstakingly pretending that they have not blown the opportunity to deliver as expected.
As painful as it might feel, and it usually always feels painful to report that one has lost an opportunity to deliver as expected, the contributor avoids playing schedule chicken or protecting others (including them self) from the truth, however apparently ugly. They simply report that what they'd earlier believed possible no longer appears to be possible. 'Project' etiquette insists that the disappointed 'project' manager receive each such renege with a heartfelt, "Thank You!" because the alternative could have only been worse. If the impending missed delivery had not been reported until just before (or just after), or even on the expected delivery date, the 'project' as a whole might well have proven incapable of recovering from the shortfall. The Earliest Responsible Moment ethic preserves the possibility for recovery.

When ProjectManagement101 insists that all promises are implicitly contingent, it means that the greatest ongoing risk facing every 'project' might well be each contributor's good intentions. The network of explicit commitments comprising every 'project' simply must remain fresh and viable. A few promises will quite naturally prove unworkable and a 'project' can figure ways around these disappointments, but only if they can be recognized early. The stoic solidarity encouraging someone to silently stick with a sinking possibility stands as a continuing genuine threat to the effort as a whole. The social and psychological barriers to honestly reporting the current state of prior commitments cannot be overestimated. If the commitment was coerced, the payback will likely come in the form of a dog that simply does not bark and a clue that came too late to adjust course before a collision.

All this sounds theoretically fine, but where might a 'project' find contributors capable of such humbling engagement? Who will explicitly agree to such terms and conditions as a condition of continuing engagement? Most will bring their well-hewn obfuscation skills, unconvinced as they deep-down personally feel about their own professional competence. Won't their cohorts suspect their dedication to the effort if they exhibit anything but continuing public confidence in their own ability to deliver as promised? Won't their boss, at review time, whittle a nick or two out of their reputation by recounting the times they reported, at The Earliest Responsible Moment, that they'd lost faith in their own ability to produce as promised?

In practice, 'projects' operate as little viper pits with all the petty jealousies and thin-skinned bravado found anywhere. We bring ourselves with us whether we're conscripted to serve or whole-heartedly volunteer. We play the usual games with each other and might never even catch ourselves being ourselves, as preconsciously as we engage. When the 'Project' Manager encourages us to play The Earliest Responsible Moment Game, we can see where that might get us, which seems like —nowhere fast. So we'll stifle when we're asked if we're still good for delivering by that date. We'll privately smirk when some precedent task slips, allowing us to lurk a little longer without reporting that we're slipping too, and if The Small Gods smile down upon us, nobody need ever know that we wouldn't have delivered without disrupting progress if that task before us had not slipped first.

Later, we might wonder how the effort as a whole could have ended up delivering a whole half year later than intended, secure in the knowledge that our reputation didn't take the hit. It was those other guys. The ones who noticeably slipped their schedule that caused the schedule as a whole to slip so far. Keep telling yourself that story just as long as you can believe it's true.

My appreciation to Gregory Howell who as far as I know coined the term The Earliest Responsible Moment.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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