Complete on time, know the risks

A lesson I learned  in knowing when to press on and when to back down.

Some years ago I was part of a group that climbed Mt Whitney every summer. Mt Whitney is the tallest peak in the continental US at 14,449 ft.  Though not hardest to climb, it still requires considerable effort and planning to get on top. One year we were camped at 12,000 ft, preparing to summit the mountain the next day. Camped near us was a group from Australia that we got to know a bit around the cooking stove.  Early the next morning we climbed up to a ledge known as Trail Crest, then followed the trail behind of Mt Muir, around Keller Needle and onto the summit of Mt Whitney, arriving about 9:30 in the morning.  A few other groups were  on top with us, but we had not seen the Australians all morning.

As we enjoyed the view from the top, a small cloud appeared above us, the result of moisture beginning to stream in from the distant Pacific ocean.  As we watched the cloud began to grow rapidly, and  everyone decided it was time to leave.  We followed the trail back down to Keller Needle, out to Mt Muir, and at Trail Crest we met the Australian group just coming up.  By this point the clouds over Mt Whitney were large and threatening.  We, and other groups, advised the Australians not to go on.  But they had traveled so far, planned the trip for so long, that they felt this had to be the day they went to the summit.  No matter what.  They continued up the trail.

By the time we arrived at 12,000 ft, it was snowing, and thunder was echoing around the canyons.  We continued to hike, getting down to 9,000 feet where it turned to rain for the rest of the day and most of the night.

The next morning was bright and clear.  Early on as we began our hike out, we met a Search and Rescue team heading up the trail.  They were going to get the Australians, who had been stuck on the summit during the storm.  Talking later that morning to a Forest Service Ranger, we learned only part of the team had survived, while some lost their lives to the storm.

The lesson:  Projects can often feel important. There can be huge pressure to complete, to “go live” on a particular day, to finish “on time”.  And there can be penalties, often financial, for not meeting a milestone or completion date.  But no matter how big the project, there is always an option to delay.  The Australian hikers could have turned back, and tried another day, or even another trip.  Would it have been “expensive”? yes.  Would it have been a better option than being struck by lightning? yes.  The Australian group hiked with blinders on, not understanding the true risks, or evaluating all their options.

When pressure to complete “on time” gets high,  project managers need to keep their heads, know the cost of delay, and the risks of continuing.

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