Sunday, July 5, 2009

A "Car Talk" puzzler becomes a lesson in Risk ID

One of my favorite radio shows is "Car Talk" on NPR (National Public Radio in the US). You don't have to be in the US to receive it, by the way. You can get their podcasts free of charge at .

Car Talk is a show which is incredibly entertaining even though it is made up mainly of people calling up the two hosts seeking help with car troubles. The hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also often have a "puzzler" or brain teaser, usually related to auto maintenance or something to do with cars. This most recent one, however, reminded me that we can learn a thing or two about project management wherever we are, even if it is listening to a podcast while sitting at a beach on Cape Cod Bay.

I suggest you read the transcript below and do two things:

1. See if you can solve the Puzzler

2. See if you can catch the connection to Risk Identification (answers below - DON'T CHEAT!)


RAY: Hi, we're back. You're listening to Car Talk with us, Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, and we're here to talk about cars, car repair, and of course, the answer to last week's puzzler.

TOM: Yes, the dimly lit Quonset hut.

RAY: Anyway, this was sent to us by someone named Tom Clemala from cyberspace, I guess, and I'll set the scene. You ready?

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: It's just as he did.

TOM: As he did. Go ahead.

RAY: Don't get too excited. The answer's not that good.

TOM: I love it. But the question is great.

RAY: An RAF airfield north of London, a dimly lit Quonset hut, filled with air crews just returned from bombing runs over Germany.

TOM: Dimly lit Quonset Hut.

RAY: All right, shut up will you? The meeting opens with the chaplain leading the men in prayer for their lost comrades. He's followed by the flight operations exec., who begins the debriefing by asking the airmen, "From what direction were you attacked by the German fighter planes?" Without hesitation or dissent, the reply was, "From above and behind." The flight operations exec hastily scribbles the information on the back of a top secret map, hands it to a junior officer and says, "Get this information to the departing air crews; it may save their lives."

TOM: Here comes the good part. This is the good part.

RAY: As the junior officer turns to leave the dimly lit Quonset hut, from the inky shadows, a hand grasps his arm.

TOM: Can you just see it, man? Was it Humphrey Bogart?

RAY: This was a nice, brief little puzzler, before you started repeating all the lines. Anyway, as the messenger turns to leave, from the inky shadows, a hand grasps his arm and he hears these words, hold that order. Or, hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't. Hold that order, the information you're about to give may lose lives, rather than save them. What did the guy from the inky shadows know that the flight exec didn't?

TOM: That's not the right question.

RAY: It isn't?

TOM: Well, I bet, I don't think. I mean doesn't the flight exec know the same information that this guy in the inky shadows knows?

RAY: Well, he should.

TOM: He should.

RAY: What mistake did the flight exec?

TOM: Yeah, that's better.

RAY: What mistake did the flight exec?

TOM: Exactly, and did he lose his job over it?

RAY: No. He should have.

TOM: He should have, huh?

RAY: Yeah, well.

TOM: You don't know the answer, by the way.

RAY: Basically, it was a case of poor sampling. You see the only information that the flight exec had in the dimly lit Quonset hut.

TOM: Stop it, stop it.

RAY: Was from the guys who survived, from the guys who came back. The guys who came back were all attacked from above and behind, but it may be that those weren't the fatal attacks. The fatal attacks were from some other direction, and those people, those airmen, had no advice to offer, because they didn't come back.

TOM: Exactly.

RAY: So that's why --

TOM: So, we don't even know what he wrote on the back on the map.

RAY: I'm assuming he wrote hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, the attacks are coming from above and behind.

TOM: Back and to the left.

RAY: When, in fact, that information --

TOM: What he wanted to know was the information from the guys who weren't at the meeting.

Did you guess the answer?

And did you see the connection to Project Management? Here, at least, is what I saw.

We need to identify a full contingent of people to interview when discovering (identifying) risk on our projects. Hopefully we don't face the same issue here, in which the identified risks are missed because of fatal incidents. The point is that we need to look for the identification of risk to come from a full spectrum of sources or we end up with Risk Identification bias.

In your projects, make this analogy. Think of where you may be getting information that's simply too optimistic (or pessimistic) because the folks who might have that information simply are not present and accounted for.

And for goodness sake, listen to at least one episode of Car Talk!


Josh said...

I love that show Rich.

It's a good lesson, and it's important to be able to elicit risk identification at various levels and in different functional groups.

I have found that developers tend to come up with technical risks fairly easily, and the assessment of them usually needs to be tempered by someone who has a complete view of all risk on the project.

Managers think in terms of programmatic risk and may need to be brought back to an actionable, technical definition of the risk that can actually be dealt with.

With scientists it can be like pulling teeth. They don't want to deal with risk management.


Josh Nankivel

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