The visual of Obama’s Beast getting stuck on a speed hump recently was a hilarious sight. Here you have world’s most-secure car caught completely off-guard by a tiny speed hump! The visuals told a sad tale when the car literally came to an abrupt halt – the belly hinging on the speed hump and front and the rear wheels on either side of the hump. Is that how Murphy trumps your best-run projects?
One thing I have learnt over the years is after you plan every detail meticulously, and track the execution closely, when you get close to the showtime – always do a ‘dry-run’ with the entire team to make sure every single detail is executed through as it would on the day of showtime, every contingency thread is covered to make sure the response mechanism will be as per the plan should there be an emergency. While I am sure Obama’s team must have done such dry-runs (and even actual runs) over a dozen time in preparation of his Ireland visit, obviously, something got left out and the result was there for everyone to see!
Dry runs are also known as pilot tests, or fire drills, or many other esoteric names. Irrespective of what we call them, the idea is to walk through the entire sequence of operations on a drawing board. When you crowdsource the process of dry run, the effect is even better, because what one mind misses, the other one catches, and collectively many minds can almost always find a better solution than even the brightest mind working alone can find.
Why are dry-runs so important? For one, it exposes the chinks in your planning that might not ever crop up until the actual execution begins. For example, you are planning for an outdoor event and might have factored-in rains during the initial stages of planning the event. However, over the next several months of planning rest of the event, you might lose track of your backup plan if there is rain. This might appear very trivial, but I have often seen some of the best laid-out plans ignoring some of the most trivial factors. Bryan Adams’s show in Delhi earlier this year had to be cancelled simply because the organizers failed to secure a no-objection certificate from Delhi Police for the show! Bangalore decided to move out its airport some 40kms out of town, but forgot to plan its connectivity with the city – Bangalore Metro is still more of an afterthought, if it at all connects us to the airport some day! When it comes to military, the good old motto of ‘the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’ still holds true. Every practice, fire drill or dry run allows the team to go back and review their execution and make it little better than the last time.
Another reason is that during a rather long project (say 4-5 months or more), it is likely that the some of the folks who were involved in project risk assessment and planning at start of the project are not there anymore. The new people on project might know the project plans and documents just like anyone else on the project, but might not understand the semantics of why a particular decision was made, and what all options were considered before being discarded (and why). A dry-run can make sure everyone is quickly brought on the same page.
As anyone who has ever undertaken any meaningful creative endeavor knows, the hindsight is always 20/20. We often start project planning with fog around us, and gradually things become more and more clear (and quite often, they become embarrassingly obvious). The assumptions and plans need to change accordingly. A dry-run makes sure we have adapted our plans to the latest situation on ground.
The other day, I was boarding a flight. One of the pilots, an expat woman in mid-forties, was chatting up with the ground staff as they went about fueling and the final pre-flight checks. She seemed genuinely concerned over something and insisted on getting the answer. Of course, I could only watch their body language and gesticulations from the distance – and had just about 15-20 seconds before I boarded the plane. It was not a superjumbo – in fact, was an ATR72. Why was she taking an extraordinary amount of interest to get her queries addressed? I might never know the real answer, but I think she was going through the entire pre-flight sequence in her mind and wanted to be sure of every single detail. Maybe she was new to the airlines, or new to the airport, or was working with that crew for the first time – whatever the reason; I felt she was leaving nothing to chance.
Some people think a dry-run is akin to waterfall thinking, and hence must be avoided like plague. I am a non-believer in such compartmentalized thinking, and hold the view that anything that helps improve your ability to get desired results faster, better and cheaper should be embraced without any prejudice. While a big upfront planning sets the pace for rest of the project, a dry run makes sure it allows you to adjust those very plans based on last-minute changes as well as the learnings from execution so far.
In software development, it is common to build ‘prototype’ to mimic the actual user behavior. Especially for something new, like building a game for new interfaces like iPad or Kinect, you can’t get a feel of it until you have placed the app in hands of a user so that he can play with it. No amount of paper documentation will ever be enough to get a feel of how human-machine interaction would be on some of these new-age interfaces. In aviation industry, especially military aviation, it is very common to build the prototype and do an increasing amount of testing on them before proceeding with the mass production.
In my view, dry runs ensure that you don’t run dry!