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Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do

Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do (how to get the 'mechanics of the delivery' right).  By Francesca Valli, Change Management Thought-Leader.

It is essential to establish delivery structures that can withstand the risks and issues that befall projects, the project-earthquakes that will inevitably strike. There’s a refrain in the world of seismic hazard preparedness: earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. Projects of transformation fail because the ‘mechanics of the delivery’ is malfunctioning, governance weak, business change management inexistent, all affected by bad planning. As Italian geologist Mario Tozzi says1 , ‘there’s a link between disaster tolls and bad planning’.

I operate in the delivery space of large programmes of work set up to implement business technology. My writing comes from the lessons I have learnt on these programmes of transformation. Elsewhere I have written about the change management plan and the activities to be carried out within the business operations by the ‘acceptance group’ where impact assessment and readiness criteria are critical input. Here I address the plan to be in place across the delivery teams, technology, external partners, from definition to implementation.

In this article – Part 3 on ‘How to fail quickly (and quickly get it right)’ - I will set out the ‘mechanics of the delivery’ that must be put in place for preparedness and to keep projects from failing. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 here.

What are the ‘mechanics of the delivery’?

A good set of planning and control practices, good governance, transparent progress reporting. Is it really that simple? It is. Don’t be blinded by the complexity of project delivery methodologies, the proliferation of which indicates a belief that a method, per se, will guarantee delivery. It will not. You, your team, the ‘mechanics of the delivery’ in place, will deliver a project. This emperor really has no clothes.

A good plan

In Japan, catastrophic events yet to occur are called ‘tokai’ or ‘chokkagata’, concepts which contain an awareness of the future’s inevitability. Through the 2011 earthquake in northern Japan, Mario Tozzi explains, the Japanese ‘exited in an orderly fashion from the skyscrapers that had just stopped swaying like trees in the wind’. Earthquakes are part of national and personal daily planning. Anti-earthquake drills, which in Italy would be contrasted with superstitious rituals, in Japan save lives: ‘when the earth is shaking and panic takes hold, repeating a well-rehearsed routine saves more lives than saying the rosary’.

The analogy might seem stretched. It is not. Think about the multi-million £££ loss to an organisation that a project failure – or a delay – represents, a lack of return on investment neither foreseen nor with a chance of rescue, a financial earthquake, this, awkward to explain, internally or externally.

Yet I am struck by the shallowness of many a project plan: unplanned dependencies, un-resourced activities: none is uncommon. A plan consists of a schedule, the timelines, the ‘Gannt chart’, if you wish, deliverables, milestones, dependencies, resources and budget, with articulated risks and issues and stated assumptions, assembled in a logically consistent whole, with approval granted by the project leadership and by the business leadership.

A robust structure: deliverables, milestones, dependencies

The structure I suggest works equally effectively at portfolio, programme or project level2. None is new or extraordinarily original. Those familiar with a basic project management methodology will recognise what I write. My approach goes a little further in its belief there’s a causal link between an individual project manager or team’s interventions and the project success.


Instigate ‘integrated’ planning sessions with project teams, across workstreams.

Set out the ‘deliverables’, those specific outcomes sought by a project. Each phase will have a fairly defined set of deliverables. Adopt and adapt this pre-existing understanding for completeness. In the test phase, for example, there will typically be a system testing and a user testing phase. These will need to be mapped onto the plan, entry and exit criteria set as milestones, duration calibrated, and resource model agreed.

Set the milestones that will give confidence you are on your way to hit the date by which the outcome is achieved, the more frequently hit the intermediate milestones, the higher the confidence inspired.

Consider the ‘dependencies’ each workstream has on others without which the work gets stuck (without design, one cannot start build, without build one cannot test, without test one cannot implement). Dependencies are where the criticality of cross-planning is best seen. A plan with its own internally consistent logic might not withstand scrutiny once dependencies comes into play – and truly understood dependencies presuppose planning-focused discussions across teams.

Assign accountability for all tasks or activities on the plan: think reasonably in terms of activities’ duration, in a real-world context. ‘Calibrate’ the duration of, say, the user testing phase, by calculating the number of test cases and the resources available to execute them. Remember ‘contingency’!

Resource the plan: as well as ‘loading’ the resources against activities, ensure part-time resources are released to the project. Remember holidays! Have all been taken into account?

Is there a plan B to support unexpected ones? What I have witnessed is an expectation that people are a plentiful resource, heart, mind and body fully dedicated to the project. Do not make this assumption.

Cost the plan: State the underlying assumptions, consider the risks and issues and state their mitigation. I assemble these elements under the ‘control practices’, those structural measures that reinforce the project as metal straps reinforce the walls of ancient buildings to prevent destruction by earthquake… More on this below.

Robust controls practices: budget, risk and issues

You have a plan that articulates deliverables, milestones, dependencies. However, hitting milestones and delivering outcomes but running out of budget is not good, the attitude ‘let’s hit the milestone first and ask for forgiveness later’ is neither prudent nor clever. Be open and honest on budget at all times.

Ultimately a steering board needs reassurance that a plan is sufficiently robust to take the project to completion on time and to budget. For this, controls are key.

Some of the controls cut across budget and resources. This is the case with the ‘estimate-to-complete’ calculations, used to estimate how much more effort is needed to complete the project. The ‘estimate-to-complete’ calculation will provide an understanding of whether, taking into account the effort invested so far as well as the effort yet to be invested, there will be sufficient £ to complete the remaining work.

Approving changes to budget is a key accountability of the steering board and it remains so throughout the lifetime of the project. Review the budget position regularly, within the governance meetings with steering board, to assure that spend is understood and appropriately tracked.

An earthquake like the one in northern Japan would have caused tens of thousands of deaths in Italy. The earthquake that hit L’Aquila, the Italian town on the Apennines, in 2008, where 308 people were killed, wouldn’t even have knocked over a book shelf in Japan. ‘Prevention’, Mario Tozzi again, ‘is the only serious and scientific tool that really works. Instead of going after the delusional idea of a prediction, it would be good to follow the lead of Japan, the country that relies on a centuries-long culture of risk assessment’.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is a critical area of project management, precisely because, through it, the earthquakes that inevitably will strike can be prevented. Yet, within a project, the documentation of risks and issues remains one of the most thankless and under-valued tasks. Even when they have been properly defined, their register tends to languish at the bottom of the project manager’s drawer to be pulled out for last-minute updates ahead of progress reporting. Given the criticality of this tool in driving prevention, this is an amazing state of affair. Do not tolerate it. Below is what you should expect when risks and issues are treated as effective prevention measures.

First of all, the formulation. Setting out risks and issues with the precise formula: ‘there is a risk that…’ ‘there is an issue that…’ forces the originator to assess them appropriately. The second aspect is the ‘mitigation’. The originator must highlight the response in terms of mitigating actions. The third aspect is the assignment of impact and probability. Often a matter of judgement, a consultation with the project leadership, who has visibility of the wider picture, will help the originator remain within appropriate relative boundaries. Finally, review the risks and issues religiously for that well-rehearsed plan of action to kick off when the project-earthquakes strike.

The project leadership must give the steering board the confidence that, apart from those affecting scope, key timelines and significant increase in budget, risks and issues are actively managed and mitigated within the project.

Good governance

There are two aspects to a good governance structure: governance at team level and governance at steering board level.

The former will bring a team together, those key players accountable for the actions on the plan, with regular frequency and the purpose of tracking progress and reviewing the open questions on solutions being delivered. For example, during the design phase, analysts, process owners and solution architects will debate the key decisions that must be made as design is clarified. This governance, then, these ways-of-working, will engender a collaborative attitude as debates give rise to trust, an element that will play a pivotal role in the delivery of the project.

The second aspect refers to the project being governed by a steering board. This board will be composed by the senior leaders of the impacted functions within the organisation. What is helpful to the project manager, here, are the qualitative questions raised by a collaborative steering board working to support delivery, essential elements in the project success. I have written about this elsewhere, the questions suggested short, sharp, concrete and extraordinarily simple. A steering board raising them will keep the project from failure and away from the earthquakes that I have seen come from un-integrated plans, unplanned dependencies or lack of sensible contingency.

At both types of governance meetings, review the progress against the plan and institute a zero tolerance to delays. Address the root cause of delays and roadblocks. Without fail.

Progress reporting

‘Is the project tracking against the plan’? This is the question a sensible progress report sets out to answer. Not ‘which activities has the project undertaken’ but ‘is the project tracking against the plan’, a crucial distinction that sees the plan as the driver of action.

‘Is the project forecast to continue to be on track’? Looking ahead at any potentially emerging roadblock or change of circumstances within the organisation is a key skill of project manager, teams and steering board.

A reporting against plan ought to pre-empt the answering of these questions, as completed activities, upcoming activities, help required, risks and issues, are set out, transparently, with a ‘red, amber or green’ status for ease of consumption.


‘Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do’ writes Annalisa Merelli3 . Geodynamics alone can’t justify the hundreds who’ve died in Italian earthquakes, 160,000 in the last century alone. Italy is particularly vulnerable due not only to its geodynamics, architecture and culture but to an inability to implement prevention policies and pulling together a plan to protect buildings and prevent death. Those ancient Roman structures, gorgeous Renaissance churches, palazzos and historic piazzas are ‘exactly what makes the country so vulnerable’, says Valter Fabietti, a professor of urban planning, as Italians resist structural measures, metal straps to reinforce walls, that would impact the original structure and beauty of an antique building.

This resistant, conservationist-of-the-status-quo attitude I witness in a project team unable to collaborate, where dynamism is lacking and where wishful thinking and hope-for-the-best (the project ‘rosary’) rule. Resist this culture. The good planning and governance practices I suggest are the metal straps that will reinforce the project walls, the regulation that will make the project conform to anti-earthquakes norms.

We have all witnessed risks materialising, roadblocks rising, key resources leaving, vendors failing, as the inevitability of life interferes with project life.

To counteract the earthquakes life throws at projects, a structure is needed. I trust I have articulated what are the necessary and sufficient structures that, alone, can withstand the project-earthquakes that will inevitably hit your project.

The question then becomes: what type of leader does it take to assure that people have ‘exited in an orderly fashion from the skyscrapers that had just stopped swaying like trees in the wind’ and have survived a threat? This will be the subject of Part 4 of ‘how to get it right’ and deliver.

Double collaborations – a favourite business recipe

Hydra is delighted to collaborate with Francesca Valli. Francesca is a change expert backed by experience and results in transforming organisations. Francesca has managed multi-million £ programmes and delivered trackable change that’s aligned with today’s technology. The end result? Solid results when it comes to return on investment. Her past experience in finance and system analysis gives her an edge in understanding and creating change at the organisational level.

Learn more about Francesca & Chrys Online.



[1] Earthquakes And The Wealth Divide: Comparing Japan, Italy, Haiti. La Stampa. Mario Tozzi (‘Primo ricercatore’, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy). 13-Mar-2011.

[2] I use ‘project’ throughout, for simplicity, but ‘programme’ would work interchangeably.

[3] What Makes Italy So Frighteningly Vulnerable To Earthquakes. Quartz. Annalisa Merelli. (Reporter). 26-Aug-2016.





Topics: project delivery, change management, business transformation

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