Think like Jason Bourne on your next project

by | Jun 22, 2016

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the ‘fog of war’ and how an awesome business analyst provides clarity and reduces ambiguity. A good working definition for this ability is situational awareness which is defined by the US Coast Guard as:

“Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission.

More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.”

This post will consider situational awareness of project interdependencies as a way to consider what’s going on around you on IT projects.

Interdependency and Situational Awareness defines interdependence as the quality or condition of being interdependent, or mutually reliant on each other. Interdependency is important in IT projects but what does that actually mean when it comes to managing projects and delivering work products? Often it’s just too hard so we put our heads in the sand and just pretend that everything will work out okay.

In the 1967 book ‘Organizations in Action,’ James D. Thompson defined four different types of interdependence to describe the intensity of interactions and behaviours within an organizational structure, going from the least intense, 1) Pooled interdependence to 4) team interdependence which is the most intense. These interactions could equally be applied to project structure and task interdependence:

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The Degree of Interdependence

Factors that determine the degree of interdependency are:

  • Criticality: For example, how large is the effect of the actions taken in the IT department of an organization on the important outcomes in the Engineering department?
  • Uncertainty: This is related to both dependability and ambiguity. For example, can the Engineering department rely on the promises that the IT department has made to them? Moreover, to what level do the two departments have the same understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities?

Criticality matrix

If interdependencies are low of uncertainty and importance, then project teams can enjoy stable and isolated conditions. As uncertainty and importance increase, so does the necessity for increased communication and collaboration between team members and the possibility of conflict. If interdependencies are very high in both uncertainty and importance, then they are likely to produce ‘fog of war’ situations. We’ve all worked on those kinds of projects and this is when situational awareness becomes very important!

The more critical and uncertain an interdependent event is, the greater the necessity for situational awareness, i.e. the greater the need for monitoring and control measures.

Situational Awareness and the OODA Loop

The Art of Manliness gives us some great advice on how to ‘Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne.’ It redefines situational awareness as being the first two steps, Observe and Orient, in the OODA Loop.

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The article goes on to explain that observation is a skill that can be developed with consistent practise. The orient step then puts the observations into context and helps us to develop situational awareness by understanding baselines and anomalies for particular environments. So, not only does situational awareness require us to know what’s going on around us but also to understand the potential consequences of what’s going on around us.

How can we do this on IT projects? Complex environments with multiple dependencies can be nicely explained with a visual map.

Visualising interdependencies

We advise project teams to explicitly model interdependencies between stakeholders, requirements, services and technology components. This is a great activity to conduct in the project initiation stage as it helps to quickly clear up any differences of understanding and gets everyone on the same page.

One way to do this is through our visualisation application Hubscope. By visualising these dependencies, everybody can understand the interdependencies for the activities upon which they’re working on.

Here’s an interesting example which highlights first order consequences by showing what would potentially be impacted by a change to a piece of hardware:

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Seeing through the fog of war

There will always be confusion at the sharp end of projects, born from ambiguity and rapidly changing requirements.However, battle hardened project managers and business analysts are able to understand the difference between normal ambiguity and the gut sense which describes as “something doesn’t feel right.”

As project managers, solution architects and business analysts, it is our job to investigate and take action to better understand these feelings and reduce project risk. Using visualisation on an ongoing basis to share and improve situational awareness is the best way for project teams to see through the fog.

Next time you’re sitting in a project meeting getting bored, think of Jason Bourne, start trying to think like Jason Bourne and hopefully the meeting will suddenly get a whole lot more exciting and you’ll be able to help everybody better understand what’s going on …

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Image credits:

  1. Tech Radar: Jason Bourne Image
  2. Research Gate: Figure 1. Types of task interdependence (based on Thompson, 1967; Van de Ven et al., 1976)
  3. Wikipedia: Diagram of a decision cycle known as the Boyd cycle, or the OODA loop.This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-3.0 Unported license.
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