The X factor

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on May 19, 2009 in: Project Management

Remember in high school math class when the teacher would write an equation on the board and then tell us to “solve for X”? To solve for X students would have to work out the entire equation with X to the side and then get to the point where it became obvious.

Example: 2X+6 = 30

(30 – 6)/2 = X/2

(24)/2 = X/2

Therefore: X = 12.

What we were learning was not just math but an engineering technique called “black box”. When an engineer is designing a project and they don’t yet know how one part of it will work, they will draw a black box around that section of their design and design everything else first. Then they can go back and address the black box later.

Both concepts – solving for X and black box – are equally relevant in the world of project management.

When you start a project, you probably won’t have all of the tasks clearly laid out in front of you. Things change, information evolves, people move from department to department. So, apply the theory of the black box or apply the theory of solving for X. Lay out the project as best as you can and identify the points on your project timeline where the tasks aren’t clear. Draw a black box or an X. Then, as the project progresses, and the work becomes clearer, those tasks will be filled in.

Knowing in advance that these giant question marks will exist, and identifying where they are, can help you get a project off the ground even if you don’t have all your ducks in a row.

Note: This can create scope creep because you might find that “X” is a huge, unwieldy addition you didn’t plan as much time or budget for. That is a risk, which is why you should do your best to keep those unknowns to a minimum in every project. But they will occur and it’s okay to work on a project with those unknowns in them as long as you’re aware that they will need to be carefully managed.

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