Optimizing Performance in Mission-Critical Environments


At the upcoming Resource Planning Summit in Nashville, practitioners and thought leaders will gather to share best practices on how to improve resource planning and optimization. As I’ll discuss in my presentation and in this series of blog posts, a key part of optimizing resources is achieving high performance and being able to rapidly and effectively solve problems, especially in Mission-Critical environments.

Often, it appears to us that advice givers neglect circumstances that are characteristically different than normal, less than ideal, and indeed challenging and dangerous: that is, Mission-Critical. This we will intentionally not do.

The purpose of this article series is to explore new ideas and best practices pertaining to optimizing performance while operating in Mission-Critical environments, thereby achieving mission success.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to support the Elite Problem-Solving Community as well as those confronting serious challenges during the course of a business or military operation. Such support involves providing access to all relevant tools, models and algorithms designed to solve problems, optimize performance, and achieve mission success when operating in mission-critical environments or when confronted with mission-critical events.


Motto of the Elite Problem Solver



Why Do We Need Elite Problem Solvers?

Problem solving, and especially complex problem solving, has taken on a new dimension--It is no longer considered a “One-Off Event”. Indeed, it is now being considered a formal activity with its own set of skills, tools and methods, and is, quite unexpectedly, now considered the most important set of skills in the global job market. (World Economic Forum)

The issue of complexity and criticality presents enormous challenges for those uncomfortable with non-deterministic, higher-order reasoning. Such higher-order reasoning is essential if one desires to employ a rigorous, analytic approach to the formulation of viable solutions in an uncertain world, in which risk, and probabilities rule the day. Elite Problem Solvers equipped with “Higher-Order Reasoning Skills” is the solution when confronting complexity, uncertainty, and criticality threatening Mission Success.

Elite Problem Solvers

I am promoting the idea that elite problem-solving skills are a necessary component of any modern business model and must be made available to be able to successfully engage in that which is Mission-Critical. An enterprise operating in Mission-Critical environments, or confronting Mission-Critical Events, must be able to deploy Elite Problem Solvers capable of Higher-Order Reasoning & Critical Decision Making to those trouble spots requiring their expertise. It should be emphasized that because we live in a complex world, and normality is the exception-not the rule, complex problems are to be expected: So, preparation is key, and Elite Problem Solvers are an important resource for any organization.

Future Discussions

Now that the need for high level problem solving has been established, In future posts we will discuss how to develop, outfit and deploy your own set of Elite Problem Solvers. Meanwhile, view the video below for more on critical decision-making.

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Captain Kevin M. Smith U. S. Navy (Ret.) has been involved in a number “Performance Optimization” initiatives including efforts to enhance performance of all Military Air Combat Flight Crews as well as improving problem solving performance of all Airline Pilots flying for American based companies. Both initiatives proved to be successful.

As a significant career milestone, Captain Smith was the Commander of the first deployed “Top Gun” Unit, and Commander of the top performing Squadron in the Pacific Fleet.

Captain Smith remains a noted Author, Speaker, and Design Consultant, with two books and two instructional videos in national distribution.

Project Intake and Resource Management: The Foundation for Project Success

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A frequent request from organizations is, “Can you help me improve my project management processes? They just aren’t working!”

What they think they are asking for is assistance with implementing templates and processes that will help projects run better.  While this is absolutely necessary when it comes to successful project management, there are major components external to your project management methodology that contribute to the success of projects.

Let’s take a look at two primary functions that must be given consideration in order to set projects up for success:  

Project Intake/Portfolio Management

What would our air space safety and success look like if every plane acted independently?  Choosing to take off and land where they want, when they want – considering no other planes.  It would be an absolute mess, and likely have many issues with quality, timing, safety, and customer satisfaction.

This scenario is no different than a project.  If you have projects with great processes and templates, but are crashing into each other, that is just as much of a threat (if not more) to the success of the project, than not having the right processes.   

A well-defined project intake process should include a consistent way to request new projects, an efficient way to gather enough information to determine priority, and a process in place to make decisions on new requests:  start them now, hold until next open stop or slow down existing projects, or defer the request for later determination. 

Of course, if you start it now, with an already full project load, then according to our iron triangle, you will need to add resources (either financial or human), or extend the schedules of current projects already “in flight”, in order to maintain the quality and safety of your current portfolio of projects.

The next factor contributing to the success of your projects is:  

Resource Management

This topic is truly foundational to project and portfolio success. Your project manager can negotiate a resource plan, assign resources and percentages that are needed for THEIR project all day long.  But if the FULL resource is not taken into consideration as it relates to both project portfolio and operations, you will end up with overallocated resources and missed deadlines.

Let’s say you understand the first point, and you also implement portfolio management. You can’t make effective portfolio decisions if you do not truly understand the full workload of your resources.

Almost all project management tools tell you they perform resource management.  However, most of these define resource management as the ability to assign a resource and allocate them when determining if the schedule can be met. However, they don’t take into consideration the risk of external resource pulls – the other projects or operational time that has the potential to pull or delay your resource availability and ultimately affect your project. 

Effective resource management processes and tools consider resources as a WHOLE. Resource managers must have a full understanding of everything their resources are working on, in order to have enough information to make effective project and portfolio decisions. 

Implementing project management processes and templates without having a handle on resource management causes issues to surface like frustrated resources, overallocated resources, and resources making decisions to skip the project management processes in place because they simply have too many demands taking up their time.      

Project management methodologies address managing within project boundaries, however you cannot and will not have successful projects unless you view your projects from a holistic perspective, taking into account other projects, operations, and resources. 

I look forward to diving deeper into this topic at the upcoming Resource Planning Summit. 


Heather Casey is President of Lead Strong 414 and is a John Maxwell Team Certified Trainer, Speaker, and Coach with over 20 years of experience in leadership and project management, in multiple industries. Heather will be presenting at the 2019 Resource Planning Summit in Nashville, TN.

Speaker Spotlight: A Conversation with Donna Fitzgerald

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As we prepare for the upcoming Resource Planning Summit, we’ll be offering a series of guest blogs and interviews to further promote thought leadership in the field of resource planning as it relates to PPM, demand management, and strategy execution.

In this blog, Jerry Manas, author of The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, interviews Donna Fitzgerald, executive director of Nimble PM and former research VP at Gartner on what she views as the three key drivers of strategy execution.

Both Manas and Fitzgerald will be presenting at the 2019 Resource Planning Summit.

JM: Donna, I’m looking forward to your presentation at the upcoming Resource Planning Summit. Your presentation talks about the role of resources, products and spontaneous projects in driving strategy, and particularly digital transformation. Could you expand on that a little?

DF: Sure. It’s no secret that companies have been struggling with their digital transformation efforts. The reason for the struggle is simple. Digital transformation was never primarily about technology. It is and has always been about building companies that are equipped to deal with the continuous disruptive change most of us foresee for the next 20 years.

JM: I’m glad you mentioned that it’s not just about technology. A lot of people hear the term digital transformation and assume it’s just an IT issue. It’s really an all-encompassing paradigm shift that’s not only consuming resources, but impacting all parts of a business as organizations try to keep up with the pace of disruption.

DF: Exactly. And how do you build a culture that thrives on disruption? Rethink resource management across your enterprise; adopt product thinking to keep decisions focused on enterprise value; and encourage a culture of spontaneous projects where people feel they have the time to leap on potentially great possibilities without putting day to day operations in jeopardy.

JM: It seems quite a holistic approach that includes value-focus and adaptability. Would you say culture plays a role in driving this?

DF: Absolutely. The key I’ll be speaking about is that these three elements all work together to create a completely different culture than is common today. What’s wonderful about these three levers is that we can embrace them now. We have resource management tools that can help us model how many of the right people we need to do the right work. We have an emerging culture of product thinking present in the business world today that will help us increase our focus on value, and finally by creating the space for spontaneous projects, we can solve our employee disengagement problem by giving people interesting problems that will add depth and breadth to working lives. I won’t say it can all happen with the snap of the fingers but as far as change efforts go, this one should be comparatively easy.

JM: It also enables a balanced approach to innovation and sustaining work, something people are talking a lot about these days. Changing gears for a moment, how does the growing shift toward Agile play into the new culture?

DF: One of the biggest problems surrounding software development in IT and occasionally in R&D environments, is a widespread misunderstanding of agility. Some things in life are naturally anchored in time. One thing must happen before another can be started. Adjusting to that inherent linearity, where it is required, does not negate the ability to be agile. I was reading an article the other day and they quoted a CIO as saying that agile has no place in an Infrastructure and Operations group. I understand why he would make that comment, even if I disagree with it.

I&O has a lot of work that is necessarily sequential. It’s like building a house. You can’t put the roof on if the walls aren’t there to support it. Agile thinking can be applied to any discipline, but some areas require more agility than others and software development is one of those areas.  It’s always been a balancing act between what is known, what is knowable and can only be discovered through something agile calls emergence. 

Agile is not the opposite of waterfall. Waterfall works wherever scope is knowable and reality enforces a fixed way that things come together. Waterfall never made any sense for custom software where, no matter what people say they want, there are multiple ways the actual value/outcome can be delivered. 

JM: Agreed, hence the push toward bimodal project management, where Agile and Waterfall coexist, using the right tool for the right job as it were. People often mistake Agile as meaning “no planning” or a free for all, which we know isn’t the case at all. On the other hand, some companies go to the other extreme and make their Agile process so rigid that it becomes the very thing it was meant to avoid.

DF: They need to understand: Agile is a mindset. Agile is knowing what can be fixed and locked down and what can’t. Agile is understanding that all creative endeavors operate in the zone of uncertainty and even though by the time the endeavor is theoretically done it may not be complete. This is a true statement that most developers misunderstand. True agility is knowing that you can’t know the future so at some point you need to stop coding and let the future unfold (what I called emergence a moment ago). You might need to add things, take things out or do it all over again, but saying “I’ll let you know when we’re done” is the anthesis of agile because it creates an overinvestment in features that won’t end up being needed.

JM: It reminds me of the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Rex Harrison as the Pope kept pestering Michelangelo while he was painting the Sistine Chapel, saying, “When will you make it end?” And Michelangelo, played by Charlton Heston, would repeatedly respond, “When I’m finished.” I think that’s a frequent fear of management, that Agile is a black hole. Of course, that’s where timeboxing can help as well.

DF: I’m currently involved in building a community of people who are interested in helping their entire enterprise become more agile, so I know agile isn’t an either-or proposition. With that said, would I have let someone tell me that they would ship a product whenever they thought it was right, or close the books when they thought they were done?  No. When I managed finance, my staff and I took our close process from 5 days to 3 days without any loss of quality. We did it by rethinking our process and eliminating unnecessary work, without ever causing our auditors the slightest concern. I’m using a financial example because finance is clearly a time-oriented discipline that can still be made agile through agile thinking.

Back to your bimodal point, eventually companies will need to be fully agile, but that only means they do the right things at the right time for optimum value. If they still need a waterfall approach for some projects, that is fine and appropriate.

JM: I think that’s good advice, embracing lean methods, knowing when to proceed in a linear fashion or not, and focusing more intently on delivering value. You mentioned resource management as one of the three pillars of driving strategy and digital transformation, which I certainly agree with. What trends do you see with regard to better resource management helping drive strategy?

DF: I think the future is very bright for resource management. I recently spoke to a group of resource managers and told them that I believe they have a pivotal role in their company’s success in becoming a digital enterprise. Originally, PPM was assumed to be inclusive of resource management functions, but like many things it’s turned out it isn’t a comfortable fit for many project managers, who are focused so heavily on delivery of their project. When project management shifted away from managing people who did project work to managing progress on tasks, it caused a schism in what was once a holistic model.

JM: Are you referring to the strong matrix organizations, where the project managers would own their resources? 

DF: Yes, models have become more distributed, with resource managers actually paying attention to their staff’s workloads and career growth, whereas project managers tended not to.

JM: That makes sense. Also, in today’s distributed organizations, it’s important for project and resource managers to talk, which they so often fail to do. Project managers can no longer afford to be schedule jockeys, and they’re not in the best position to know the resource’s overall workload, nor would they typically care.

DF: Exactly, which is why resource managers are the new glue that will help us solve our employee disengagement problem. They will be the ones that focus on both real workload and perceived workload. In the past, project managers could just crack the whip to get their project done, regardless of the long-term impact on the people.

JM: Some organizations are even questioning the role of the project manager, especially in Agile circles. Should project managers be concerned?

DF: Even with the engagement problem solved, project managers will always have jobs even if most of those jobs are no longer found in IT. No company can be successful without people who are very good at managing unstructured work (the spontaneous projects I described earlier) and despite the plethora of PPM methodology that exists, true project management will always be about coping with minimal structure and maximum uncertainty. 

JM: Yes, and managing milestones, risks and issues. Plus there’s program management for the more strategic and large-scale items, though the focus is at a higher level and on business benefits.

DF: Absolutely. On the strategy execution front, as mentioned, digital business is going to force a complete paradigm shift. In the future, strategies will be treated like large-scale programs and will have program managers assigned to them. Program management is a poorly understood discipline in most companies, which has limited the career growth of many a top notch Project Manager. That won’t be the situation in the future. As I said people who can herd cats, manage unstructured work, and get people to make decisions on a timely basis are worth their weight in gold and I expect bright things for anyone willing to take up the challenge.

JM: Project managers, take heed! Well, Donna, I thank you for an enlightening conversation and look forward to seeing you in February at the Resource Planning Summit in Nashville. I think attendees will really benefit from hearing how to build a culture that embraces resources management, product focus, and innovation.

DF: Thank you, and I look forward to sharing it with them!