Count On (and Pick) a Cinderella

Posted on March 14, 2012


Three days ago was Selection Sunday, and today college basketball fans are deep into their research for filling out their NCAA Tournament brackets. Given the steep odds, I always marvel at sports pundits who give their predictions on who will win. This year I believe ESPN analyst Jay Bilas predicted his Elite Eight picks (the final eight in the tournament) to be the 1 and 2 seeds from each of the four regions. In sports parlance, this is called “chalk”, i.e. choosing the expected outcome.  Despite history and each year having several unexpected outcomes, aka “upsets”, few individuals have the courage to acknowledge the upsets and attempt to deal with them.

Does this sound like a Director of Engineering, Facilities Construction or CEO you know? Or maybe even you?  Hospitals know that projects are fraught with uncertainty—potentially volatile and expensive uncertainty. Each project we live it. We are trained to ‘expect the unexpected’, yet few plan for it.

A poor assumption early in your tournament bracket has a multiplying effect that can wreck the whole predicted outcome—just like on a capital project at your hospital. “Chalk” feels safe; however, it is not only conservative (and cowardly from a sports fan’s perspective), it is foolish because just as every tournament has a Cinderella, every project has its bugaboos. Even tournaments that proceed through the early, more unpredictable rounds according to form end up being turned upside-down in later rounds. Rare is the year when all four #1 seeds are left as the Final Four. How many of your projects were sailing smoothly and then hit some rough times? Rare is the tidy, well-behaved project.

‘Well it’s impossible to predict the future anyway, so what’s the use?’ you ask. Yes, predicting the future is impossible, but planning for it is not. There are ways to design and construct so future unexpected issues have minimal impact, like a contingency plan. And there are design-build teams that handle and manage risk for the owner in a proactive, almost preemptive way. Similarly, a CEO may not know exactly what might go wrong with the next project; however knowing something will is half the battle. Then, choosing a project team, crafting a contract, and making smart project planning decisions to help alleviate the risk of an “upset” ruining the project is the other half.

For sports fans, the underdog is a force because it proves the aberration in the basketball tournament has more power than the status quo. Most people pick winners expecting the higher-ranked teams to prevail in the end. But even when the later, supposedly more stable rounds of play continue, teams like George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth University and Butler remind us nothing is certain, and the higher-ranked teams do not always prevail.

Just as the basketball tournament is more competitive today than ever before and predicting winners is a difficult challenge, healthcare is in a time of industry upheaval, and winning healthcare systems are hard to predict as well.  Clearly, the notion of status quo is quickly fading as well.  

Projects are increasingly complex and expensive with little margin for error. Consider avoiding the extreme position of a contrarian, but be couragous and realistic enough to consider all “seeds” as a potential winner. Have savvy enough to expect a Cinderella at your dance, but don’t let her crash your party…or project.