4 Tips to Move Your Project Through the Red Zone

Overcoming friction on projects as they near completion requires a deliberate strategy. Build your “red zone” strategy before a last minute crises arises on your next project.

Creating new ideas is easy, however, making new ideas reality is hard.   What makes the process even more challenging are the unforeseen obstacles that appear out of nowhere as a project nears completion.  In American football, the area between the 20-yard and goal lines is known as the “red zone”.  In this area the challenges are larger, the resistance greater, and the results of a mistake much more painful.

This concept easily applies to engineering projects.  The closer a project is to completion, the more costly are change orders, mistakes and making all components line-up for closure.

If you’re serious about delivering the goods on projects in the office and in your life you need to spend time building a good red zone strategy.  It has to be something that you can replicate and apply in every area of your life when you’re near the ship date on any project.

Red Zone Strategy

In every engineering project there’s a point you reach when the room to maneuver is narrower, the time to accept change orders or make adjustments is less, and impacts from nearly every decision can bust the completion date or push you over the cost thresholds.  When you hit this point you’ve entered the red zone.  

Good engineering firms have strategies to mitigate the risks arising in the red zone.  These strategies drive their teams to change mindsets and aim at delivering a project on time.  To operate like these firms you need to:

Develop Your Strategy In Advance.  Strategies aren’t built when a crisis starts.  That’s called “crisis management”.  Strategies are built in the time when you’re sitting around waiting for the next engagement. Developing your strategy drives you to ask questions like:

“I need to wait until…”

“It’s going to take me how long to…”

“What’s the cost in time and financing….”

“Who else do I need on my team…”

“What will XXX do when….”

Watch the Clock.  Delivering is all about meeting a target date.  Good firms deliver on time or before…the mediocre the day after.  Those firms wanting to stay relevant learn quickly to be on time or early.  Urgency and energy are the allies when in the red zone, as a multitude of unimportant tasks and issues can pop-up.  Stay fixated on the target date and be ruthless in cutting out the unimportant to meet that date.  Period.

Communicate.  Unless you’re planning a covert operation, you must communicate your plans continuously with everyone on the team.  This is important throughout a project and essential in the red zone.  Do football teams run the last two minutes of a tie game without communicating?  Never.  If the pro’s don’t run comm-out at the critical point, why would you?

Use a Checklist.  The checklist is a great way to ensure standardization, consistency, and not forgetting the important when the stuff hits the fan.  Pilots use checklists every time they fly, even when they have thousands of hours in their slipstream.  Why?  Because, consistency delivers.  Using checklists in the red zone ensures that you don’t miss the important details.

Develop a strategy now, when you’re not under the gun, so you have a process in draft format for the next project you’re ready to close.  Then follow that process to the end and adjust it for what you learn.  The greatest downside you have is having no plan for dealing with the obstacles in the red zone.  Whether in life or in your career, your work is to deliver.

“Real artists ship.”  Steve Jobs

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is international infrastructure development program manager, engineer, and author. He has 21 years of experience in leadership, management, engineering and international relations earned from a career in the U.S. Air Force and is author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.

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