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FIRE-Method for Project Leaders

In F.I.R.E., Dan Ward provides practices, principles, and tools project leaders can use to develop superior products and processes with less money, fewer people, and in less time. By utilizing the FIRE method, project leaders can minimize delays, expenses, and complexity while producing higher-quality, faster, cheaper, and simpler outcomes.

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UNDERSTANDING THE FIRE METHOD

The most successful project leaders deliver high-quality products and processes with small teams, small budgets, and short schedules. They do this by employing the FIRE approach:

*Fast. Project leaders must be able to define a project objective that can be satisfied on a short timeline. They must embrace speed in order to foster stability within a program, reduce exposure to the forces of change, improve accountability and learning for team members, and increase the likelihood that the product will be well aligned with both the market’s interests and available technologies.

*Inexpensive. Project leaders must understand the importance of having a small budget. They must set program goals that can be completed on lean budgets and find thrifty ways to perform functions and solve problems.

*Restrained. Project leaders must practice self-control. They must aim to always have tight budgets, small teams, short schedules, short meetings, and short documents.

*Elegant. Project leaders must take steps to minimize complexity. They must realize that for simplicity to be elegant, it needs to improve a project’s quality, performance, or usability.

FINDING FIRE SOLUTIONS

Leaders often face problems with their products, processes, and projects, but they do not need to create entirely new solutions. Most of the problems that project leaders face have already been encountered by others before, so leaders must rediscover those solutions. The first step is for project leaders to express a need for solutions. By not expressing a need for solutions, leaders could easily remain confused, overwhelmed, and distracted by all of the extraneous data surrounding them. Instead of sifting through data in search of a new and original solution, project leaders must understand the value of repurposing old solutions. Before they embrace their solutions, though, project leaders must understand the dynamics and mechanics that the FIRE approach uses to make their project management (PM) processes stable and successful.

UTILIZING FIRE MECHANISMS

By extending project schedules to accommodate changes, add functions, and fix problems, the PM process is exposed to more changes. These changes cost money and require additional schedule extensions, which exposes the process to even more amendments and delays. The more time and money that is spent on PM processes, the more complicated those processes become. This growing complication is known as the snowball effect, and once the snowballing begins it can be extremely difficult to stop.

Surprising changes and process instability tend to trigger the snowball effect and cause project leaders to bust their budgets and schedules. These project leaders can use the FIRE approach to inject stability across several fronts and minimize both the presence and the impact of unexpected changes on their budgets and schedules. Instability can come from many sources, and every change impacts a project’s structure, objective, funding, design, priority, and schedule. The inability to accurately predict these changes contributes to cost and schedule overruns. Although project leaders cannot prevent changes from happening, they can limit the amount of change their projects are exposed to. The FIRE approach lessens the impact of sudden changes on projects. Projects do not become more resistant to change, but they do become better able to adapt to change.

There is also an element of luck involved in PM, but it is a type of luck that is within a project leader’s control. There are several common attributes of lucky people, including optimism, extroversion, low levels of anxiety, and openness to new experiences. People who possess these attributes experience positive outcomes more often, and the FIRE approach encourages teams to exhibit the traits that correlate with luck: perception, production, and success.

APPRECIATING FIRE SUCCESSES

An organization that saw much success in the 1990s was NASA. From 1992 to 1999, NASA operated a Faster, Better, Cheaper (FBC) program. NASA launched 16 major missions under the FBC program. Ten out of the 16 missions succeeded, and the total cost for all missions was less than the cost of 1 pre-FBC mission. Under FBC, NASA earned 10 wins for the price of 1. The following are the unconventional secrets to the program’s success:

*Do it wrong. Project leaders must recognize that in order to do it quickly and right, their teams must be willing to do it wrong first. They must take small, constrained experiments and build quick prototypes, expecting that most of them will fail. Then, they can identify and discard impractical approaches and move toward finding the right answers.

*Reject good ideas. Project leaders will often find themselves flooded with good ideas for new features, parts, and functions. Regardless of the good ideas, however, they must only consider those changes that could be made with negligible or minimal disruption.

*Simplify and accelerate everything. Although long reports can create the illusion of communication, project leaders must realize that a well-crafted three-minute report is better at keeping audience attention and ensuring that critical information does not get overlooked.

*Limit innovation. Project leaders must limit technological innovations and developments to only those that are essential to achieving the project objectives.

*Consider failure as an option. Project leaders must not accept failures due to carelessness, but they should accept risky projects that may fail due to the dynamics of exploring unknown environments. These types of failures should be tolerated because the time and money invested in such projects are so limited.

LEARNING FROM FIRE FAILURES

Experiencing an occasional failure is inevitable. To reduce the likelihood of failure, project leaders should strive to divide larger projects into series of incremental steps. In a portfolio of shorter projects, the opportunity to learn from failure is much greater. Each time a subproject fails, it can become a learning experience that can influence future decisions and improve the outcome of future projects. Project leaders must consider two types of failure: epic and optimal. An epic failure is one that costs a lot and teaches a little, while an optimal failure is one that teaches a lot and costs a little. Project leaders must influence the direction in which their team fails, orienting their projects toward speed, thrift, simplicity, and restraint to increase the odds of getting optimal failures and avoiding epic failures.

CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT

When Midas was appointed king of Pessinus, capital of Phrygia, he tied his ox cart to a pole in the center of the acropolis using an intricate knot. According to legend, the first man to untie the knot would become king of all Asia. Alexander the Great determined that the fastest and most effective route to the center of the knot was not by untangling it. Instead, he used his sword to slice right through it. Unlike his peers, Alexander the Great focused on solving the right problem and confronted complexity with simplicity.

Today, the term “Gordian knot” refers to a very difficult problem. In PM, a Gordian knot can refer to a project that is overly complicated. One way to reduce a project’s time, size, and complexity is to use a one-page project manager. Project leaders using this tool must believe that everything that anyone needs to know about a project can be presented on a single piece of paper. All of the complexity and bulkiness must be eliminated when using this technique. Instead, project leaders using the one-page tool must provide only critical information to keep people focused on what is necessary.

Project leaders often rely on measurements and metrics to track the progress of their projects, but even when they seem simple, measurements and metrics can introduce confusion and complexity. While it is important for project managers to count things, track trends, and analyze statistics, they must make sure that their counting actually conveys meaning. Project leaders should create their own set of three or four indicators–these indicators must shine a light on the levels of speed, thrift, simplicity, and restraint in the project. The following are some guidelines for using measurements and metrics with FIRE:

*Count something. Team members often do not realize how much time and money they are spending. Because programmatic details can easily be ignored, it is important for project leaders to count page numbers, team size, lines of code, gross vehicle weight, or whatever other measurements can show progress.

*Do it publicly. Data about a project’s progress should be hard to miss and not hard to find. Project leaders should make sure that their teams can see the data and know how to contribute to the figures.

*Track trends. Past trends can indicate where a project is heading in the future. Even if a trend is not predictive, it can show whether or not a team has made progress. Project leaders must track trends to find causal relationships and shape future activities.

*Focus on critical figures. Numbers and figures can be deceiving. Long lists of obscure measurements tend to point toward minor nuances rather than key points. Project leaders must guarantee that the things they are counting really count.

*Focus on meaning more than precision. Project leaders must use their measurements to complement qualitative insights.

The best measurement routines should be expressions of the FIRE approach. They must be developed in the natural course of events, with minimal investments of time and money. They must be tightly correlated with performance and be simple to understand and apply. They must be clear, coherent, and relevant to the population being counted.

UNDERSTANDING SIMPLICITY AND COMPLEXITY

Not every project must be complex. Sometimes, project teams are better off building or buying a simple, stripped-down, good-enough object that does one or two things really well. When utilizing the FIRE approach, project leaders must be open to simple solutions.

Regardless of whether a project leader is utilizing FIRE methods, excessive complexity always wastes time and makes things more difficult. Project leaders often make things harder on themselves because they think a high level of complexity is inevitable and desirable; in many cases, project leaders equate complexity with sophistication. To combat this thinking, project managers can use simplifying tools.

One tool is the simplicity cycle. Project managers using the simplicity cycle understand that making something more complicated is not the same as making it better. These project managers focus on making designs better, not merely more complex. They also know when to stop adding things to their projects and start removing things.

Another tool is stormdraining. Brainstorming is a good way for teams to produce a lot of ideas, but at some point those teams must remove the bad ideas from their lists. A parallel, complimentary practice known as stormdraining can be used to remove the waste. The following are the rules for stormdraining:

*Everything is on the table. If something was brainstormed, it must be fair game for being removed from the idea list.

*Delete is the default. Stormdraining is about removing, so if a team is not sure if an idea should be deleted, it should be deleted to see what happens.

*Build on other people’s deletions. Stormdraining is used to reduce quantity and hone in on the essentials. Many times, a teammate’s suggestion to remove one thing points to other parts that can also be removed.

*Make it fun. Project leaders must celebrate and encourage the deletions. They must also encourage people’s creativity when they propose sending something down the storm drain.

*When something is deleted, really delete it. Nothing should be set aside and saved for posterity. If an idea really is good and valuable, it will return again on its own.

Reductive thinking is another tool that works along the same lines as stormdraining. Simplification generally involves reducing something to its core elements. When project leaders adopt the practice of reductive thinking, they liberate themselves and their teams from the tangles that result from purely additive practices.

Once project leaders accept the idea that simplicity is desirable and possible, they can begin to take steps toward reducing complexity in their organizations, processes, and technologies. They can also begin to focus on achieving agility.

WORKING TOWARD SPEED AND AGILITY

Many projects are faced with obstacles that extend their schedules, expand their budgets, and make things more complicated. FIRE can help maintain agility in the face of these forces. In their pursuit of agility, project leaders must cultivate speed. Speed reduces a project’s exposure to changes and helps maintain alignment between what the team is building and what it needs to build. Speed is the result of slow practice, persistence, and diligence. When project leaders overvalue speed, the result is haste, and leaders often see results in products that are simplistic, cheap, and too small. When project leaders inevitably grow impatient with slowness, they should work hard to avoid frantic haste and work toward achieving effective and sustainable speed.

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