Forget the Medium Term

A Royal Marine officer friend of mine, who took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, explained to me how he coped during a particularly fierce action.  Paraphrasing:

“Well, it was complete chaos and I didn’t really know what was going on.  So I concentrated only on what I had to do next and the two or three things after that, and forgot about the rest.  Once I’d done one thing, I moved onto the next.  And I kept doing that.  If I didn’t concentrate on doing one thing at a time, it would have been a mass panic.”

Here’s Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s most accomplished high-altitude mountaineers, in his book No Shortcuts to the Top (page 316):

“Look, it took me eighteen years to complete a very difficult endeavour.  Viewed as a whole, climbing all fourteen 8,000ers would have seemed almost impossible, but I took it one day at a time, one step at a time.  I was passionate about what I did, and I never gave up.

If you look at the challenge as a whole, it may seem insuperable, but if you break it down into tangible steps, it can seem more reasonable, and ultimately achievable.  The model for that strategy comes from the way I learned to break up the “impossible” 4,000-foot climb to a summit into tiny, manageable pieces; just get to that rock outcrop there, then focus on the ice block up ahead, and so on.”

It dawned on me recently that I’ve slipped into a similar routine – I’ve mentioned that word before – derived from similar methods to those which my RM friend and Ed Viesturs describe above.

It involves forgetting the medium term, and concentrating on the immediate while being mindful of the long.  I have to be in this posting at least another year, possibly two.  I have to keep in mind that at some point I will leave, and that I will be in a better position, a nicer place, on a better project, etc.  You have to keep thinking of the eventual goal, otherwise there’s no point in being here (it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself).  Plus you’ll go nuts.  But if you think about the medium term, e.g. “October is so far away”, or “my next leave is not until Christmas” and “this time next year I’ll still be here”, you’ll start to get depressed pretty damned quickly.  So you need to forget about it.  I do this by filling my head with today and nothing else.  If you started to contemplate how many more times you’d have to drag yourself out of bed at 6:00am before you get to work in a place with civilised office hours, you’d lose the will to live.  So you don’t.  You concentrate on getting into the shower, getting to work, doing what needs to be done today (and in the office you can afford yourself the luxury of thinking about the rest of the week, but no further), getting home, going to the gym, eating dinner, and going to bed.  Before you know it, the medium term ceases to be relevant because time starts flying.  Like the proverbial kettle that never boils, the time won’t move if you watch it too closely.

Now this doesn’t constitute much of a life, and it’s a strange thing to want time to fly by when you’re in (what people say) is the prime of your life.  But this is abnormal work I’m in, and it makes for an abnormal life.  The key to understanding the expatriate oil and gas business is that you must take the rough with the smooth.  Cliched it may be, but it’s true, and if there is one thing which should be dinned into all newcomers it is that.  And when you hit the rough patch, which can last a while, you need a method of getting through it.

But interestingly, when I watch myself doing the job I’m paid to do (insert jokes here), I notice that I tackle my work in exactly the same way.  My job is basically to coordinate engineering works.  I’d say manage, but that word gets abused so much half of you would immediately assume I do nothing whatsoever and stop reading.  Anyway, it might come as a surprise (although not to anybody who works with me, with the possible exception of my boss who hopefully doesn’t read this) to hear that I really don’t have a clue how to manage an engineering project in itself.  If you sat me in a room and asked me to write down how I would manage a medium sized engineering project, it would be full of generic guff which would serve no useful purpose for anyone executing the works (which, incidentally, adequately describes most documents being passed about in an oil company).  In fact, when presented with a new project (which happens about once per week) I have a momentary panic in which a voice inside me says “How the hell am I going to do this?”  So I hide from it.  Not in the detail, which is the mistake a lot of engineers make when promoted to management or coordination positions, but in a structured sequence of known, comfortable, steps.

I forget about how I’m going to actually execute the project, and identify the first thing I have to do.  Fortunately, that’s always the same: give it to people who know what to do and ask them to get their heads around it then get ready to explain it to me in a meeting, but do no more than that.  Once explained, I then move onto the second thing, which is also always the same: I create a work breakdown structure, which is effectively a multi-layed hierarchal list with the lowest level detailing every single activity which must be performed from start to finish (it goes without saying that I have those aforementioned blokes who know what they’re doing close to hand when I do this).  Once I’ve done this I can relax a bit, and I write a project execution plan which is effectively a narrative on each one of those items in the work breakdown structure.  The whole lot then gets passed to those who know what they’re doing, it comes back with red ink all over confirming that I am an idiot who doesn’t, but I make sure that by the time I’m finished they’re happy with it.  The management of the project then becomes a relatively simple matter of plodding through one activity after the other as per the work breakdown structure and execution plan, ticking them off as you go and rarely worrying about what is coming later on.  I cling to those two documents like a drowning man to a life-belt, because if you were to ask me what we are all supposed to be doing and I’d lost them, I wouldn’t have a clue.  I am unable to grasp the full scope of a project, even a relatively minor one, without it being broken down into manageable chunks.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, it is.  Half the time I feel like a complete fraud having taken information from people far more technically capable than I, compiling it into a single document, and waving it about as if it held the key to eternal life.  The other half the time I remember how project managers I worked for in the past did away with all this writing stuff down nonsense and waved their hands around and talked lots instead.  Or more specifically, I remember how their projects turned out.

And that’s kind of my point.  There is nothing original in this method I use of breaking down work, and the more testing parts of life, into manageable parts to avoid being overwhelmed by the whole.  This is, after all, the basis of any well-written procedure.  What I have noticed though is that although it seems obvious, and it really is pretty easy, there are an awful lot of people who can’t seem to do it.  Those that can seem to be able to get stuff done, as the two examples I started this post with show.  And if I were to sum up why people employ me, and have almost always done so since I graduated, it’s because, one way or another, I “get stuff done”.  It’s only recently that I’ve understood how to do it: forget the medium term.

Oh, and make sure you listen to those who know what they’re doing, especially if you don’t.

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3 Responses to Forget the Medium Term

  1. James says:

    Good on you Tim. Though I doubt if bailing out of Nigeria before 2 years are up is much of a blot on the c v, I admire your perserverence.
    Your blog recalls happy memories.
    I was once hauled up to Aberdeen, shown some plans and told: This rig has been here 3 years, needs a survey. You’re a QC, you’re a diver, tell us what to do.
    Naturally I didn’t have a clue. After a bit I found an old report from a similar job in a broom cupboard, compared the plans, changed a few bits and we sent it off to DNV for approval.
    Job done (once we’d done it). And so far as I know the rig hasn’t sunk yet.
    What we know as plagiarism the experts call Institutional Memory.

  2. Tatyana says:

    This method works if on the back of your head you know the travails will last only two years. Two years – and there will be a different interesting country, different satisfying job, positive balance.
    If in all this lines all you can write “prospect uncertain”, oyu gotta think up something else to sustain your sanity

  3. Tim Newman says:

    Very true. You can only be mindful of the long term if you know what’s there.

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