Throwing out the Crystal Ball

07 Oct 2019 1:44 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Don Kennedy, Ph.D., P.Eng., IntPE, CPEM, FASEM

In my last segment, A Lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, I spoke on the importance as a manager of not being scared to take action. The great physicist Niels Bohr reportedly said that the opposite of a great idea is another great idea. Because management is complex, when a strong argument is made for one idea, you can generally make another strong point about the opposite idea (maybe with changed assumptions).

My segment today does not really contradict my last one because I will submit that deciding to do nothing is still taking action and not postponing. A friend of mine said “the do-nothing option is a great option not chosen often enough.”

A frequent situation on projects is the proposal by stakeholders to do something outside of scope since “you are here doing stuff anyway.” To borrow from my friend in these cases “the do-nothing option is usually the correct action.” I like to say “let future projects pay for future project scope.” Too many times I have seen the resources expended to add scope to accommodate some anticipated need and the effort was a complete waste or made things worse. I will offer two examples.

We were building a process facility. Someone said that the product might change in a few years and they would likely need different valve arrangements. We spent around $200,000 to change the layout. Ten years later, I met someone from the facility and we chatted. The person complained about spending $300,000 to modify the facility to accommodate a new product. The company forgot we had made changes that would have worked fine and just assumed a new layout was needed. We spent the extra funds and built a facility that would have served the client better if we had not, given how things turned out.

The second example is about a pipeline pig trap, which can be seen below. We were building a pipeline and allowed for a blinded connection to install a pig trap at some future time. Devices are sent down pipelines to check for corrosion or other issues at regular intervals, and the first such run was set for several years into the future. There was considerable pressure from management to spend the $5 million to put in the actual traps since we were mobilized and there anyway. I said “let future projects pay for future project scope” and thereby reduced my project cost by $5 million. As it turned out, advances in technology produced a special new “smart pig” that the company wanted to use for its first inspection after several years of service. This new smart pig was 10 inches longer than the maximum that could have been sent using the trap that was standard at the time we could have installed it. The $5 million would have been wasted. Our traps would have posed an additional burden to rip out what we installed and replace with the new standard.

Source: Metropolitan Engineering Consulting & Forensics Services

Things change and institutional memory is short in a world of high employee turnover. Should your performance assessment take a hit because you tried to gaze into the crystal ball to help some future project reduce their costs? The do-nothing option is often the best decision.

About the Author

Donald Kennedy is a fellow of ASEM. He has a new ebook out called “Improving Your Life at Work” which includes a lengthy bibliography for people looking for references on management theory.


  • 04 Jan 2020 8:29 AM | Donald Kennedy
    That photo of me was taken in Iceland. The stairs went down into a hole in the ground for reasons I do not know.
    Link  •  Reply

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