In my upcoming book Project: Impossible, part of Multi-Media's Lessons from History series, I lay out a methodology for dealing with a project that appears to be operationally impossible (that is, it can’t be accomplished within the initial boundaries of time, cost, and performance).
Other questions matter, too:
- What are the consequences of failure to meet the original requirements?
- Are there unacceptable negative consequences if we succeed?
- Could trying make things worse?
- How much risk should we be willing to take in achieving our goals?
- What are all the things that have to happen to allow us to call it success?
- How can we prepare our organization or team to be ready when the impossible project appears?
Except for number 6, the other questions can’t effectively be asked until you have the project (or hot potato as the case may be). And as we’ve seen time and time again on our historical journey, it’s what you do beforehand that often spells the difference between success and failure.
To do the impossible, it helps to be prepared. Preparation starts long before the impossible project swims into your field of view. Whether you and your organization will be able to rise to the challenge often depends on the strength and quality of your preparation.
In the television (and movie) series Mission: Impossible, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF, not to be confused with the International Monetary Fund) takes on challenges far beyond the capability of lesser organizations. How does it do that? First, it selects highly skilled people and provides training in the specifics of espionage. Second, it promotes a high degree of morale and esprit de corps. Members of the IMF see themselves as the best of the best.
Third, and possibly most important, the IMF enjoys a high degree of political support and cover for its operations — at least in the television series. In the case of the movies, it’s more often the case that the problem lies in their own management, and as a result, the movie plots normally involve the IMF team acting without the support of its covering organization. This makes the situation far more perilous, and if it weren’t for the magic of the motion picture experience, those projects more likely would turn out to be actually impossible.
Sometimes a project is impossible for a good reason. In other cases, the project isn’t what it seems. Practice looking at the situation through someone else’s eyes. Play the “what if” game. Look around you. Question the constraints.
And always accept that you don’t know everything.