The Burning Platform

The Burning PlatformAlthough I was unable to attend DVCon last week, and I missed Jim Hogan and Paul McLellan presenting “So you want to start an EDA Company? Here’s how“, I was at least able to sit in on an interesting webinar offered by RTM Consulting entitled Achieving Breakthrough Customer Satisfaction through Project Excellence.

As you may recall, I wrote a previous blog post about a Consulting Soft Skills training curriculum developed by RTM in conjunction with Mentor Graphics for their consulting organization. Since that time, I’ve spoken on and off with RTM CEO Randy Mysliviec. During a recent conversation he made me aware of this webinar and offered one of the slots for me to attend. I figured it would be a good refresher, at a minimum, and if I came out of it with at least one new nugget or perspective, I was ahead of the game. So I accepted.

I decided to “live tweet” the seminar. That is to say, I posted tweets of anything interesting that I heard during the webinar, all using the hash tag #RTMConsulting. If you want to view the tweets from that webinar, go here.

After 15 years in the consulting biz, I certainly had learned a lot, and the webinar was indeed a good refresher on some of the basics of managing customer satisfaction. There was a lot of material for the 2 hours that we had, and there were no real breaks, so it was very dense and full of material. The only downside is that I wish there had been some more time for discussion or questions, but that’s really a minor nit to pick.

I did get a new insight out of the webinar, and so I guess I’m ahead of the game. I had never heard of the concept of the “burning platform” before, especially as applies to projects. The story goes that there was an oil rig in the North Sea that caught fire and was bound to be destroyed. One of the workers had to decide whether to stay on the rig or jump into the freezing waters. The fall might kill him and he’d face hypothermia within minutes if not rescued, but he decided to jump anyway, since probable death was better than certain death. According to the story, the man survived and was rescued. Happy ending.

The instructor observed that many projects are like burning platforms, destined for destruction unless radically rethought. In thinking back, I immediately thought of 2 projects I’d been involved with that turned out to be burning platforms.

The first was a situation where a design team was trying to reverse engineer an asynchronously designed processor in order to port it to another process. The motivation was that the processor (I think it was an ADSP 21 something or other) was being retired by the manufacturer and this company wanted to continue to use it nonetheless. We were called in when the project was already in trouble, significantly over budget and schedule and with no clear end in sight. After a few weeks of looking at the situation, we decided that there was no way they would ever be able to verify the timing and functionality of the ported design. We recommended that they kill this approach and start over with a standard processor core that could do the job. There was a lot of resistance, especially from the engineer whose idea it was to reverse engineer the existing processor. But, eventually the customer made the right choice and redesigned using an ARM core.

Another group at the same company also had a burning platform. They were on their 4th version of a particular chip and were still finding functional bugs. Each time they developed a test plan and executed it, there were still more bugs that they had missed. Clearly their verification methodology was outdated and insufficient, depending on directed tests and FPGA prototypes rather than more current measurable methods. We tried to convince them to use assertions, functional coverage, constrained random testing, etc. But they were convinced that they just had to fix the few known bugs and they’d be OK. From their perspective, it wasn’t worth all the time and effort to develop and execute a new plan. They never did take our recommendations and I lost track of that project. I wonder if they ever finished.

As I think about these 2 examples, I realize that “burning platform” projects have some characteristics in common. And they align with the 3 key elements of a project. To tell if you have a “burning platform” on your hands, you might ask yourself the following 3 questions:

  1. Scope - Are you spending more and more time every week managing issues and risks? Is the list growing, rather than shrinking?
  2. Schedule - Are you on a treadmill with regards to schedule? Do you update the schedule every month only to realize that the end date has moved out by a month, or more?
  3. Resources - Are the people that you respect the most trying to jump off of the project? Are people afraid to join you?

If you answered yes to at least 2 of these, then you probably have a burning platform project on your hands. It’s time to jump in the water. That is, it’s time to scrap the plan and rethink your project from a fresh perspective and come up with a new plan. Of course, this is not a very scientific way of identifying an untenable project, but I think it’s a good rule-of-thumb.

There are other insights that I had from the webinar, but I thought I’d only share just the one. I don’t know if this particular webinar was recorded, but there areĀ 2 more upcoming that you can attend. If you do, please feel free to live tweet the event like I did, using the #RTMConsulting hash tag.

But please, no “flaming” :-)

harry the ASIC guy

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2 Responses to “The Burning Platform”

  1. Sean Murphy Says:

    You might pick up a copy of “Switch” by the Heath brothers, they have a good critique of the significant limitations of the “burning platform” model for project management / project change.

  2. harry Says:

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the reference to the book “Switch” and the section on a burning platform. I looked that section up on Google Books. If I understand correctly, the authors’ point is that a Burning Platform metaphor is designed to scare people into action, but that type of tactic rarely creates lasting change. Other techniques are needed for that.

    Looking back at the projects I mentioned, I suppose they were not true “burning platforms” since there were still those who felt that the projects were feasible as-is. Still, I think the insight I got out of that section of the training was valid. There is a time to switch and there are always those who would rather stick with the status quo, no matter how broken. As PMs, we need to know when to make the change and how to manage it. In that regard, I guess I was successful in one case and not in the other.

    Harry

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