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Can You Describe The Pain?

Pain_chart
It seems hard to believe it's been 10 years since my mom's final cancer battle. Facebook has been (ahem) "kind enough" to remind me of some of the milestones of our journey. One thing I remember very vividly are the many medical appointments and meetings. And one of the common questions nurses asked was always, "Can you describe the pain?" Caveat: this was usually accompanied by a chart as shown above with a number scale of 0-10 and a series of faces on it, zero being no pain and ten being unbearable pain. You would think this would be an apt descriptor for a medical professional to understand a patient's pain level. However, these medical professionals had never met somebody as strong as my mom was. "Oh, a 3-4 I guess" would be her stoic reply to these questions. Having been around her almost 24/7 in her final months, I finally had to pull the nurses aside. "Look, my mom has an insanely high pain tolerance." The nurse or tech would look at me inquisitively. I decided to put it into very clear terms for them, "If she's admitting to a 4, it would probably kill the average Marine." The light bulb went on.

Recently, I've been covering the importance of the business case with my project management students. This is the document used to shepherd an idea to an approved project. In the model I use, the second component is rationale. This is where the author of the document (presumably also the originator of the idea) has to sell people on the concept of why a project is even necessary. Too often, I find people using the terms "we need" or "we have a lack of" in their rationale; I invariably send them back to the drawing board. Why? Because terms like "need" and "lack" describe a solution, not a problem. I've even gone so far as to quit using the term, "problem statement," instead preferring to call it the "pain of the status quo." Of course, to describe the pain of the status quo, you need to know the status quo (i.e., have you done a thorough current state analysis?). 

There's even more pain to describe. What happens if nothing gets done, if we don't pursue this project at all? Often times they gasp as though this thought is... well... unthinkable. Then I start asking them more direct questions:

  • Will somebody die or become seriously injured in the near future?
  • Will somebody wind up in jail or heavily fined due to a compliance failure?
  • Will employees just doing their job suddenly be unemployed?
  • Insert your own doomsday scenario here.

Urgency is another key motivator in describing pain, but too often, people can't put the urgency in the context of "probably kill the average Marine." Hence, mediocre ideas become bad projects. 

What happens in your organization? Do you have a gatekeeping function to prevent projects that address non-existent pain/urgency from moving forward? Do you have that person who is excellent at speaking truth to power? Can you prevent ideas that are, at best, the brain farts of mental indigestion?

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