How to Deal With Impossible Projects

How to Deal With Impossible Projects

This is an extract taken from my book Leadership Lessons from the Race to the South Pole: Why Amundsen Lived and Scott Died

‘I’ll take a look at it’


When your stakeholders hand you a project, the absolutely worst thing you can do is to say, ‘sure’.  (When I teach courses on this subject I’m fond of saying that ‘the only time you should say ‘sure’ is if you’re buying deodorant.  It’s a corny gag – though it always gets a laugh – but it’s true.)  If you were to only take one idea away from this book, it is that project leaders need to stop blindly agreeing to things.

Whenever somebody hands you a project, the only thing you should do, the only thing you should commit to, is what every sensible trade and industry and profession does and commits to when handed a project.  They say, ‘I’ll take a look at it.’

You take your car to the garage and (if you were stupid enough to) say, ‘There’s something wrong with my car.  I need you to fix it in the next hour and I’ll give you fifty bucks for doing it.’  The guy in the garage isn’t going to agree to that.  He’s not going to say ‘sure’.  He’ll say, ‘I’ll have a look at it.’

And that’s precisely what he does.  He lifts the hood and pokes around or he slides in under your car and checks stuff and then he says, ‘Here’s the deal’.  You may be there with your fifty bucks but if he says to you, ‘Listen pal, you have three choices – you can get a reconditioned engine, you can get a new engine or you can go and talk to the guy in sales about getting a new car,’ then you have some decisions to make.

You go to the doctor.  You say, ‘Doc, I’m not feeling very well.  Give me the magic pill and I’ll pay you a hundred dollars.’  He’s not going to agree to that.  He’ll examine you, do tests, maybe send you for tests and then say, ‘Here are the courses of action available to us’.

Some analysis of the problem followed by suggestions of courses of action we can take – this is what all sane trades, industries and professions do.


Build a plan


The way we project leaders ‘take a look at it’, the way we analyze the problem, is we build a plan.  We’ve seen already – in chapters 1 through 5 – how to do that.  The plan consists of six elements:

  1. What exactly are we trying to do? [Chapter 1]
  2. What jobs have to be done to achieve #1? [Chapter 2]
  3. Who’s going to trail boss the project? [Chapter 3]
  4. Who’s going to do the jobs identified in #2? [Chapter 4]
  5. There’s contingency in our plan because we know (from bitter experience and / or common sense) that unexpected things are going to happen. [Chapter 5]
  6. We’re doing risk management on our plan. We’ve identified the things that could go wrong and we’ve put actions in place (jobs in the plan) to deal with those things.  [Chapter 5]

Once you’ve done all of that you’re ready.  You have a plan – also sometimes called a ‘project plan’.  You can also think of this plan as being a Supply-Demand model of your project.  When I saw a ‘model’ think a working model, like a model railway or a piece of Lego Technic.  It’s a working model in the sense that you can vary the Supply and / or vary the Demand.  So for example, you can say, what happens if the scope of the project increases?  What will that do to the model?  Or you can ask, ‘What will happen if I lose some of my resources?’  What will that do to the model?

So in a very real sense, you have a simulator or a simulation of the project – just like a flight simulator.  And this plan, this model, this simulator connects the same four variables that we saw in the last chapter when we discussed contingency:

  • WHAT the project is delivering
  • WHEN when it’s delivering it
  • WORK – what work has to be done
  • QUALITY – there are jobs in the plan which are about ensuring the quality of what gets delivered.

Now, just like the mechanic in the garage or the doctor in her surgery – you’re ready to go back to your stakeholder(s) and talk about courses of action.  There are three scenarios we need to talk about.


Scenario 1 – The plan says the stakeholders wishes can be met



On those rare occasions when it happens.

If that’s the case then, without further ado, you can give the stakeholders a big hug, look ‘em in the eye and say, ‘Yep, we can do that.’  You would then proceed to execute the plan you’ve gone to such trouble to build and you would have every confidence that such a plan would work out and your project would be a success.

The only problem with that sweet little scenario is that it just doesn’t happen very often and I think you’d agree that this next scenario is more likely.


Scenario 2 – The plan says the stakeholders wishes can’t be met


Now what do you do?

Well, we obviously know one answer already.  We can throw away our plan, say ‘sure’ and suck it up.  This is what an amateur would do at this point.

Pros aren’t that dumb.  Pros know that if we can’t give them exactly what they want then there’s going to have to be some kind of negotiation.  This negotiation involves the same four parameters that we keep bumping into:

  • WHAT
  • WHEN
  • WORK

By varying these four parameters, you can come up with other versions of your plan.  Think of the original plan as the vanilla plan.  If the stakeholders don’t like vanilla –no problem.  You can come up other flavors – rum and raisin, strawberry, pistachio – whatever they like.  You can also do custom flavors.  They can ask about a particular flavour and you can see if it’s possible to make that flavor.

After that all you need is one flavor that the stakeholders will accept and then you’re in business.

Here’s how to generate these flavors or options for the stakeholders using the four parameters.



The first way you can generate options is by using the What parameter.  You can de-scope the project.  You can say, ‘We can’t give you the whole thing by December 21 [for example] but we can give the have-to-haves, or a version or a first release.  Would that work for you?’

Instead of a big-bang, offer then some kind of phased or incremental delivery.  I hope you can see that even if you only had this one parameter to play with, there are rich possibilities here to come up with all kinds of flavors.  And all you need is one that they say ‘yes’ to.

But happily, you have three other parameters.  And you can use these parameters singly or in any kind of combination you choose.




The second parameter, the When parameter is one that’s not often explored and it’s a real pity.  For some reason, there’s a huge tendency to treat dates, particularly, as though they came from god; as though they were always hard dates.

Let’s be clear – some dates are hard dates.  They’re set maybe by the government or some faceless person way way up the chain of command.

But that’s different from assuming that every date you’re given is a hard date – which is what amateur project leaders almost always do.  Pros do it differently.  Rather than assuming every date is a hard date, pros assume it’s a soft date until proven otherwise.

That proof may come quickly or be easily available.  Maybe it has been set by the government and it’s not really an option to call up the White House or the IRS and ask to be excused.  Or maybe the CEO of our vast, international corporation has set the date and we know we’d be wasting our time trying to negotiate it.  After all, some fights aren’t worth fighting.  But unless you have some kind of proof like this, you should assume the date is soft.

Having done that then, here are some tests you can apply to the date to see how serious the stakeholders are about it and how much room for negotiation there might be around the date.

  • Is the date they’ve given you around Christmas? This won’t apply in North America where Christmas is essentially a two day holiday but in pretty much all of Western Europe (and possibly other cultures / places as well) Christmas can be the guts of 2 weeks off.  It depends to some extent on what day of the week Christmas falls on and then the judicious use of some vacation days.  (Of course again in this the Europeans have the edge – they get a lot more vacation days than North Americans.)
  • Is the date they’ve given you a Saturday, a Sunday or a public holiday?

If it is, there’s a good chance it’s just been picked from the air.  So if it is, ask them – ‘Hey, it’s a Sunday.  Will you be there if we give it to you?’  There’s a good chance they’ll answer that they don’t work Sundays.  Then you can ask them what the real date is.

  • Have they given you a ‘fluffy’ date?

If, instead of giving you a date like ‘September the first’, they say instead things like ‘early September’ or ‘mid-June’, then this means that the date is absolutely not a hard date.  If somebody said mid-June to me, for example, I would assume that any time before 31 August would be acceptable and I would begin negotiating on that basis.

  • Are there cultural reasons why the date might be suspect?

There are certain cultures where certain times of the year would be very suspect.  I once did a project for Swedish stakeholders and they said, ‘Don’t give us anything in July’.  (Apparently Sweden pretty much closes down in July.)  The same is true of France in August where most people are in three hundred mile traffic jams trying to get to the beach.

  • Have they added in contingency?

Finally, they may have added contingency into their plan.  They may have told you say, 21 December.  They don’t actually need it done until maybe, 10 January, but they’ve given you the December date so that if you were to run late, it wouldn’t cause them a problem.  In other words, they’ve put some contingency at the beginning of their plan.

So for all these reasons then, test the date.  You’ll find out quickly enough whether it’s soft or hard and if it’s soft, how much ‘give’ there is in it.



The Work parameter is essentially, the add-more-people option.

You need to be a little bit careful with this one.  I’m not saying don’t use it.  Just be careful.  It may have unintended consequences.

If you’re interested, you could google on something called ‘Brooks’ Law’.  If you did, you would find it says that ‘adding people to a late project makes it later’.  Fred Brooks coined this law in his 1974 project management classic, The Mythical Man-Month[3]More generally, we can say that adding people to a project won’t necessarily speed it up.  While this may sound counterintuitive, if you think about it you can see why this would be the case.

What happens when you add people to a project?  Well first of all, you’ve got to find those people.  You have to assign them, contract them in or hire them.  After that, you have to find places for them to work, tools for them to work with.  You have to bring them on board, you have to bring them up to speed.  They have a learning curve.  They take time away from the people already on the project.  They ask questions, they have problems that need sorting out, they make mistakes that the people already on the project stopped making ages ago.

By the time you’ve factored all this stuff in, adding extra people may have little effect, no effect or it could actually slow the project down.  So be careful when somebody says to you. ‘I’ll give you whatever resources you need to get the job done.’  It may not actually help.

But of course, you don’t have to hire ten people, throw them at your project and see if it helps.  You can build a version of your plan that contains the tasks associated with bringing these people on board.  That will tell you whether it’s going to help or not.


Finally, there are a couple of options here.

it may be possible to reduce the amount of testing being done or shorten testing cycles.

A more promising possibility though, is to shorten review cycles.  Often in your project, there will be places where you give stuff to the stakeholders to review or agree or signoff.  It’s really nice then if you can say to the stakeholders, ‘Look stakeholders, if you can turn this around in twenty four hours rather than the two weeks you’ve asked for, we can shorten this job and bring our plan and your wishes closer together’.

This is a really nice one.  It gives you a stick to beat the stakeholders with.  It shows them that getting the project done isn’t just your problem as the project leader.  They have a part to play as well.

So you can see that between the four parameters you can come up with all kinds of options for the stakeholders – and all you need is one that they’ll say ‘yes’ to and you’re in business.


Negotiation using the facts


The process I’ve described in scenario 2 is sometimes referred to as ‘saying no’ or ‘pushing back’.  People say, ‘I must learn to say no’ or ‘I must push back on my stakeholders’.

You can use these expressions if you like but I’m not fond of either of them.  I think they have very negative connotations.  So I prefer to call this process – of identifying options and agreeing one with the stakeholders – what it is.  It’s negotiation using the facts.

There are plenty of ways you can lose this negotiation.  If the basis of the negotiation is that it’s between a more senior person and a more junior person, then you’ll lose it.  If the basic of the negotiation is that they’re aggressive / assertive / maybe even something of a bully and you’re not, then you’ll lose it.  If the basis of the negotiation is a personality clash – basically, you don’t like each other- then you’ll lose it.  If the basic of the negotiation is a financial one – a sales situation, where they (the customer) have money that you (the salesperson) want, then you’ll lose it.

            The one area where you can’t lose the negotiation is if it’s based on the facts in the plan. 

This is the one place where you have complete authority.

If you build a plan as we have described then you are the world’s #1 expert on this project.  That’s not an exaggeration – it’s literally true.  You know more about it than anybody else.  Now for somebody who doesn’t know much about it – a boss or a stakeholder, for example – to say that you’re wrong is kind of outrageous really.  But what’s a million times more outrageous is if you then stop believing in your plan, throw it away and essentially say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it your way’.

You have authority.

Use it.

Don’t be a victim.


What will happen if you try negotiating using the facts?


If you like this idea of negotiation using the facts then it’s probably good that you have some idea what you might expect to happen to you, if you began to use it.  Here’s what will happen.

Let’s say I’m your boss and you’re my project leader.  Up until now, the relationship we’ve had is the ‘sure’ relationship.  Here’s how that works.

I get a project, I throw it over the wall to you and you call back, ‘sure’.  I get another project, I throw it over the wall to you and you say, ‘sure, no problem’.  And so on and so on.  The result of all this may be that you and your team spend all your time sucking it up but I don’t care.  I get out on time and I’m home hanging with the kids or playing golf or whatever I like to do.

Now instead, what happens is that I throw a project over the wall to you and I don’t hear ‘sure’.  What I hear instead is ‘I’ll take a look at it.’  Hmm, I think.  This is strange.  This is new.

But then what happens is even stranger and newer. You don’t come back to me with a ‘sure’.  You come back with your plan and your options.

What will my reaction to this be?

You can pretty much assume that my reaction won’t be overwhelming joy and unalloyed pleasure.  The first thing I will do – and this is the first hurdle you’re going to have to clear – is that I will question your estimates, the numbers in your plan.  Without meaning to make any judgement on your boss or stakeholders, this may be done in a very hostile way.  I have certainly seen it done so.

‘How could that be ten days?’ someone will ask.  ‘When I was doing that job, we could do that with one arm tied behind our back in half a day’ sort of thing.

Be prepared for this.

Don’t take it personally.

If you think about it, it’s just me – as your boss – doing my job.  One of the functions of a boss, I think you’ll agree, is to make sure that the subordinate has done their job correctly.  Ultimately that’s all I’m doing.

And so, make sure you have done your job correctly.  Make sure you’ve done the arithmetic right.  It’s not advanced mathematics but be certain you haven’t done it wrong.  Make sure you haven’t mixed up work and duration, for example – one of the most common mistakes.  It would make a lot of sense for you to talk your plan through with a friendly person or audience before you take it into the lion’s den.  That should mean that you would catch any silly errors like this.

If your stakeholders question your assumptions, no problem with that.  Just say, ‘Okay, if you want to use your assumptions instead, that’s fine.  But whether they’re my assumptions or your assumptions, if they turn out not to be true then the plan is going to have to change’ [i.e. it will be a ‘big change’ as we defined it in chapter 1.]

So be prepared for this.  Don’t back down.  If you’ve done the work properly, believe in it.

The questioning of the assumptions then, is the first hurdle you’ll have to clear.  Once you’ve cleared that, are you out of the woods?


There’s a second obstacle.

Once your stakeholders have established that you’ve done the work correctly, then they’ll start to question how serious you are.  Here’s how that will go.

Suppose the scenario is that they want the project done by December 21 and the earliest you can promise them is January 29.  They’ll say something like this.  ‘Now, January 29 – you know that’s never going to work.  Could you do January 15?’

You’d better know what answer you’re going to give when they ask that.  What I mean is that you’d better have decided in advance.  Because if you haven’t you’ll hesitate and say, ‘Eh yeah, I suppose we could.’

And will they stop there?

No, of course they won’t.

Then it’s likely to be the pep talk.  Here’s how that goes.  The arm goes around your shoulder (either physically or metaphorically) and they say something like, ‘I’ll never ask this again [which is probably the biggest lie you’ve ever heard] and I don’t want an answer right now – but would you go talk to the team.  I know it’s asking a lot but you know, a few nights, a couple of weekends could really make all the difference on this one.’

And once again you better know (have decided in advance) what answer your going to give when that happens.

Because if you hesitate – if you say, ‘Eh yeah, I’ll go talk to them’, then in no time at all, I’ll have you committed to December 21 and you and the team will be working over Christmas while your boss and stakeholders and happily eating too much and unwrapping presents and hanging out with the kids.

In short – be prepared for a negotiation.

Because there will be one.

It may be very benign (as just described); it may be very hostile – I’ve seen those too.

Be prepared for it.  Once again, don’t take it personally.  It’s just your boss doing their job.  Another function of a boss is to maximise the use of their resources.  That’s all they’re doing (or think they’re doing) when they try to do this.

And how do you prepare for this?

Two things.

One.  Know where you’re drawing the line.  Know where you’re saying, ‘This far and no further’.

Two.  You might even add on something extra for the negotiation.  So, in our example above, go in with February 9, let’s say.  Put up some token resistance.  Then back down to January 29.  Everybody’s happy.

Your boss or stakeholders have had a negotiation which they feel they’ve won.  They’ve pushed you to the wire.

And you have a project that has some chance of succeeding – as opposed to a project which never had any chance of succeeding.

Once you’ve cleared this second hurdle, then you’re in the clear.


Scenario 3 – The stakeholders keep insisting on a plan which you say is impossible


In theory, what we’ve covered so far should be all there is in this chapter.  Negotation using the facts – the key to setting the stakeholders’ expectations.  That’s all you need to know.

But unfortunately, there’s more.

We have to talk about a third scenario when we cross into a very strange land where reason and logic no longer apply.  We’ve arrived on Planet Delusion.

This third scenario is where we find ourselves staring down the barrel of an impossible mission.  An impossible mission is an option that, according to us, is impossible but the stakeholders keep insisting on it.

Before we talk about how to deal with them, let’s talk about how they come to us.

Firstly, I suppose I should say that this may never have happened to you in your career.  If it hasn’t, you should thank whatever gods you believe in that it hasn’t happened.  Long may your innocence continue.

It may not happen or be part of the culture of the organization where you work.  If it isn’t, once again you should thank the gods that you work in such a place.  But this happens in the world and you need to be ready for it when it does.

It’s fair to say that sometimes, these impossible missions come packaged in some very unpleasant stuff.  I’m thinking about phrases like:

‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’, or

‘If you don’t do it, I’ll find somebody who will’, or

‘That’s not the culture here’, or

‘You’re being too inflexible,’ or

‘You’re not being a team player,’ or

‘Is this plan based on a 5-day week,’ or

‘We’ve got to find a way’, or

‘We’ve got to work smarter not harder,’ or

‘We have no choice, we have to do it,’ or

‘If we don’t do it, it will be outsourced [to a cheaper economy]’, or similar or much worse phrases.

I once had a boss tell me that I wasn’t committed to him or to the project and that if I wouldn’t commit to a particular impossible mission, not only would our division close but the whole plant could close.  It was an outrageous thing for him to say.

Sometimes – it has to be said – the pressure to take on impossible missions comes entirely from ourselves.  Here’s one way this could happen.  You get a job in a new organization.  The boss calls you in the first morning to give you your first project.  You’re told how very challenging [for ‘challenging’ read ‘impossible’] this project is – dare we say it – an aggressive schedule.  But also you’re told that you’re the man [or woman] for the job.

With no more pressure than that, you may feel that you have no choice.  You may feel that you have to show your peers, your colleagues, your team, your boss, your new employer, that you have the right stuff.

Finally, it may have been that while you were reading the section on negotiation using the facts, a little voice in your head was saying, ‘I could never do that – with my boss / with my stakeholders / in my organization / in the culture within which I work.

If a little voice was saying that – or, if for any other reason – you feel that it is your lot in life to always accept impossible missions, then let me show you what the future holds for you.




If you continue to take on impossible missions, you become a member of a very select club within your organization.  It is the Magicians Club.  Magicians do exactly as the name suggests – they do magic tricks.

Not everybody is a magician, I think you’ll agree.  Magicians are generally the people who end up leading projects – for obvious reasons.  If an organisation has magicians it should love them.  It should give them stock options, salary rises, profit-sharing, promotions, flowers on their birthday, presents at Christmas – because magicians do an extraordinary thing.

Imagine you went to a job interview and the person doing the interviewing said, ‘What do you do?’ and you replied, ‘I do impossible missions.’

Why, they’re going to hand you a contract and say, ‘Sign here.  How much do we have to pay you to come and do that for us?’

But while all the good things we’ve said about magicians are true, there is a problem with being a magician.  It’s a problem best illustrated with a graph.  So try and imagine on the horizontal access, time and on the vertical axis, the impossibility of the mission.

How do we measure impossibility?

Simple.  An impossible mission is a supply-demand imbalance.  Here’s an impossible mission, for example:

Demand (work to be done on the project) = 190 person-days

Supply (people available to do the work) = 100 person-days.

So when we say a mission has low impossibility (i.e. low on our vertical axis) we mean that the gap between the supply and demand is small; it could be closed with working a few nights and weekends.  When we say high impossibility (high on the vertical axis), we mean that the graph between the supply and demand is enormous and that everybody (i.e. the stakeholders) appear to have entirely lost the plot.

In chapter 3 we talked about cattle drives and trail bosses, but now I want you to move those images to the side.  Now I want you to imagine a theatre and you’re standing on the stage of the theatre looking down into the audience.  In the front row of seats are your stakeholders.  There’s your team, your boss, your boss’s boss, your other stakeholders.

What happens next is that you come out on stage in your magician’s costume and right before their eyes, you do the first basic trick.  You pull a rabbit from the hat.

It’s a sweet moment.

Your team are punching the air saying, ‘She led us to victory.’  Your boss is nudging your boss’s boss and saying,. ‘Did you see that?  Good, wasn’t it?  I hired him.’  Your stakeholders are on their feet and they’re applauding.

And it is a sweet moment.

I remember the first rabbit I pulled from the hat.  Myself and a colleague worked all night to get a project done.  We came into work at 9 AM on Wednesday and left at 10 PM on Thursday having worked right through the night.  For reasons I don’t need to go into, had we failed, it would have been a very public failure – we would have ended up in the national media.

There were times during that long dark night when it looked like we weren’t going to get the rabbit out.  We would try things and they would fail and so we’d try something else and it would fail and so on and so on.  Finally, around the afternoon of the second day, things started to come right.  By 6 PM we pretty much knew it was going to work.  Then it was just a question of getting it finished.  We walked out of there that second night and we were on air.  We had that great feeling of having triumphed in the face of adversity.  I’m sure you know it.

That first rabbit is a truly sweet moment and nothing can spoil it.  It’s after that that your problems begin.

After you’ve pulled a rabbit from the hat, it now becomes the standard.  Anything less than a rabbit and they’ll almost spit on you.  So now you have to start doing bigger animals, bigger supply-demand imbalances.

You start out on dogs.  A little dog like a West Highland Terrier.  And then a medium sized dog like a German Shepherd.  And then a big dog – an Irish Wolfhound.  And after that – mules, donkeys, ponies, horses.  And then hippopotamuses, rhinoceros, elephants – bigger and bigger animals being pulled from the hat.

Once you get up into some of the big animals, some interesting things happen.  The first of these is that it isn’t all quite as wonderful as it was when you were just doing rabbits.  Your team are burnt out – morale is low or staff turnover is high.  Productivity has nosedived.  (If you’re in any doubt about the fact that continuous long hours equals low productivity, check out either The Deadline[4] or chapter 1 my book, The Power of Doing Less[5].)

Your boss and your boss’ boss are wondering why morale is low, staff turnover high and productivity has gone through the floor.  And it isn’t all quite as wonderful for your stakeholders either.  They’ve had some near misses where – right up to the last minute – they didn’t know whether the project was going to work out or not.

The second interesting thing that happens is that, with regular magicians, there may be one or two wise-guys in the audience who know how the trick is done.  But with your trick, everybody knows how the trick is done.  You may be out on stage taking a bow because you’ve just pulled a hippopotamus from the hat.  How did you do it?  Everybody knows.  The team are backstage.  They’re doing the heavy lifting, the nights and weekends, that closes the gap between the supply and demand.  (You’re doing it too, of course – but it’s primarily them.)  That’s how the trick is done.  That’s where the extra supply comes from.  Everybody in the audience knows it.

The third thing that’s worth mentioning is that there are some stakeholders we haven’t talked about at all up until now.  You can picture them in the second row of the theatre.  These are people like wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers, partners, housemates, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cats and dogs – those that love us and like to spend time with us.  Here, they spend no time with us because we’re either at work, thinking about work, bringing work home with us, phoning up to say we have to work, we have to cancel that long weekend away, we can’t take our vacation during the project (or at all) and so on.

Finally, the fourth and most scary thing of all, is that once you get up into these big animals, these big supply-demand imbalances, you get the feeling of invincibility.  You get the feeling that there is no animal – no matter how big – that you can’t pull from the hat.  There’s a sense of – you’ve just pulled a rhinoceros from the hat, now you’re going to do an elephant.  ‘Hold my jacket!  Somebody – gimme an elephant!.’

If you stay at this game long enough there will come the day when you pull the biggest mammal on earth from the hat.  The blue whale.

The blue is the largest animal ever known to have lived on earth.

And so you pull the blue whale from the hat.

You would like to think that this is the culmination of your project leadership career.  Now, you’ve done it all.  Now – whatever your age – you can sort of enter semi-retirement.  Here’s how that would work.

The company would give you a really nice office on the executive floor.  It’d have a nice view out over the lake and you’d have your own personal espresso machine.  You be on a big salary package naturally – lots of perks and benefits.  You wouldn’t have to do very much.  Given that you’d seen it all and done it all, your main responsibility would be to coach new, up and coming magicians.  We could imagine them coming to your office, knocking nervously on the door, being invited in.

‘Sit down there, young (wo)man, make a cappuccino for yourself and I’ll tell you about the time I pulled the blue whale from the hat.’

But of course, this is crazy stuff.  Nothing of the sort is going happen.  After you pull the blue whale from the hat, all the stakeholders will say is, ‘Okay, what are you going to do now?’

Given that there is no bigger animal that you can pull from the hat, you’re going to have to find a different trick to impress them.  So there’s a trick called ‘sawing the lady in half’.  (I’ll explain in case you don’t know it.)

There’s a big rectangular wooden box, big enough to hold a person.  It has a lid, two holes in one end and a larger hole in the other.  A woman gets into the box.  (It’s always a woman, for some reason; you never see men being sawn in half.)   She puts her legs through the two smaller holes, she puts her head through the large hole.  Then the magician gets a saw, he saws down the centre of the box and he pushes the resulting two pieces of the box apart.  The result is that it looks like the woman has been sawn in half.  Her head and torso appear to be on one side of the stage in one half of the box and her thighs, her legs and her feet in other half.

So you start doing this.

The stakeholders are blown away.  They knew you were good with mammals from hats but now you’re doing this.

Except that …

One night, you go on stage.

The lady gets into the box.

You pull the ripcord on the chainsaw and begin sawing.

And fountains of blood and body parts go flying through the air.

Because sooner or later, your ability to do these magic tricks runs out.  Sooner or later you take on a supply-demand imbalance that can’t actually be closed.  Because there’s a limit to the supply.  There are only twenty four hours in a day, there are only seven days in the week, there are only a finite number of people on your team.  That feeling of invincibility that you had turns out to be an illusion.  You thought you were getting better and better at being magician.  In fact, you were speeding towards the end of the runway and it was only a matter of time before you went off and crashed.

When you saw the lady in half – that’s a really bad moment.  The team have put in this huge effort and now it turns out to have been for nothing.  We can imagine your boss and your boss’ boss wiping blood out of their eyes and saying, ‘What do we do now?’.  Your stakeholders are removing organs and body parts from their lap saying, ‘Where do we go form here?’  It’s really bad.

I’ve sawn one lady in half in my career and I still prefer not to think about it.  It’s related to that time my boss said to me ,’You’re not committed to me or to this project …’  If I could rewind that particular clock, I would say, ‘Yep, you’re right.  I’m outta here.  See you later.’  Instead, however, I agreed, committed to an impossible mission and it ended in tears.

Usually, after a magician saws a lady in half, they have to leave that organization.  If it’s a large organization, they may be able to find a place where their reputation hasn’t gone before them but most likely, they’ll have to leave.  So they’ll go some place else.  And will they have learned from this bitter experience?

Well, I learned from this bitter experience.  I never repeated that particular mistake.

But in general, most magicians don’t learn.  They go to the new organization and start doing low grade tricks again – the ones they know they can do.  Little furry animals – ferrets, foxes, badgers.  But all they do is get back on the escalator and ride it to the top again.  I know a guy who’s sawn at least two ladies in half.  But that – as they say – is another story.

So in short then, the key message of this chapter – and in some ways of this entire book – is that you need to hand back your membership of the Magicians Union.  You need to the join the much more select We-Only-Negotiate-Using-The-Facts Union.

Imagine you went to a job interview and they said, ‘What do you do?’ and you reply, ‘All my predictions come true’.

This is the promise of negotiation using the facts.


It’s Just a Skill


This has been a long chapter to deliver a short message.  Remember, at the end of the day, that what I’ve been describing here is not especially complicated.  It’s not brain surgery.  It’s not auto mechanics.  It’s just a technique.  Just like other techniques you’ve learned in your career.

Practise it.  Get good at it.

You don’t have to wait until the biggest project the organisation has ever seen, is speeding down the tracks at you, to make a stand.  You can start on this today.  Somebody asks you to do something by four o’clock today, ask if it will do tomorrow.

You’re negotiating.

If you win the negotiation, great.

If you don’t, that’s okay too.  If you don’t, do an action replay of it, just like they do in sports events on TV.  Run back over it and figure out the point at which you gave up.  Because if you lost the negotiation, that’s exactly what happened.

Resolve that the next time, you won’t give up so easily.  You’ll push it a bit further.  You may fail again.  And again.  But keep doing the replays.  Sooner or later you’ll get one over the line and after that, your magician career will be behind you and your new life of negotiation using the facts will have begun.


In A Minute


Stop saying that terrible four letter word, ‘Sure’.  Negotiate, goddamit!



[1] Degrees of latitude are always 60 nautical miles apart.

[2] Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth (London: Pan Books, 1985) 304

[3] Frederick P Brooks, The Mythical Man Month and Other Essays on Software Engineering (Addison Wesley Longman, 1974)

[4] Tom DeMarco, The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management (New York: Dorset house, 1997)

[5] Fergus O’Connell, The Power of Doing Less (Chichester, Wiley, 2013)