This week I've seen a movie with a car racing theme. with lessons for project managers.
The movie was "Truth in 24 II: a matter of seconds" and it recounts the events of the 2011 Le Mans 24 hour race from the view point of the Audi racing team. Audi had a brand new car and fierce competition from Peugeot. The race had Audi losing two cars in spectacular but fortunately no serious injury crashes. Discussions about tyre and pit strategy and design philosophy all play apart when you are racing for 24 hrs. Team composition, including the three drivers per car, and lead car engineer selections all matter.
Today's racing cars, certainly internationally, are complex systems with just about everything being measured electronically. In fact you could get the impression that because everything can be measured that everything can be controlled, and therefore everything is under control. Well that is were entropy - the natural state is disorder - comes in. Disorder or 'stuff happens' plays a great part in the story of the 2011 race: crashes are caused by other drivers making wrong decisions, tires get slow punctures, it starts to rain, windscreens get covered in bugs and become obscured. Stuff is everywhere!
This is similar to the experience of most project managers. We, and our bosses, like to believe that because we have planned for everything we know about that we have everything covered. What the less experienced of us fail to comprehend is that our project is not in a closed system, it is in an open system and therefore subject to entropy (stuff happening). Our projects are not safe until they are finished. Delivery dates are not definite. Deliverables are never certain. Contrary to management thinking chance, stuff happening, plays a bigger part in delivering a project on time in an open system than most people will admit. If you know it can happen it won't help you to avoid it, but it will prepare you mentally to handle the setbacks.
The biggest problem is the mindset of senior management, particularly the finance people. They live in a deterministic world where because everything appears to be countable, measurable, and definable, that they can control it. They ignore entropy entirely and expect us to make dates even when circumstances have changed the initial assumptions.
So how to handle this? Well you need to make them aware on continual basis how circumstances are varying, good as well as bad - remember chance creates good luck as well as bad. Like a good sailor always have your eye out for changes in the weather and always be giving your boss(es) an updated weather forecast.