Why “Error Free” Is an Impossible (Real-Time) Goal

Defensive HoldingHere’s a picture from one of yesterday’s football games showing an obvious defensive holding call. By rule, a defensive player cannot grab a receiver’s uniform, whether it affects the play or not.

It didn’t get called. Seven officials watching the play, and no foul was called.

A lot of Green Bay fans were undoubtedly frustrated by this, though in the end Green Bay (white jerseys) won the game handily.

But former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira makes a terrific point in analyzing what happened. I can’t embed it, but here’s the link.

He analyzes what each official is supposed to be watching, determines which one is tracking this receiver, and then notes how the official’s view is blocked because he’s standing directly behind the San Francisco player (red jersey).

Let’s take this to the Legal Project Management arena to draw some lessons.

First, failures and mistakes happen. It’s your job, as project manager, to position yourself to best catch errors – ideally before they happen, but at least catch them. Except sometimes, even when you’ve set things up well, your view is blocked – not by a 200-pound defensive back, but by circumstances, or other events, or too many crises happening at the same time.

The project debrief (a/k/a after-action review) is a great time to look back on these times and determine whether there was more you could reasonably have done. Often for good project managers, the answer is “no.” You put yourself in the “right position,” but that’s not the infallible position, only the right place to be most of the time. You understand the people on the project. You have good communication with the client, understand the hidden stakeholders and their motives, develop a realistic schedule with fallback positions, and so on. And yet still stuff goes wrong. It will happen even on the best-run projects.

But it will happen a lot more, with far more devastating outcomes, on poorly run projects.

Your goal isn’t “perfect,” but “better.” You’ll never get to perfect. Even programs with incredible redundancy and backups and triple-checks have failure points. Legal projects cannot move slowly enough to allow for, say, airframe-design levels of checking.

Second, don’t beat yourself up over what random observers tell you. I’m sure the official here heard it from the Green Bay coaches, and maybe from the receiver as well. They have the right to complain, but that doesn’t mean their complaints are “right” (in that you should have done something different). Listen, learn, but in the end, you need to work toward what makes sense most of the time. You cannot manage projects by anecdote – “it didn’t work this one time, so I’ll abandon a useful method/approach.”

Third, consider this play from the defensive back’s standpoint. The receiver has him beaten. He’s wide open. It’s probably a touchdown if the defender doesn’t grab the jersey (or undershirt, in this case), since you can see the end zone 11 yards away. The back recognizes that bad things are likely to happen1 if he doesn’t impede the receiver, break the flow. And it’s only a five-yard penalty plus automatic first down for the grab, versus an almost sure touchdown if he doesn’t commit the penalty. (It’s also quite probable that experienced players know exactly which official is supposed to be watching and what he can and cannot see.)

In other words, given two poor choices, the defensive player makes the better choice. That’s also something good project managers do. They look for the best choice, not the perfect choice – and they make decisions when they need to, whether or not they have only partial information.

Comments are closed.

  1. As if Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers needs a receiver to be this ridiculously open to get the ball to him!