The Gnarly Part: How to Drive Through Complexity to Create Successful Projects

Just about every project has a gnarly part, a time when making it through to the end successfully seems like a distant dream.  It’s important to be aware that you are in the gnarly part of the project, trust that this happens to everyone, and explore multiple paths forward.

The “gnarly part” might seem an odd term, but there’s a meaningful story behind it.

A couple years ago, I after a failed attempt at climbing Snowmass Mountain with some friends, we were driving back to our hotel. On the trail, someone had mentioned that the road down from the trail head was  a little challenging, but once you got past the “gnarly part” you were good to go. (It was a one-way loop, so we hadn’t passed through this part yet.)

Well, the drive down to the main road took us the better part of 3 hours. And here’s why.  The road down had switchbacks (thankfully) but in most cases there was barely room for the SUV we were in to get around a sharp rock jutting out into the road and often the driver had the car in first gear, pointed in a direction off the road, only to turn back in to get “around” the switch back.  Other times there were rocks jutting up right in the middle of the road.  In the beginning one person would get out to direct him how to drive over the rock and not bottom out.  But in many cases all 5 of us had to get out of the car to help preventing it from bottoming out.

A couple times there was a loud “BANG” as part of the car hit something.  We were told “it’s OK, it’s just the frame.”  There were times I could have been in the car, but got out just because I was so afraid of falling of the cliff.

So, yes, we found the “gnarly part”.  And three hours and about a half mile later, after most of us walking through it and one person driving through it we made it to the main road which eventually took us to a nice hotel room with some pizza and beer, where we celebrated our little adventure.

In my experience, every project has a “gnarly part” too. Some have many.  Different people can experience them at different times. As a BA, this tends to happen at a point of time when your committed to a high-level strategy and solution.  You’ve done a lot of research, you think you are prepared, and you start diving into the detail and working through your requirements specifications.

Ack.  There’s something you didn’t think of…what are you going to do with that?  It seems that around every corner your faced with some new unanticipated challenge that threatens to turn your project upside down.  This is the gnarly part of the project. It’s also sometimes referred to as the state of “analysis paralysis.”

There are two paths through:

  1. Keep driving and modify your plan along the way to incorporate these new details.  This requires an open mind, some flexibility, collaboration, and a steadfast focus on your objectives (this is why being a BA is not for the feint of heart) combined with an extreme attention to detail.
  2. Abandon the project.  More than nine times out of ten this is not necessary and it does come at a hefty cost.  Never persist at the danger of truly falling off the edge into complete project failure. But do reach deep inside and apply the best of all your faculties to wade through the “gnarly part.” Trust that you and your team mates will make it.

Many of us aren’t immediately self-aware that we’re in the “gnarly part.” It starts with a small challenge, maybe a rock in the road, and the challenges multiply until you are knee deep in what seems like a mess.  Often our perception of the gnarly part surfaces with big questions about the project and if we’re on the right track.

We question our abilities.

We question the abilities of others on the project.

The absolute best thing you can do is to be self-aware of the challenge you are in. Take a step back, approach the problem at a different angle, and start moving forward again.

And always remember, your organization needs you to step up.

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