Refuse To Be A “WHACK-A-MOLE” Project Manager

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Written by: Jim Poorbaugh

whack a moleHave you ever, in the course of a conversation, been so surprised by an innocent comment that it consumes your thoughts and causes you to seek a deeper understanding of what generated the comment? Ok maybe I’m a weirdo that needs other stuff to think about…….. Nonetheless, this is exactly what occurred last week as I was talking with a PM. We were talking about how projects were going. Conversation went something like this.

“So how are your projects going? You think you’ll make your submittal by end of September?” Off handedly, she said, “I guess so. You know most days it is like a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole’”. “‘Whack – a – Mole’ what in the world do you mean?”

“You know, that arcade game you played as a kid where the moles popped out of the game and you

tried to hit them with a mallet before they went back in the hole.” She continued, “It’s kind of like that on some of the projects. I just get done with a task and then something else comes up that I need to deal with, then I get that done, and another thing pops up. I never get all of the moles.”

I found the analogy amusing and very appropriate. I think we all have moles that pop up on our projects that we whack away at. Sometimes we are successful at knocking them back down. Other times we miss or worse, we get whacked instead of the mole. So here’s what we need to ask ourselves: Where do the moles come from? How do we stop playing the ‘Whack-a-Mole’ game? Is there a different method we can use?


Some moles just pop up. According to Chaos theory, we have no way to stop this; we must resign ourselves to the fact that it is part of the nature of projects. However, Chaos theory is based on the premise that the initial conditions of a system determine the future behavior and that widely diverging outcomes occur within systems because of small differences in the initial conditions, rendering long- term prediction generally impossible. So we can conclude two things, “stuff” happens and there is no way to prevent it.

Cutting to the chase, issues are our biggest moles. Issues are problems that have arisen that will impede the progress of the project and cannot be totally resolved by the project manager and project team without outside help. So where do issues come from? They come from project assumptions, risks, and constraints. Assumptions, risks, and constraints can be known or unknown. Assumptions are things that are taken for granted or accepted as true without proof or preponderance of the facts. A constraint is something that limits or restricts someone or something. Constraints are limitations that are outside the control of the project team and need to be managed. Conversely to an issue, risk is always a probabilistic future event, and if it occurs has an effect on at least one project objective, such as scope, schedule, cost, and quality. Risks when they occur become issues.


Project definition and project planning are critical to establishing the best initial environment for projects. Project definition and planning are team sports. The more often and deeply you engage project team members and stakeholders PRIOR to beginning project execution the better chance you have to minimize the size and frequency of moles popping up. Improving project definition and planning also fosters team camaraderie and commitment to prevent moles in the first place. Furthermore, when moles pop up, and they will, your team will be unified to whack moles often and quickly before they get too large.

mole identification matrix Additionally it is important to develop skill at identifying and whacking actual moles not just something that looks like a mole. Maybe this just happened to me because of bad karma, but I’d bet you that you have stories about wasting time researching and chasing down some arbitrary perceived project crisis just to find out that while you were busy trying to solve the crisis it resolved itself because it was never a real crisis in the first place. Confusing effort with results is an awesome feeling isn’t it?

Consider the mole identification matrix to the right, it clearly draws a clear line that if the crisis is verifiably important and urgent (an issue) get your mallet out and whack away! If it is a risk then log it, work with team to define methods to mitigate – it is not a mole but it has potential. By proactively planning how we will whack it if it turns into an issue just means that we have the mallet at the ready. Unimportant things, noise and distractions, are sometimes a fun diversion but are deadly to project performance and as such should be avoided. If it does not meet the definition of an issue or risk you’re wasting your time whacking away at nothing.


Remember the game Tetris? Tetris uses seven different geometric shaped game pieces called Tetriminos. A random sequence of Tetriminos falls down the playing field. The objective of the game is to manipulate these Tetriminos, by moving each one sideways and rotating it by 90 degree units, with the aim of creating a horizontal line of ten blocks without gaps. This game requires the player to think ahead, proactively planning placement of Tetriminos to accommodate the next shape in order to not leave gaps. The quicker you think the better you plan the placement of the pieces, and thereby obtain higher scores. In the context of project management, if we become more proactive in identifying our Tetriminos and moles, (Assumptions, Constraints, Risks, and Issues) we will be actively improving the chances for successful projects. In the context of project management, if we become more proactive in identifying our Tetriminos (Assumptions, Constraints, Risks, and Issues) we will be actively improving the chances for successful projects.