Digging Out - Turning around challenged Technical Projects/Environments

Something I wrote in 2002:

‘Digging Out’ - 7 Steps to regaining control

This is a process to regain administrative control of a set of systems. It can be practised alone or by groups and does not require explicit management approval, although that will help.

‘Entropy’ is the constant enemy of good systems administration – if it has blown out of control, steps must be taken to address it and regain control. The nature of systems administration is that there is always more than can be done, so deciding what not to do, where to stop, becomes critical in managing work loads. The approach is to ‘work smarter, not harder’. Administrators must have sufficient research, thinking & analysis time to achieve this – about 20% ‘free time’ is a good target.

This process is based on good troubleshooting technique, the project management method (plan, schedule, control) and the quality cycle (measure, analyse, act, review).

The big difference from normal deadline based project management is the task focus, not time. Tasks will take whatever time can be spared from the usual run of crises and ‘urgent’ requests until the entropy is under (enough) control.


Do you have a problem? Are you unable to complete your administration tasks to your satisfaction within a reasonable work week? Most importantly, do you feel increasing pressure to perform, ‘stressed’?


The Quality Cycle first step is ‘Measure’. First you have to consciously capture all the things that 1) you would like to do to make your life easier and 2) take up good chunks of your time.

The important thing is to recognise and capture real data. As the foundation, this step requires consistent, focussed attention and discipline.

The method of data capture is unimportant. Whatever works for the individual and fits naturally in their work cycle – it must NOT take significant extra time or effort.


Group, Rewrite, Prioritise.

Create a ‘hard’ list of specific tasks that can be implemented as mini projects that can be self managed. Individual tasks must be achievable in reasonable time – such as 1-2 days effort. Remember you are already overloaded and less than fully productive from accumulated over stress.

Order the list by 1) business impact and 2) Daily Work-time gained.

The initial priority is to gain some ‘freeboard’ – time to plan, organise and anticipate, not just react.

Prioritisation can be done alone if there is not explicit management interest.

It will surprise you what management are prepared to let slide – this can save you considerable time and angst.


Having chosen your first target, create time to achieve it. This requires discipline and focus. Every day you will have to purposefully make time to progress your goal. This means for a short period spending more time working or postponing

Do not choose large single projects initially, break them into small sub projects.

When you start, schedule both regular reviews and a ‘drop-dead’ review meeting – a time by which if you haven’t made appreciable progress on your task to review


How did it go? Did you achieve what you wanted? Importantly, have you uncovered additional tasks? Are some tasks you’ve identified not necessary.

If your managers are involved, regular meetings to summarise and report on progress and obstacles will keep both you and them focussed and motivated.

‘Lightweight’, low time-impact processes are the watchword here. You are trying to regain ‘freeboard’, you do NOT need additional millstones dragging you further into the quagmire.


Choose what to do next. If you’ve identified extra or unnecessary work items, re-analyse.

When do you stop this emergency management mode? When you’ve gained enough freeboard to work effectively.

A short time after the systems are back in control and you are working (close to) normal hours, you should consider scheduling a break. You’ve been overworking for some time and have lost motivation and effectiveness. A break should help you freshen up, gain some perspective and generate ideas for what to do next.


What are you and your managers going to do to keep on top of things? How did you slide into the ‘tar pit’ in the first place? What measures or indicators are available to warn if this repeats.

How will you prevent continuous overload from recurring?

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