Take the time to consider a plan B

201512-pexels-road-nature-lines-countryI’m processing a ton of data at work right now. In an ideal world, I’d have some software built for large data sets. In the real world, I have Microsoft Excel.

We have developer licenses for TIBCO’s Spotfire. I’ve used Spotfire in the past, and I really like it. It would do what I need it to do just fine.

Long story short, the IT group won’t release one of those licenses to me. So I need a plan B.

Fortunately, I’ve done a lot of Fortran programming in my past. In grad school, I wrote code in Fortran that would solve systems of partial differential equations. Specifically, I was simulating how shock waves move through water, and through the human body, to break up kidney stones that are too large to pass naturally.

I don’t like using Fortran at work. Few people have even heard of it, much less used it. But desperate times call for desperate measures. As soon as it was clear Excel couldn’t handle the large data set, I downloaded G95.

I wrote a code that read data from two comma-delimited files, both of which came from Excel worksheets. Then I used Fortran to perform a large matrix multiplication and wrote the data back out to a comma-delimited file that I could open in Excel.

The details are boring. The lesson is that you always need a plan B.

I shouldn’t have needed a plan B. My company has already paid for Spotfire developer licenses. Not all of those licenses are being used. It was logical that, given my work and the availability of licenses, that I should be able to use Spotfire. But logic wasn’t to be found in this particular situation.

Don’t worry about what’s “fair” or “reasonable” or “expected”. Think about the core of the task. What do you actually need to accomplish?

For me, it was merging two large data sets in a way that yielded a particular output. It didn’t have to be in Spotfire, even though Spotfire had obvious conveniences. The data sets had to be merged. That was all.

The same thing might happen for you with a presentation. Do you have to build slides? Not necessarily. Some of the most effective presentations have been given without visual aids. Equally powerful presentations have been given in front of an easel or a chalkboard.

The point with a presentation is to deliver a particular message to a particular audience. You have fewer constraints than you think.

No matter what you’re doing, there’s almost certainly a viable plan B. You don’t have to waste a ton of time sketching out the details. But be aware of your tasks, of your environment, in a way that lets you quickly build a plan B when necessary. It’s a life saver.

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