When two is one and one is none

by Christopher Cook

You’ve likely heard that two is better than one. But what about when two is one one is one? Having a backup plan is crucial in project management. Without it, a project is highly susceptible to risks and likely headed for failure. When two is one amd one is none, why multiple backup plans are not optional in your project risk management strategy?

Jocko Willink is a retired Navy SEAL who received the Silver Star and Bronze Star for his service in the Iraq War. He also commanded SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi. The man has a history of leading unordinary individuals amongst ordinary individuals (top performers).

Jocko uses a phrase commonly spoken of amongst Navy SEALs stating, “Two is one, and one is none.”

Jocko explains: “It just means, “Have a backup plan.” If you have two of something, you will break or lose one and end up with one remaining: if you have one, you will break or lose it and be screwed.”

A more common way of putting it is “better to have and not need than to need and not have.” In working with technicians who go out to take service calls, they have a van full of tools and commonly used items for these exact cases. If you question whether to bring it or not, you should bring it.

Start to answer the questions before they are asked. This approach will help you think of the things necessary to complete the job. Someone will report a leaking sprinkler system or faucet. Think of the common instances which would cause this to happen.

A faulty sprinkler head, a hole in the line, a broken seal, and so on are all possibilities. Rather than wait to get out there to see what the issue is, you will be prepared for all common instances and have the appropriate tools necessary to fix them immediately.

On a broader scale, Jocko specifies “single points of failure” in your business. If a particular contract is terminated, can your company survive? Are you relying too heavily on one revenue stream? Remember, if you have one, you have none.

A cash cow project or program is an example of something that, should it go bust, could end a company quickly. The company’s portfolio may be diverse, having many divisions operating in different categories. You could have an underground utility division, a grading division, an aggregate division, and a paving division.

However, if one of those divisions (say the underground utilities) makes up for 70% of the overall revenue, this company has a single point of failure. Should that division fail, an entire organization may fail. While on paper, you have four divisions, in reality, you have one, which ultimately means you have none.

Jocko continues, “And don’t just have a backup gear – have a backup plan to handle likely contingencies.” The service technician who has backup hoses and connections is prepared. However, should a worst-case scenario present itself, contingencies need to be in place.

Do you have the equipment to replace an entire sprinkler line? A patch repair was expected, but now the least expected result has happened. The preparedness level went from ‘we got this’ to ‘uh-oh’ really quickly.

In some instances, if you have two, you have none. Take the quarterback position in football. Most teams have a starting quarterback that is relied upon for an entire season. The backup is present in case of injury. Otherwise, he just holds a clipboard and looks the part.

Some teams have a position battle. Both quarterbacks take equal snaps with the first team in practice, and a starter is decided before each game. In these instances, more is not better, and the team has no quarterback.


Two is one and one is none

While we often hear that general phrase two is better than one, in the project management profession, my example specifically compares a project with two project managers. The team looks to the project manager for direction. One project manager leads through hands-on communication and face-to-face interactions. The other prefers email and texting to deliver messages. They each have a different idea of where the project is headed.

This project has no leader or project manager because the team is getting mixed signals depending on who they speak to. Cohesion and chemistry are never established. More chefs in the kitchen are not necessarily best for business. You need runners and sous chefs to delegate work. Without these defined roles, people go into business for themselves, resulting in counterintuitive practices.


Jocko’s approach is proactive and gets the team thinking about what they appear to have and what they actually have. You know something is going to break. If the part is commonplace, have it plentiful at a central location. There is no reason to skimp on gloves and safety vests because those are bulk items each team member will need.

Even larger items like teeth for excavator buckets or laptops for office employees should be available on demand. There is no need to have a laptop break on-site and not get someone out there the same day with a replacement.

The construction industry is hard on equipment, and maintenance that is done quickly can be the difference between reaching your quota and falling short. If you know motors on the conveyors need to be replaced regularly, have spares in the trailer on site. That way, instead of spending hours of travel time to get a replacement at the headquarters, they can spend a half-hour fixing it and getting back to production.

Some companies are fortunate enough to have spare heavy equipment available should a loader or an excavator need major repairs. These cases explain Jocko’s idea beautifully. Being down a day or two with faulty equipment puts the project in serious jeopardy. Knowing this, have a backup plan to the backup plan.

The idea Jocko represents is something bad is bound to happen. Instead of waiting for it to happen and then reacting, have a plan in place already. This approach allows the project or mission to continue without a hiccup or stoppage.

Being proactive should be instilled not only in your practice but also in your team. Get the team thinking of ways to fail and countering those by having backups. If they find themselves constantly behind because they are running for parts, get those parts in their trailers in bulk.

Two is one, and one is none. In some cases, like leadership, two is none.


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