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Full Throttle

Chris Hickman gave me what proved to be the worst advice he could possibly give someone with my personality type. His recommendation: "Rick, when in doubt it's almost always better to accelerate than to brake." However, in his defense, there was a bit of logic in his recommendation.

Hickman, CEO of demand-response company Innovari, has a cabin in southern Colorado, and he invited me to go snowmobiling with him and his buddies. Because novices tend to hit the brakes when they get in trouble, they also tend to nose over and bury their snowmobiles when in deep powder; and digging out a 500-lb snowmobile is no picnic. Conversely, when you hit the accelerator, the front end rises up, and the skis lift you over trouble. At least that's the theory.

Looking at the power industry as a whole, we tend to be skittish when we get in trouble and hit the brakes, only to find ourselves digging out of yet another hole. Too often, we put on the brakes when we should put down the accelerator. Those of us who have had a project cancelled after investing years in design and development, experience a real blow to the ego, knowing our efforts provided so little in the form of tangible results.

With major transmission and substation construction projects going on all over, I have a lot of opportunities to hear "the rest of the story." Most of the stories are positive but not without difficulties. Many of us who have worked in the field find that most challenging assignments have a "hit the gas" moment that turns a project around. One transmission construction site I toured had been delayed by months of torrential rains. The project completion dates were hit when the contractor prefabricated tower segments and placed them with helicopters. Another project required drilling through really tough soils. When traditional drills were making little headway, a massive drill rig quickly powered through and turned the financial outcome of the tower foundation portion of the construction project from red to black.

Theory Versus Reality

In my case, the reality of accelerating through trouble had a less than favorable outcome. I hit the throttle going up a slope and slammed into a submerged boulder. I was flung into the handlebar (Dang, that hurt!) and off the snowmobile, landing face first in the snow. The snowmobile continued on up the hill, stalled, did a 360-degree roll and landed right on top of me. Fellow snowmobiler Phong Ho recruited Johnny and Eric to help get the snowmobile off me. Headed back to the cabin, I began to drift into a draw and again accelerated out of trouble. NOT! But because I hit the handlebars in the earlier mishap, I decided to stand while driving. This caused me to pitch right over the handlebars, and I was launched headfirst into a snow bank in a fashion that Chris likened to a lawn dart.

After Chris dug the snowmobile out of the snow for the umpteenth time, he stated, "Rick, I'm beginning to think the accelerator rule doesn't apply to you!" With newfound respect for the brakes, I got back to the cabin with no more mishaps.

Gas or Brake?

Still, I am in the main, more enamored with the gas than the brake. Probably my favorite "gas" story is the last cable project I was on before I left Georgia Power. We had contracted with Frank Kinnan with Underground Research on an EPRI-tailored collaboration project to place a 115-kV cable under an Indian burial mound in Helen, Georgia, using horizontal boring techniques.

One day, after a particularly bad week and little or no progress, I showed up to the job site to find two engineers grinning from ear to ear. I couldn't fathom any reason for the positive demeanor. "What are you two smiling about?"  I asked. We had already lost three or four drill bits with associated drill steel and sensing systems, and there was no obvious reason to believe that this day would turn out any different. Their response? "This is the day we take the hill."

Somehow they knew; they could feel it. And their confidence was contagious. The drilling crews soon picked up the vibes and we were off. Everything turned on a dime when they put down the drill rig throttle. On that "very good day" they drilled half the route, boring through 6-inch cobbles in the river valley, then dipped under the Chattahoochee River, drilled up a 30-degree slope and through a 20-ft-thick solid granite cap of rock.

One can never guarantee the outcome before the journey has begun. But we gain our confidence, not based on the salary we draw or the titles on our business cards, but on the difficulties we overcome. We need to gas up our engines, both internal and external, and attack our work. If everything goes according to plan, what did we really learn? We only gain confidence when tackling challenging projects. And the best way to attack challenging projects is with liberal use of the accelerator.



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