Approaching the 12 Step Program as a Traditional Project Plan

By cjbrecovery 12/14/18
Approaching the 12 Step Program as a Project Plan, flowchart of 12 steps



Since their implementation by Alcoholics anonymous in 1934, 12 step programs have been a tool to help addicts regain control in their lives.  Addiction takes many forms.  For example, many people first think of substance abuse, like the current opioid crisis or alcohol.  There are also behavioral disorders which can take the form of an addiction.  Recently the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) added Gambling Disorder [1], and the World Health Organization added gaming disorder and sexual compulsion disorders as mental illnesses[2].  Smart phones have created many accidents and life disruptions, leading to recent studies and changes by manufacturers[3].


Regardless of the nature of the addiction, the impact on the lives of the addict and their families can be devastating.  Many addicts have found help following the plan laid out by 12-step programs.


The 12 Steps


The basic 12 steps have been modified slightly depending upon the recovery program.  Many addictions have their own meetings with the format and program adjusted to meet the needs of the addict.  There is Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous, each targeting a specific addiction.  However, for the use in this paper, I will present the 12 steps as originally documented by Alcoholics Anonymous:


  1. WeWe admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable. 
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 
  3.  Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. 
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 
  9.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. 
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. 
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.


The 12 Steps as a Project Plan


With a close reading of the 12-step program, it can be seen as a type of project plan, where the stated goal is sustained sobriety and recovery of the addict.


Although not explicitly stated, the 12-step program is not a do-it-yourself plan.  There is usually a project team that supports the addict throughout the entire program. There is a sponsor (a project sponsor), that helps the addict navigate through the steps. Also, each of the 12 steps often given in the form of a presentation (thankfully, without PowerPoint), but can be seen as a project meeting where the status of the sobriety project is reviewed by the team and sponsor (all of them stakeholders).


Phase 1: Steps 1,2 and 3- Business need, Project Scope and Charter


In popular culture, the first step is generally perceived as “admitting you have a problem,” but when one looks at the exact wording, it is much more serious.  The addict must admit that they are powerless, and that their lives have become unmanageable.  This is clearly more deleterious and devastating than a “problem,” and it is analogous to a business need.  The need for the addict to get control over their life.


Similarly, the second step provides further analysis of the situation.  Many addicts discover that their addiction created an incredible distance between themselves and those closest to them.  Sometimes this is caused by a feeling of unworthiness, or a by-product of narcissism.  Regardless, there’s a “go it alone” attitude that gets the addict deeper into trouble. One solution is to rely on others for recovery.  This (along with the 3rdstep) defines the scope of the project as well: this connection with something “greater” than the addict.


There are many addicts that have struggled with the religious aspect of 12 steps[4].  However, the steps allow the addict to define God to suit their specific needs.  I had some initial difficulty embracing this concept, but quickly defined my Higher Power as “the community.”  The doctors and fellow addicts (peers) who were there to help me became my Higher Power.


The 3rdstep is the recommendation and project charter.  The addict will define their Higher Power and turn their lives over to this entity or idea. This is a significant change to the isolation that an addict’s life usually follows.


Phase 2: Steps 4 and 5 – Business documents (and analysis) and Kick-off meeting


Step 4’s moral inventory is an important project document.  The addict should take inventory of personal qualities (both positive and negative) and understand how some issues contributed to their addiction.  However, there will be personality traits that can also help with recovery.  There may be important traits that the addict needs that they currently struggle with. Thus, step 4 is a business document that provides an important gap analysis.  It is also an important project measurement, coming early in the program.


Step 5 is a formal kick-off meeting.  An input/predecessor to this step is the inventory created in the previous step.  However, Step 5 requires the addict to discuss this inventory with the members of the team and identify which items should be removed and which items are needed for recovery.


Phase 3: Steps 6 and 7 – Project Tasks and Critical Path


Step 6 is the successor to step 5 and predecessor of step 7.  It is the critical path the addict takes to the milestone (step 7) of humbly asking for the defects of characters to be removed.  These were identified in Step 4, discussed in Step 5 and reviewed in Step 6. It is a finish-to-start logical relationship that many project managers would find comfortable.


Phase 4: Steps 8 and 9 Stake- Holder Review and Risk Analysis


It is no surprise that the actions taken by the addict while they succumb to addiction hurt those closest to them.  Hence, there is a need to create a project document (a list of all persons the addict harmed) and become willingto make amends.  This is another inventory (metric) for the project.  For many addicts, resentment is a major contributor to feeding the addiction.  By being willing to make amends, the addict is confronting their resentment.


Before actually making amends, the addict must do a risk analysis to determine if the amends option is appropriate.  There are many stakeholders for whom the “do nothing” option is the best choice.  Expert judgement is critical for determining which persons to contact, and which to leave alone.


Phase 5: Steps 10, 11 and 12 Project Maintenance, Communication Plan and Change Management


 As stated earlier, sobriety is a lifetime effort and there is no end date for the recovery. However, there are many elements of this maintenance that have counterparts with long term projects and are part of the project deliverables.


Step 10 is an ongoing version of Step 4.  It is iterative but has an critical element of change management.  When the addict is wrong, they must admit it, and hopefully take actions to minimize damage. The actual frequency is up to the addict.  Some adhere to a daily inventory before going to sleep, where others are constantly keeping inventory at every waking moment.


Step 11 is the quality assurance plan where the focus is on continuous improvement.  This is also an important part of the maintenance plan.  There our guidelines provided for maintaining this step (prayer and meditation), but the onus is on the addict and their team to develop the best program.


Step 12 highlights the importance of following these steps and achieving an awakening.  Many adherents to the 12-Step programs feel strongly about two-steppers[5], addicts that take the first step, and then focus on helping others stay sober before stabilizing their own recovery.  This would deviate from the documented plan and reduce the quality of the deliverable.  It is important that the addict complete the project following the plan as closely as possible.  Once followed, then the addict can develop a communication plan as part of the maintenance cycle.  The communication plan is critical to recovery, since carrying the message to other addicts (via meetings and self-support groups) has been shown to help addicts recover.

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