Posts Tagged With: improving project management

Once upon a project time…

Storytelling is a powerful tool to educate young and old alike. When it comes to project management, we can draw upon multiple sources for learning so let’s try to identify the lessons we can learn from the popular fables we heard as children.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Aesop provides us this well-known fable of the mischievous shepherd boy who tricks his neighbours into coming to the aid of his flock on multiple occasions. When a real wolf arrives and starts to attack his sheep, he is ignored and his flock is devoured.

We expect our sponsor and other senior leaders to handle escalations. But if we simply pass the buck and don’t own those actions, issues or risks which we could have addressed ourselves, they are not likely to respond in a timely manner when we finally bring a legitimate concern to their attention.

The Scorpion and the Frog

This is the contemporary fable of the frog who is unwilling to transport a scorpion across a river. The scorpion attempts to allay the frog’s fears by saying that if he stings the frog while being carried they will both drown. Midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog and explains to the frog as they both sink below the surface that it was in its nature to do so.

Cost Performance Index (CPI) provides an objective assessment of financial health and is unlikely to substantially improve once a project is more than 20% complete: “DOD experience in more than 400 programs since 1977 indicates without exception that the cumulative CPI does not significantly improve during the period of 15% through 85% of the contract performance; in fact it tends to decline.

Project performance, like our scorpion, has difficulty changing its nature.

The Tortoise and the Hare

We’ve all heard this tale of the tortoise who challenges an arrogant hare to a long distance race. The hare starts the race with a comfortable lead over the tortoise but believing he can’t be beaten, takes a nap, during which time the tortoise catches up and passes him for the win.

Projects are usually more like a marathon than a sprint. If our team is working significant overtime to achieve early milestones, chances are they will burnout quickly and we’ll fall short of the finish line. Teams working a sustainable pace are able to do so indefinitely. In short, slow and steady wins the project race.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

In the summer, while the studious ants were busy foraging and hoarding food, the grasshopper was relaxing and enjoying himself. When winter finally came, the ants were well prepared and survived while the procrastinating grasshopper perished.

Student Syndrome often impacts project tasks when they have been excessively padded. Rather than use the excess time wisely, team members will get distracted with other work and when Murphy’s Law strikes, they have used up any buffer they had. Scheduling project tasks using aggressive estimates and consolidating buffers at a key milestone level provides one way to address the impacts of realized risks without becoming a starving grasshopper!

Willa Cather said “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.

Perhaps the same holds true for project managers!


Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Who is the Cassandra on YOUR project?

I’m currently reading Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy’s book Warnings which analyzes a number of cases where a credible subject matter expert raised concerns proactively about a looming catastrophe but was ignored until it was too late to take preventative action.

The authors refer to these unfortunate prognosticators as “Cassandras” in reference to the Greek mythology tale of the princess of Troy, Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo to see into the future but to be ridiculed by those she tried to warn of impending disaster. Through the analysis of past tragedies the authors have developed a four part assessment to identify potential Cassandras including the nature of their warnings, the characteristics of the decision makers who have the power to act on the warnings, attributes of the Cassandras themselves and those of their critics.

So while this might make for an interesting read, what relevance does this have to project management?

Donald Rumsfeld brought the phrase “unknown unknowns” into the mainstream with his February 2002 response to a question about the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “…We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

But are such risks really “unknown unknowns”? On any project involving a reasonable number of stakeholders, surely there was someone with the imagination and creativity to have been able to surface issues which were not identified through project risk management practices.

The failure to do so might be because of one of the following factors listed in the book:

  • Initial occurrence syndrome: if a given risk has never been realized within the collective awareness of the stakeholders participating in risk identification, the tendency is to believe that it will never occur.
  • Erroneous consensus: if the culture of the team is to value harmony over healthy dissent, while one team member might have the foresight to identify a radical risk, if the consensus of the remaining team members is that this is not a concern, the Cassandra will be unwilling to push their point.
  • Invisible obvious: a lack of diversity within a team can increase the potential for groupthink. If we think of individual experience and knowledge as sets in a Venn diagram, we would ideally want to cover as much area as possible while still having some areas of commonality. The lower the diversity in a team, the greater the alignment of the collective sets and hence the greater the area of no knowledge.

In last week’s article I provided one possible glimpse into the future of our profession. A benefit of computer assisted project management might be a vast reduction in unknown unknowns if we choose to follow our AI’s guidance. Until then it is our responsibility as project managers to build diverse teams and to actively listen for the Cassandras within them.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The future is CAPM (and I DON’T mean PMI’s designation!)

Many professions are starting to face the threats and opportunities created by machine learning.

For those who view the glass as being half-empty, a very real threat is that jobs which can be automated and performed more efficiently will diminish over time. In some cases, having a task which has transitioned over to machines performed by humans might drive a higher price, albeit for a smaller work force. I read an article recently in Harvard Business Review which indicated that receiving service from another human being will become a costly privilege reserved for those lucky few who can afford such luxuries. All it takes is a visit to your nearby major retailer, bank or airline to experience the progressive prioritization of automation over personal service.

For the optimistic among us, the opportunity presented is that we will be able to spend a much greater percentage of our time focused on high-value work leveraging emotions, insights and creativity which cannot be easily replicated by machines. It might imply reframing what a work week is. Rather than setting a standard number of work hours, the focus might permanently shift to business outcomes, regardless of the effort or duration involved.

So what might this mean for us?

It’s commonly said that 90% of our effort is spent communicating and what makes us succeed is our competency with key soft skills rather than their technical abilities. This might give us the false sense of confidence that our profession will not transform as machine learning evolves.

But is it that unreasonable to believe that a few years from now, we will rely on Computer Assisted Project Management solutions which apply machine learning to thousands of past projects to help guide our planning, issue management, decision making and monitoring efforts? This assistance would enable us to increase the effort spent on managing stakeholder expectations, communicating effectively and sustaining high-performing teams.

A logical milestone to such advancements is found in fictional contexts such as that provided by Star Trek. While there is still the need for leadership provided by biological organisms, that leadership relies on automation to guide much more ambitious exploratory pursuits than could be achieved in their absence. 

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations might imply man AND machine.



Categories: Project Management | Tags: | 1 Comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: