Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Strategies to be Wary of: Nullification

Many people believe that once a decision has been reached, a law passed, or an edict issued, that a particular matter is resolved. Not so if the opponents are powerful, determined, and savvy. Having lost the public battle over an issue they then move to reduce or even nullify the impact of the decision. They do this in a number of way: they slow down the pace of its implementation, they argue about the wording of the rules or regulations that will guide its implementation, they call for further studies, they add additional time consuming requirements, they seek out rare adverse effects and hype them as the norm, the list is almost endless.

In the political world we have just had a prime example over financial reform in the US. In the aftermath of the 2008/9 financial disasters Congress enacted the Dodd Frank Act, which included a section popularly called the “Volcker Rule”. I won’t go into the details. But Wall St hated this stipulation. So they beavered away in the regulation making part of the process to water down the rule. They almost succeeded, and they still might, when JP Morgan went and lost $6B using the same practice that the banks had enshrined in the regulations. Bad timing for them: maybe not so much for us taxpayers.

Another example comes from the application of trade policy. During the 80’s everyone worried about the trade imbalance caused by the success of Japan’s exports. On a number of occasions Japan agreed to increase imports from the US and European countries. However they then created a large set of import regulations that totally negated the agreements: Public acceptance, Private nullification.

This technique is used almost every day in the project world. Opponents of your project will chip away at your budget, your resources, your business case, your requirements, and your project’s implementation schedule, there’s no such thing as a concrete decision on a project. There’s always new stuff to be wary of and to address. It's never over until the calorie challenged lady sings!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Project Managers and Team Members: Semi-Detached

Some team members never completely commit to the project, they are semi-detached. They give you and the project goals half-hearted support, but it’s always your project, it’s never our project. This lukewarm commitment is usually easy to detect when the project team is located in one spot, far harder to observe when the team is dispersed across many sites and countries. Out of sight, out of control is a good description of their attitude. However the use of “your” rather “our” is usually a give away, also if they’re always giving priority to other work.
There two steps for dealing with them. The first involves making them responsible for a specific project deliverable: make them own something. The second approach is to ask them how the performance of the project could be improved and then give them the responsibility for making that improvement. If these steps fail then you might as well change the designation from semi to fully detached and ask their management for a replacement. Some projects are too important to carry nonperforming passengers.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Project Managers and the OODA Loop: Nate Silver v's Confirmation Bias

The recent US presidential election gave an excellent example of the role that confirmation bias plays in too much of our thinking. It is particularly present and dangerous in the Orientate phase of the OODA loop.

First let me define the term: Confirmation bias is the mental practice whereby we only give credence to evidence that supports – confirms – our previous opinions. Other evidence is discarded on any pre-text: not current, biased research, poor methodology, hidden agendas, bias, etc.

During the election a voting polls analyst named Nate Silver consistently pointed to the fact that his analysis of ALL published polls – the ALL is important – indicated that there was solid evidence that President Obama would win comfortably. Mr Silver has a very good track record for non-partisan forecasts. He correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 Presidential contest and the 2010 Republican success. He basically tells it as the data indicates.

His prediction that President Obama would win handily was viewed with skepticism, at best, by the political pundit class, Republicans and Democrats, who based on their “knowledge” and gut feel, but no data, said the election was too close to call. On the more extreme fringes of the Republican Party they claimed his information was biased and their polls showed, without the Silver “bias” that Mitt Romney was ahead in key states. Well we know who was right and who was wrong. Nate Silver got it right again!

Political pundits are not alone in this “cherry picking” of facts to sustain a chosen belief: Economists, sports fans, ones children, all seek out evidence to support the case that they are trying to prove. Rarely do they look at the evidence that contradicts their stance. When it is brought to their attention then it is dismissed.

After all why ruin a good story with pesky facts.

This sort of behavior is very prevalent in project management. Evidence that a particular project is not going to meet its desired goals is ignored. Many companies subscribe to the idea that poorly performing projects should be axed. Yet very few are. If a project is approved and started then it is rare that it is halted. Some project are never closed, they are deprived of adequate funds and exist in a zombie twilight zone, neither dead nor alive. All the while their sponsors point to evidence that the project is working. Who of us hasn’t sat through an executive presentation were known failures are lauded has being successful.

So we has project managers have to resist the urge to only look at evidence that reflects our beliefs – positive or negative – on a given project or topic. When we are given new observations and we are internally orientating to this new information we have to assess ALL the observations not just those that suit our pre-conceived opinions.

If we don’t then we run the risk of the embarrassment that befell the noted political pundit Karl Rove on Nov 6th this year. Mr Rove, who was a key player in the Republican campaign – spending some $300 million of other people’s money on losing causes, was incensed that the FOX news channel was stating that President Obama would win the State of Ohio. His information, from the Romney campaign – no bias there, indicated that the state would go to Romney. He insisted that one of the show’s anchors walk to the network’s election desk to “put them right”: pun intended. Well in a classic piece of television the statisticians on the desk ‘stuck to their guns’ and were provided right. Huge amounts of embarrassment at FOX News, no apology from Mr Rove – who probably still thinks he was correct – and a classic and public example of confirmation bias.

So who do you want to be, Nate Silver or Karl Rove? Go with the facts or with your biases?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Project Manager and Risks : Types of Assumptions

 Most projects start with the planning phase by detailing the assumptions on which the plan will be based. Some of these assumptions are estimating guidelines, as in "50% of the project resources will be subcontractors". Others are scope limitations, as in "the client will be responsible for all data conversions".  Each of them is a potential risk, but in a different way. And the level of risk is not comparable.

Planning guidelines are clearly understood as being directional and subject to constant review - if you cannot get 50% subcontractors, or more likely 50% of regular employees, then the team leaders will quickly let you know. Scope limitations are exclusionary actions - stuff is being discarded and will not be considered again. This may not be subject to constant review and out of sight means out of mind. So the risk engendered by exclusionary assumptions can be much larger because it will come as a surprise if it is wrong or changes.

The example quoted, "client will be responsible for all conversions" is a particularly dangerous one in that we have delegated responsibility for a key element and may have surrender key oversight as well.

Scope creep is always held up as a persistent problem that we need to be on our guard against. Yet in many cases it is unwise scope exclusion at the planning stage that causes us more serious problems. Scope creep can be a slow process with many opportunities to halt it. Like an increasing waist line it may be insidious but there are usually plenty of signs that it is occurring, like having to take your belt out a notch or two, or getting a larger dress size.

With scope exclusion assumptions there are no early warnings until it all goes wrong.

What you expect to happen doesn't and you are in trouble and everything is at risk.  It's the difference between obesity and a heart attack. You can always diet but you might not survive a cardiac arrest!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Project Managers and Social Media: To tweet or Not to tweet?

Hardly a day goes by without the tabloid press feasting on the latest tweet from some celebrity, sportsman providing a cornucopia of loose talk. This of course gives us plenty of entertainment and, depending on our sensibilities, a sense of outrage at the more expletive laden ones.

However the popularity of social media, be it Twitter, Facebook, et al, does have major implications for project managers. The inability of younger colleagues: Gen X, millenniums, or whatever new grouping the sociologists dream up, to clearly delineate what is confidential and what can be shared is a major risk for PM's. Be it giving away development plans by telling their "friends" what they are working on, or making derogatory comments about clients, co-workers, or us it can create a major problem. They may have an expectation of privacy, but there are no guarantees and once on the web always on the web. Last year's funny but now embarrassing photo of a beer bust or wet T-shirt competition is still out there.

As a project manager you have to establish - if your company hasn't - clear guidelines about what is permissible to mention on social media and what isn't. Prudence dictates that you apply tough guidelines - basically you cannot mention any project related activities on social media. Nothing, Nada, Zllch.

It may make you appear as a curmudgeon, a dinosaur, but it'll save you having to explain away your team's indiscretions.

So the answer to the question "to tweet or not to tweet?" is: "Not on my project, dude!"