In my seemingly endless attempts at stamping out poor management science scholarship, I have, on many occasions, encountered ideas that leave me with a case of epistemological heartburn. Many of these ideas have to do with commonly-accepted management axioms, both valid and not. For example, the adage “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed,” variously attributed to Deming or Drucker, came under fire in an article I read recently on a prominent business website. In this article by Liz Ryan, entitled ‘If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It’: Not True (sic), dated February 10 of last year, one of the pull quotes is:
A typical ridiculous, unquestioned business adage is “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” That’s BS on the face of it, because the vast majority of important things we manage at work aren’t measurable, from the quality of our new hires to the confidence we instill in a fledgling manager.[i]
The rest of the article is similar in tone and content, meaning that it’s something of a Banjo Minnow[ii] to me. Besides the suspect management science assertions, one would think that someone in the chain of publishing command, from the author through the editorial staff, would have known that single quote marks are only used when quoting someone within an existing quotation, not to mention the inelegance of using the particular acronym she chose.
Hyperbolic writing styles and punctuation difficulties aside, let’s take a look at the central assertion, shall we? As I have oft asserted in this blog, my version of the Pareto Rule as it applies to Management Information Systems is that the 20% worst managers who have access to 80% of the information they need to obviate a given decision will consistently out-perform the 80th percentile best managers who have access to only 20% of the necessary information. Okay, so how does one obtain this information? It has to have three characteristics:
The second bullet pertains to the measurement and management axiom. For “the vast majority” of management decisions, some kind of accurate measurement is needed to avoid a bad, or even cataclysmic, call. A short list includes:
I could go on (and often do), but you see my point. To categorically downgrade entire information streams as male bovine droppings based on whether or not they can be accurately quantified is to plunge into management science alchemy, and with complete abandon. By attempting to conflate the quantifiable with the irrelevant, the article ends up making several invalid conclusions, and attempts to buttress them with bombast (and several amateurish cartoon drawings).
And therein lies my heartburn. Management science, as a field of scholarship, is already considered suspect by adherents to the hard sciences. To further a hypothesis with little more than primitive cartoons and hyperventilated prose just feeds in to the notion that MIS theory is just so much bloviating, made all the worse by a prominent brand name having published it. If the high-profile management publications are going to allow their authors to market in shoddy business theories, we should probably expect multiple series on risk management soon.
[i] Ryan, Liz, retrieved from Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2014/02/10/if-you-cant-measure-it-you-cant-manage-it-is-bs/, November 21, 2015, 19:29 MST.
[ii] A “banjo minnow” is a fishing lure that was advertised as being irresistible to fish. In a demonstration, a banjo minnow was dangled in front of a bass in an aquarium, with a voice-over assuring viewers that the bass was not hungry. Nevertheless, the fish snapped up the lure.
I once worked with a large program office that had several, far-flung subordinate project offices. To keep up with the satellite office’s schedule performance, the home office had a software package that enabled the sites to send in updates pertaining to their attainment of key milestones. This program wasn’t based on Critical Path Methodology – instead, this “status” was in the form of assigning a category to the milestone: (1) completed, (2) expected on-time or early, (3) anticipated delay, or (4) anticipated major delay or out-and-out miss. Of course, this setup wasn’t a schedule performance measurement system at all, despite the way it was advertised. As my regular readers will readily recognize, this system’s design was essentially that of a poll: the performing organizations weren’t sending in performance data. They were, rather, transmitting their opinions on how they would perform, which is a very different animal.
An entirely predictable pattern emerged: at the fiscal year switchover, a new set of milestones (with their due dates) would be negotiated, and all of the milestones in the report would show an anticipated on-time delivery (2). Then, as these milestones’ due dates drew within a few months, their status would tend to change to anticipated delay (3), and, only within one or two months of the due date, the activities that were genuinely in trouble would reveal an anticipated major delay, or a complete miss (4). A legitimate schedule performance measurement system could have alerted the home office of the problems in time for them to help deal with them; instead, the satellite offices were in a position to obscure any issue that might make them look bad in comparison to the other sites, and the home office remained in the dark until their intervention couldn’t help anything. But, hey, the software package itself performed as expected!
It was pretty obvious to me what the problem with this system was, and so I, along with two associates from my organization, visited the site that had developed the software in the first place. There’s actually an old scheduler’s trick for assessing performance in environs where routinely collecting the data needed to keep a critical path method package going isn’t an option. All you need to do is to divide an activity’s cumulative duration by its estimated percent complete, and you have a fairly accurate estimate of its total duration. Compare this figure to the activity’s original duration, and you know within about ten points if the activity will finish early, on-time, or (gasp!) late, and by how much. Since this system already had the activities’ start dates, all it needed was the percent complete estimate (instead of the milestone categorization used), and it instantly became an effective (if basic) schedule performance analysis tool. The programmers we met with thanked us for the insight, but turned down cold our entreaties to update their software. The reason? “Because before this package was introduced, there was nothing, and, even if it is flawed, this is better than nothing.”
So, what we had was an instance of a piece of software that had been adequately tested and installed, but was still failing at its purported function, that of monitoring schedule performance across multiple project sites within a program. Why was it failing, despite passing its tests? Because it was predicated on a flawed business model. Polls are not performance measurement systems, period, even though they often masquerade as them. However, once in-place, it would prove to be very difficult (if not impossible) to replace it with any system that would represent a superior solution based on, essentially, the flawed sunk-cost argument.
So, before you test the software – indeed, before you code the software – do yourself and your customers a favor, and test the validity of the underlying business model. How can you do this? Well, first you…
Oops! Look at that, I’m out of space. If you can’t wait, check out the book that this blog is named after, available at http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409442424.
Pretty simple question, right? What color is an orange? Since it’s such a simple question, and since I’m the one asking, my regular readers are perfectly justified in suspecting a trap. Can I, in 700 words, convince you of an answer different from the obvious one? We’ll see.
Due to minute variations in the way humans are made up chemically, biologists have discovered that virtually everybody experiences sensory inputs slightly differently. Salt probably tastes pretty much the same for all of us, but it’s a rare palate that can discern a 1926 Dom Perignon from a 1959 vintage. And even some experts in music can have a difficult time telling the difference between a Primavera (the violin maker) and a Stradivarius in the hands of a sufficiently talented player.
This phenomena extends to our perception of color, as well. Technically, what we perceive as “color” is actually the different wavelengths of radiation in what humans know as the visual spectrum (as opposed to whose perception? Stay with me.), situated in between near-infrared (on the low side) and near-ultraviolet. Humans have three types of color-receptive cones: green, blue, and red, the last of which enables us to see all the colors that are derived from red, such as violet, and, yes, orange. By contrast, butterflies have five types of receptor cones, which means that they see at least two more colors than we humans even have names for. Mantis shrimp have 16 different types of cones(1) .
Meanwhile, back in the Project Management world, roving bands of PM-themed writers, consultants, and bloggers prowl about the land, seeking to uncover project management practices that don’t meet their ideas of sufficiency. Where do these ideas of sufficiency come from? I would argue that, with few exceptions, they come predominantly from one source: experience. For those readers who would object by saying that education also comes in to play, I would argue that “education” is rarely more than others’ experience, communicated to and adapted by the writer/consultant/blogger. In the management sciences, theories that would otherwise overturn commonly shared experiences are almost never provable in an experimental setting. When we talk about project management best practices, it’s virtually always based on experience – our own, or others’ (whom we know about).
Okay, so if it’s a common experience that, just as the orange fruit is orange in color, any major project would be doing Project Management wrong if there were, say, no recurring “bottoms-up” estimate being performed, why is it problematic to point that out? Because it’s subjective, that’s why.
If the question as to whether or not an object is orange is mission-critical, then the appropriate response would be something like “Its wavelength is between 635 and 590 nanometers, which most people perceive as the color orange.” Similarly, if a writer, consultant, or auditor wants to level severe criticism against a project team for not executing the occasional “bottoms-up” estimate, the natural response should be “Why? Why is re-re-estimating the remaining work considered a valid analysis technique? Which projects have had success in doing that way, as opposed to the normal, calculated version?” But, since there is no valid research establishing that performing a “bottoms-up” estimate yields vital performance information that often changes the project team’s technical approach for the better, the one making the criticism remains mired in subjectivity. At that point, the argument turns on the differences in the participants’ experience. But, as we established earlier, our experiences are almost certainly subjective and unique – even those from virtually identical backgrounds can and do have significantly different takes on their shared experiences, up to and including causality.
So, what color is an orange? Well, I’ll concede it’s orange – if and only if disagreement doesn’t land me or my project team in the non-compliance penalty box. Otherwise, I’m going to have to insist on a spectrometer analysis…
(1)The Oatmeal, “Why the Mantis Shrimp is my New Favorite Animal,” retrieved from http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp on November 5, 2015, 18:06 MST.
With the upcoming release of the movie Spectre, I thought I would, once again, employ my own Bond, James Bond-like skills, and infiltrate PMI®’s top-secret archive vault to review some of their most closely-guarded documents. The safe is behind the velvet Elvis painting in the President’s office, and the combination is still the factory setting. What I found inside was both amazing, and highly appropriate for dissemination among my readers.
In a red folder marked “Top Secret: The Evolution of Change Control,” I found some time-yellowed papers that appeared to be antique Baseline Change Proposals, or BCPs. Holding my little flashlight in my mouth, I snapped photos of them before putting them back. Here are some of the jaw-dropping highlights.
Contractor: H. Potter & Associates
So, I am now going to play the part of Wikileaks, and release these Baseline Change Proposal documents I photographed out of PMI®’s vaults as they become relevant. But I’d rather not move to Russia…
My younger son is completing his undergraduate work at a State University, which means he’s getting fed a steady diet of the Leftist worldview. It’s okay – I did my undergrad work at the same University, so I’m ready to counter some of the more egregious stuff.
Take environmentalism (yes, this blog has a management component to it – just bear with me). The main arguments he invokes when suggesting that corporations must be reigned in has to do with the scenario where some company comes in to an area, town, whatever, sets up a facility to extract or manufacture, damages the environment, and then high-tails it out before any enforcement agency can interfere or hold them accountable. This is a favorite scenario of the anti-corporate types as they argue for more oversight and restrictions on the managers of such opportunistic and greedy entities. But I have to ask: where did the notion that companies only seek to extract profits from an available market at the expense of a multitude of other concerns, the natural environment in which they operate included?
I blame a familiar target, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP.
As I have previously and often asserted in this blog, there are three types of management:
Indeed, the natural extension of the notion that the point of all management is to maximize shareholder wealth is the very scenario feared by environmentalist, or any other stakeholder who stands to lose by the corporate entity behaving in just such a fashion. Your typical Project Manager would just assume have a happy project team chasing the project’s scope; Strategic Managers are actually happier when the competitions’ workforce is noticeably demoralized. Not so the Asset Managers – as long as the Profit-and-Loss statement looks really good, their view is that their decisions and influence have delivered an environment (pun intended) where the company’s assets are pulling in more revenue than they are expending, which is always a good thing based on that philosophy. Is the company’s revenue projection headed downward? Having the employees work harder and longer (without incurring additional costs) is the obvious answer. If that doesn’t work, they will look for other areas to cut costs: training, seminars, facilities, perks – nothing is off limits, up to and including layoffs (strikethrough) reductions in force. It’s simply the way they see the business world.
And it’s not just the environment. Recently a person bought up the rights to a drug used to counter certain parasites, and increased the price 5500% (1). While this struck the rest of the universe as an outrage, it must be pointed out that (a) it was perfectly legal, and (2) it maximized shareholder wealth. In short, any intellectually honest GAAP adherent should admit that it was a pretty clever maneuver – either that, or step up and admit that the whole “maximize shareholder wealth” meme is openly fraudulent, or at the very least hopelessly inadequate.
(1)Skeptical Raptor’s Blog, Skyrocketing Prices of an Anti-Parasitic Drug: The Facts?, retrieved from http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/skyrocketing-prices-of-an-anti-parasitic-drug-the-facts/, October 25, 2015, 18:23 MDT.