The Flying Buttresses of Success

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According to a history of architecture website named, in the twelfth century

Somebody (nobody knows who) invented the flying buttress. Instead of the buttress being stuck to the side of the building, it would form an arch leading away from the building.

The flying buttress would start from the places at the top of the wall where the groin vaults were directing the weight of the roof. From there, the flying buttresses would carry the weight of the roof away from the building and down a column of stone to the ground. It wouldn’t matter what the walls were made of anymore, because they wouldn’t be carrying the weight of the roof.[i]

Other examples of flying buttresses in building interiors appear as an unsupported column top, with its load-bearing utility not being intuitively obvious. Essentially, the flying buttress allowed the weight of the structure to be diverted away from the walls.

Another act of diversion, this one pertaining to human behavior, has to do with the oft-used cliché, that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. I know when I hear that phrase cited my first notion of its meaning has to do with a somewhat jaded view of human nature, that we’re imminently susceptible to crafting or altering a narrative to make ourselves appear to be a vital part of a winning team, but hardly involved at all if the same (in this case, project) team crashes and burns.

But taken together with another axiom, this one a quote from Charles Kettering, “99 percent of success is built on failure,”[ii] and a larger insight emerges. It goes without saying that, if we don’t own our mistakes, we never learn from them. But what happens when we glom on to successes where we did not provide the material cause, much less the proximate cause, of the favorable outcome? I think we see this very outcome on-display at so many PM-themed conferences, seminars, podcasts and guidance documents, that of attribution of success to some very questionable management science hypotheses.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

Take, for example, the practice of time-phasing an Estimate to Complete (ETC). This rather silly practice has the full-throated approval of that guidance-generating-organization-that-must-not-be-named. It assumes several premises, including:

  • The ETC is derived from re-estimating remaining work (on a line-item level, no less) on an already-started project, instead of using the simple, accurate formula ETC = Estimate at Completion (EAC) – cumulative actuals;
  • Useful or relevant information can be gleaned from comparing budgets to actuals, and
  • Staffing decisions are based on differences between budgets and actual costs, rather than the nature of the remaining scope on the project.

These assumptions are suspect at best, and completely fraudulent at worst, being, as they are, poorly (or completely un-) supported by repeatable observations in a setting that would allow isolation of the dependent variables upon which the assertion depends. In other words, there is absolutely no evidence, not even a single instance, of a project owing its success to its ability to time-phase its ETC. These assertions are simply arrived at by a bunch of self-anointed experts, who publish their findings opinions with vague but impassioned support phrases such as “Doing X is key to project success.”  Really? Can we see the data that supports that assertion? Even a single example of how X is “key” to a specific project’s success?

And the time-phased ETC example is but one of many. Enhanced analysis techniques in risk management, communications management, quality management … the list goes on and on, with no hard data supporting the assertions, but with the ubiquitous “…is necessary (or “key,” “essential,” or “central”) to project success” contained in a nearby paragraph. It’s maddening, really.

Here’s the painfully-obvious-to-the-most-casual-observer essential element of project success: execute the scope. All of the analysis techniques inherent in Project Management have the singular function of reflecting the project teams’ performance as they execute the scope. Some of those analysis techniques are truly “key,” with Earned Value and Critical Path methodologies popping to mind. But many of these others are not, and not only that, they actually divert time and energy away from that load-bearing component of project success, executing the scope. And, to that end, they represent the very opposite of the things that are “essential” to project success.

I kind of like comparing those pushing these unsupported and unsupportable assertions about what is “key” to project success to flying buttresses. It sounds like I’m calling them a juvenile and semi-profane name, when I am, in fact, referring to them as an architectural feature. So, it is in that spirit that I can say to these “experts,” metaphorically speaking, of course, and sincerely: stop being flying buttresses.






[i] Retrieved from on December 3, 2017, 9:55 MST.

[ii] Retrieved from on December 3, 2017, 8:12 MST.

Posted on: December 04, 2017 10:32 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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haha, just "execute the scope." Short and sweet, and yet so true.

Thanks for providing a term I can use for that niggling thought in the back of my head as I read all the "essentials" that are really not so essential.

Back to the core of project management.

Thanks for sharing

Thanks for sharing

I always appreciate your approach. Thanks.

Great. thanks for sharing

Thanks for posting.

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