As if to definitively prove Newton Minow’s assertion from six years previous that the content of American television had become “a vast wasteland,” in 1967 ABC aired a situation comedy entitled The Flying Nun (and, no, I am not making this up). The premise of the series – which ran for 82 episodes, believe it or not – was that its protagonist, Sister Betrille (played by Sally Field), could actually fly with no other apparatus needed than her large, heavily starched cornett, which was roughly the shape of an airfoil. A passing breeze was all that was needed to send the petite nun airborne. Yes, it’s extremely silly. Nevertheless, I want to spend a few ounces of pixel ink on some of the problems involved in this premise, and then proceed to make an improbable link to some PM insights.
Checking out the opening and closing credits on YouTube for this show is both highly instructive and laugh-out-loud cringe-worthy, on a par with Leonard Nimoy singing “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” Sister Betrille is depicted soaring over hills and valleys at what I would estimate over 40 miles per hour, at an altitude of several thousand feet, easy. Recall that this is supposedly done with no other apparatus than the cornett, which absolutely does not have a source of thrust. The good sister also appears to have a limited ability to change direction and altitude independent of the “passing breeze” that sent her airborne in the first place. Indeed, in the show’s opening she appears to be performing aerobatic tricks, which is obviously impossible without a source of thrust.
Then there’s the problem of how her cornett stays attached to her head. It isn’t strapped on – one can see her neck all the way around the gap between the headdress and the rest of her habit. Have you ever worn a hat so snug that your entire person could be lifted off of the ground if a force were to lift such a hat? Since it’s stated that Sister Betrille weighs less than 90 lbs., the only way the cornett doesn’t simply fly off of her head when these well-timed passing breezes happen by is if it’s squeezed around the perimeter of her cranium vault with 90 lbs. of pressure, which some internet sources calculate to be sufficient to crack her skull. And, even if her skull remained intact, in order to remove the cornett the petite nun would have to be able to essentially military press 90 lbs.
The last time I wrote about the absurdity of some movie stunts happening in real-life (Ripped Apart, Not Stirred, PMNetwork, March 2006), I received some, ummm, instructive e-mails roundly criticizing my challenges to some of the stunts depicted in James Bond films, and that’s okay. I’m fairly confident that this piece won’t receive similar comments. Indeed, if I squint hard enough, I can kind of see how this premise got its original footing (so to speak). There are a lot of videos of people flying large kites on the beach, and becoming airborne when force equal to or more than the weight of the flyer catches said kite, with comical results. So something along these lines is demonstrably possible – just not on the scale that our subject sitcom depicts. The concept is, simply, not scalable, which leads us to…
Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…
ProjectManagement.com’s theme for October is Social Media and PM. Last week I commented on the regulators/controllers of some sites, and their ability to deny access to people spouting themes that they find “outside the terms of service.” But that’s just one aspect of the flawed assumption that, if enhanced communications among project “stakeholders” is a good thing, then a greatly enhanced capacity for inter-network communications must be exponentially more beneficial. I disagree with that idea.
In his brilliantly insightful book Skin In The Game, Nassim Taleb points out the many instances where a relatively small change in a population assumed to operate within a given structure renders such structures utterly invalid. In short, the rules can change so dramatically and suddenly as to render any assumption of business model scalability suspect, if not absurd. In this particular realm, the techniques considered standard to most PM-types, while maintaining a high process value for teams engaged in small-to-medium projects, become useless (or even detrimental) when used for a larger scope. The opposite is also true: much of what the PM guidance-generating world believes is essential to “proper” Project Management approaches and strategies can be counted on to utterly fail when scaled down to small or medium projects.
For once I’ll (try to) avoid picking on our friends, the risk management experts. Their techniques are perfectly scalable in the sense that they are universally flawed (whoops, I guess I failed). But consider: for Firm Fixed-Price contracts, is Change Control ever even necessary? The winning bidder is on the hook for delivering the scope on-budget. If they overrun, what concern is that to the customer? Customers only need pay the value of the original cost baseline, and any negative variance at completion is on the contractor (or their bond holders). Is the customer a stakeholder? Obviously. Is the cost performance status of any given FFP contract communicable? Of course. Should it actually be communicated? I vote no, on the grounds that it’s irrelevant. Change control, for internal changes, in some instances isn’t scalable.
Communication management suffers from a similar problem. There’s an entire industry that helps companies get past just a few negative comments on their customer review pages. Never mind that the vast majority of customer comments can be highly positive – a mere fraction can have out-of-proportion negative impacts to those organizations’ market share. The outsized impact of negative customer reviews in proportion to their positive counterparts, I believe, represents ipso facto evidence that enhanced communication techniques are not scalable. Are these customers stakeholders? Obviously. Should any or all of their negative experiences be published? Perhaps. Unfortunately, as I pointed out before, the existence of social media represents a gigantic expansion in the realm of interpersonal communications. In short, this lack of scalability in the face of a force multiplier like social media will almost certainly lead to some erroneous, or even really goofy, ideas being forwarded and adopted in the realm of Project Management.
All I’m looking for is a sense of proportion, GTIM Nation. The same sort of common-sense proportion that would have slammed the brakes on My Mother The Car, or talking to Mr. Ed, or Cop Rock, or … well, you get the (TV) picture.