The title, of course, is a derivative of Metcalf’s Law, which pertains to network theory. My interpretation is that relatively small perturbations in far-flung parts of a large network can (and do) initiate cascading events that end up having massive impacts on other parts of the network, sometimes even its central, major structures. In popular culture, Metcalf’s Law is often reduced to the rhetorical question “if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, does that cause a hurricane in Texas?” As less fanciful (and observable) reduction can be seen in those instances where a sharp noise causes an avalanche, which brings me to ProjectManagement.com’s theme for October, social media and PM. If social media represents a threat to Project Management, my guess is that it’s due to the implications and manifestations of Metcalf’s Law.
Consider the elements that go into a typical risk management plan. Weather might affect construction projects, rate changes will affect subcontractor-heavy projects, and technology advances are notorious for disrupting Information Technology projects. And yet, none of these are relatively small perturbations. They’re pretty large, and seasoned PMs are expected to be on the lookout for them, and have Plans B, C, …N at the ready for when they occur. And yet, according to Sandboxmodel.com, one in six IT projects surveyed experience a 200% cost overrun.[i] If this is the case for IT projects in general, and the causal elements are recognizable prior to the establishment of the cost baseline in such a way that they could be expected to make an appearance in the risk management plan, then an awful lot of unforeseen (unforeseeable?) causal elements are afflicting IT projects, and on a consistent basis. Could it be that the issues that cause overruns and delays are sufficiently invisible until such a time that they have already initiated a cascade effect, and it’s too late for managerial intervention to stop them from damaging project performance? Nassim Taleb refers to such manifestations as “black swan” events, defined as (again, my interpretation) occurrences that (1) have a significant (or even catastrophic) impact, (2) that nobody saw coming, (3) but which invariably invite some sort of analysis that determines that such an occurrence could have been predicted, if only the right people were employing the correct methods. In the PM world, the analysts pushing Black Swan Element #3 are the risk managers. I get it. It’s human nature. But it’s also flawed due to Metcalf’s Law, and such ex post facto kibitzing has no place in modern management science.
Circling back to social media and PM, does the existence of large, highly interconnected enhanced communication sites, such as the giants of social media, provide a natural environment for the kinds of cascading events predicted by Metcalf’s Law? To ask the question is to answer it: of course they do. Such sites have literally millions of participants. If the entire population of Earth is connected to each other within six degrees of separation[ii], then surely social media has reduced that number by at least a couple, intensifying the conditions for a cascading effect.
So, we have the first condition for applicability of Metcalf’s Law in place, in that we are dealing with a large and potentially powerful network when we’re discussing social media and its broad participation. Can small perturbations have a cascading effect? Absolutely, as is amply documented here and here, among many other sites. I would like to point out that many of these “small perturbations” represented blatantly absurd rumors which, nonetheless, spread like wildfire across large populations who took them as truthful, and made manifestly unwise decisions based on that assumption.
In the case of social media’s impact on PM, what we have here, in my humble opinion, are conditions that are extremely powerful, utterly unpredictable, and fall entirely within the realm of communications management. What can be done?
My first recommendation flies in the face of conventional communications management (yeah, I know GTIM Nation is shocked), the notion that all stakeholders should be “engaged” throughout a given project’s life-cycle. I think this strategy makes projects more vulnerable to the negative consequences that can easily and unpredictably come about from cascading events in communications, consequences that have become even more powerful, likely, and unpredictable with the advent of social media platforms. I believe that a far better approach would be to keep one’s project scope, cost, and schedule as quiet as possible. Customers on Cost Plus work, of course, need to be kept informed on an ongoing basis. For most other PMs, the marketing aspect of landing your project work has already taken place – now it’s up to the PM to deliver on something that’s already been marketed and sold. If the project represents some slick new technology being brought to market, with implications of new opportunities for analogous advances, let the organization’s Strategic Managers[iii] handle it. The highly volatile nature of intra-project communications, augmented to Cecil B. DeMille proportions by social media via Metcalf’s Law, renders the whole “engage all stakeholders” axiom dangerously misguided.
Am I being overly fussy about this? Perhaps. But there’s a reason loud noises are discouraged in known avalanche zones, and following conventional wisdom on stakeholder engagement in the presence of social media, in my view, is like handing a twelve-year-old a shiny new starter pistol as you’re driving through one.
[i] Retrieved from http://www.sandboxmodel.com/content/project-failure-rates-facts-and-causes on October 20, 2019, 15:18 MDT.
[ii] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, October 19). Six degrees of separation. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:41, October 20, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Six_degrees_of_separation&oldid=922076946.
[iii] Reference my previous blogs, where I define the role of Strategic Management as dealing with issues of the organization’s market share.