Project Management

When Do We Apply The Leeches?

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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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When Do We Apply The Leeches?



As long-time members of GTIM Nation are aware, when evaluating technology in PM I like to compare and contrast it to the uneven but dramatic changes in computer science, cosmology, or even medicine. As for the latter, I think it’s fascinating to consider that in 100 years the things being taught in schools of medicine will appear to be as backward as medical technology from 1920 does to us in the here and now. To be fair, though, I readily concede that, had today’s medical tech been described to doctors 100 years ago, they would never believe it. In 1920, Vitamin D had not yet been discovered, penicillin was still eight years away, and the first kidney transplant was 34 years distant.[i] Even though X-Ray technology had been around since 1897, it was only this year that it became a routine part of diagnosing fractures in most hospitals. MRIs are 57 years away, as is angioplasty. Performing an internet search on strange medical practices in history is to review a series of deeds that would be considered torture in 2020.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

Circling back to ProjectManagement.com’s theme for January, PM Technical Skills, I can’t help but wonder which PM technical skills will be considered bizarre or incomprehensively backwards by practitioners in the year 2120. But here’s where the analogy to medical science breaks down: Project Management is clearly not a hard science. It deals with the unknown. Yes, much of current PM theory is highly formulated – developing a Work Breakdown Structure, for example (although, even here, I wish I had a dime for every Organizational Breakdown Structure element I’ve found in WBSs supposedly developed by people advanced in Project Management), but it’s undeniable that what real PMs do in the real world is largely dominated by dealing with the unexpected.

“Not so!” I can hear my nominal nemeses, the risk managers, say. They have built an empire on the notion that advances in Project Management technology have provided a window into what is likely to happen to a given project, should the particular management team have the insight to invest in a rigorous risk analysis. My response: really? Let’s take a look at this window into the future, provided by our friends, the risk managers, and see if it’s not analogous to what medical practitioners from 1920 believed was technically advanced.

Read a typical risk analysis report. What you will see is a series of speculations about alternatives to the planned activities in the scope, cost, and schedule baselines, expressed in terms of odds of occurrence and cost and schedule impacts, usually pessimistic. Where do these speculations come from? Almost always from members of your project team whom the risk analysts have identified as subject matter experts – in other words, your Cost Account Managers (CAMs). If you are the Project Manager, ask yourself these questions: do you ever communicate with your CAMs? Do you have meetings with them? Do they not tell you what their concerns are, especially in the near term?

To ask these questions is to answer them. The implication, of course, is that your typical risk analyst does little more than interview your very own CAMs, write down their concerns, ask them to speculate (and let’s be clear here – when these CAMs are asked to “estimate” the odds of something bad happening to their Work Packages AND the cost and schedule impact, that’s what they’re doing: merely speculating) on some parameters, and then re-state these data points in Gaussian curve jargon. Do I have to state it (again)? This is openly fraudulent management science, and I find it hard to believe that it will be well received in the decades to come.

But, for the sake of argument, and out of a sense of humility that I really have no reason to suppose that my points of view will withstand the tests of history, let’s take a moment to assume that the “information” stream emanating from the risk analysts’ reports are valid and usable. What will the future PM do with them, exactly? Let’s say that, in the most recent project meeting, you have a CAM who tells you that she’s concerned that a certain subcontractor won’t be able to deliver on-time, and any delay may impact other activities. Your Critical Path Methodology expert (scheduler) can tell you which activities are dependent on an on-time delivery, and whether or not the task in question has any float to use. What can the risk analyst tell you? That the odds of the delay were originally estimated at X percent? Or that, should the feared delay actually take place, that it could have additional speculation-derived impacts? Does this “information” really help anybody?

I think that last rhetorical question is key. Much as one would think that someone would eventually inquire if the medieval medical practice of bloodletting actually helped patients – or even a single patient – the question has to be asked: how many projects can point to their risk analyses as the proximate cause (or even material cause) of coming in on-time, on-budget? Here in 2020, we can roll our eyes at the known invalid practices of PMs from one hundred years ago, like attempting to derive project cost performance by comparing budgets to actuals. As I have outlined above, I’m pretty confident that I know what current PM practices will cause similar eye-rolls in 2120, and I’ll be interested to see what GTIM Nation thinks will qualify under this category in the comment section.

But I’m not ruling out the possibility that risk management will be in, and management blogs will be considered passé.

 


[i] Retrieved from https://www.infoplease.com/math-science/health/medical-advances-timeline on 11 January 2020, 21:46 MST.

Posted on: January 13, 2020 10:23 PM | Permalink

Comments (3)

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Dear Michael
Interesting perspective on the theme: "When Do We Apply The Leeches?"
Thanks for sharing

I will also be aware of the comments that will be made by the experts in this field.

Michael,
Interesting way to present it.

I don't agree with your view on risk. I see it more like insurance. It might not be perfect, what is? Insurance is here since 4000-3000 BCE, we keep on getting insurance for house, car... Most of the time we don't use it or make a claim. Well done Risk management points to things that may need attention.

Time will tell

Very interesting., thanks for sharing

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