Ancient medicine was pretty scary, but we really don’t have to look too far into history to see some terrifying stuff done in the name of making us better. Bloodletting was a common practice for hundreds of years, for example. As late as the 1830s, France imported over forty million leeches per year for just this purpose[i]. I don’t mean to pick on the medical community – the capacity for a group of self-proclaimed experts to develop a certain way of doing business or performing a task (ProjectManagement.com’s theme for September – the ways of doing business part, not the self-proclaimed experts stuff) and asserting this method as optimal, even in the face of data that challenges or even completely overturns that certain way, is boundless. It’s just that this tendency among members of the medical community has an eewwww factor that’s missing from (most of) the conversation over on the management science side.
Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…
In the Project Management world, there are very few widely-experienced management problems that have the exact same optimal strategies as the preferred remedy. When Consolidated Aircraft corporation first started manufacturing their famous PBY Catalina flying boat, they didn’t have a water tank large enough to test the fuselage/hull’s watertightness, so they simply filled the interior with water and checked for leaks from the outside. Indeed, I would speculate that the majority of human advancement has come about due to some person coming up with a solution to a problem that was not only novel, but initially perceived as absurd. Bouncing back to medical community analogies, Penicillin was originally called “mold juice.” Can you imagine what must have been the reaction in 1929 when Alexander Fleming announced that he thought it would be a swell idea to inject sick people with mold juice? And yet today we think of the discovery of penicillin as one of the most dramatic scientific breakthroughs in history.
In Thomas Kuhn’s brilliant book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) an all-too-familiar pattern emerges whenever a new hypothesis is introduced that directly challenges or overturns an existing, widely-accepted theory: almost every “expert” hates it. The tendency from the entrenched nomenklatura is to challenge, then minimize, and, finally, ridicule the new theories and those who attempt to advance them, and the reasons they tend to do so are clear. Their existing positions in industry, management, and academia are predicated on the currently-existing and widely-accepted version of things, and any attempt to undermine those theories represents a direct attack on them personally. Among this blog’s favorite challenges to widely-embraced management science champions are:
- The Asset Managers’ notion that the point of all management is to maximize shareholder wealth. What actually goes on during the merger process provides more than enough data to dismiss this old canard, yet it persists.
- The Communications crowd, who loves to insist that PMs need to communicate project status openly and often with anyone who has a claim to being a “stakeholder.” Since the stakeholder moniker explicitly does not exclude those who wish to see your project fail, this is clearly, ahem, sub-optimal.
- The “Bottoms-Up” Estimate at Completion (EAC) fans. Simple Earned Value calculations offer a quicker, easier, and more accurate EAC than the re-estimators can offer, at any level of the Work Breakdown Structure. Unfortunately, the widespread adoption of this alternative lacks the appeal of its archaic rival.
- The overuse of the Return on Investment (ROI) calculation, particularly when selecting which projects to pursue for a given portfolio. There are simply too many parameters to identify, much less quantify in getting this figure to an accuracy level that could be considered even remotely reliable, and yet, this, too, is taught far too often in today’s business schools.
- And then, of course, are our old friends, the risk management (no initial caps) crowd. Two ironclad rules are all that’s needed here:
- The future cannot be quantified, and
- Gaussian Curves do not change the validity of ironclad rule #1.
And yet risk management (no initial caps) remains a multi-billion-dollar industry to this day.
Still, all of this points to the beauty of the free enterprise system on the management sciences. If it works (and is legal), then the marketplace will reward the consensus-challenging ideas with on-time, on-budget projects and portfolios. If it doesn’t, then those who have embraced the poorly-thought-out notion (or adhere to the obsolete ones, once the competition has moved on) have a choice: either abandon their current business model and embrace a better one, or else turn to the PM dark side (what is the PM dark side? I’ll go over it in my next blog. Darth Vader would be proud.)