Project Management

“I’m Sorry, Dave, I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

From the Game Theory in Management Blog
Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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With’s September theme of Personal PM, I (naturally) found my thoughts wandering towards Impersonal PM. What is Impersonal PM? A couple of examples from the movies include:

  • “This is business, not personal!” The Godfather (1972), though some version of this quote occurs throughout all three movies in the series.
  • “It was all business, it was nothing personal.” Taken (2008)

Such an assertion often comes about when some particularly loathsome antagonist is about to receive a rather violent comeuppance, and they are attempting to defend their otherwise indefensible actions, though in The Godfather it’s usually invoked in an attempt to avoid a reflexive (albeit extremely) fierce response to some provocation.

I think that, if I were to attempt a paraphrase of “It’s not personal, it’s business,” it would be “Taking things personally will compromise one’s ability to select an optimal strategy in the impersonal world of business.” Consider that PM is part of the Management Science realm. The scientific method has no room for the personal. This is not to say that an acknowledgement of Organizational Behavior and Performance factors is not central to developing things like a workable implementation strategy – they absolutely are essential to success. What I am saying is that developing the optimal technical approach to any given problem is going to be difficult enough even before the human factors are brought in to the fray, and forming initial responses from the personal aspect will almost always result in poor choices.

Of course, impersonally-derived decisions are often the basis for some evil choices in the movies. Such was the case for the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). HAL controls the interplanetary ship Discovery One, including the life support systems of three crew members who have been placed in suspended animation. Two crew members who have not been placed in suspended animation, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, discover HAL acting erratically, something supposedly impossible for its series of computers. They decide to disconnect HAL, but HAL murders the crew members in suspended animation, kills Frank, and attempts to kill Dave. Why does HAL do this? It’s not entirely clear, but some clues are offered up by HAL itself, both in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the follow-on movie, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. In the former, HAL claims that it was constructed for “the accurate processing of information, without distortion or concealment,” while in the latter it is revealed that HAL knew of the Discovery’s real mission, but was instructed to not disclose it to either Frank or Dave. But even tossing in the remaining key decisional element, that the successful completion of the mission was considered a higher priority than the lives of the crew, doesn’t quite get me to understanding why HAL concluded that murdering the crew outright was a swell idea. Oh, well, willing suspension of disbelief in order to accommodate a plot device, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Back In The Project Management World…

One of the elements of (valid) PM Information Systems that I discussed in last week’s blog was their scalability. Another aspect that makes them rare and highly valued in the business world is their impersonal nature. “But Michael!” I can hear GTIM Nation challenge, “it’s not rare! The general ledger is just as impersonal as an Earned Value Management System!” Well, yes and no. A particular department’s budget for the fiscal year might be high or low with respect to its actual value to the organization, with managers in possession of exceptional political skills typically being in receipt of the former. This effect is, by definition, a personal influence on those cold, hard general ledger figures. But a cost variance from an EVMS is merciless. You have either performed as planned, better than planned, or worse, and it’s captured, quantified, and reported for all the “stakeholders” to see. Sometimes people in positions of authority will attempt to soften or ward off information that points to poor performance for which they are responsible. It’s the reason that savvy PMO Directors will often instruct their Project Controls Specialists to not accept percent complete estimates over 90%, or even 85%, unless the task/activity is truly finished, and will insist on calculated Estimates at Completion as opposed to the easily manipulated “bottoms-up” variety. Valid cost and schedule performance management systems are no respecter of persons, making them far more reliable than their subjective data-containing counterparts in the Management Information System portfolio.

Unfortunately, some executives will take Project Management Information System output personally. The same people who wouldn’t dream of getting rid of the company’s payroll system if salaries unexpectedly spike would be perfectly fine with eliminating an Earned Value or Critical Path requirement if it points to their lack of performance. It’s when these people push the idea of scaling back the PMO’s purview that the more rational decision makers should quote HAL, and reply “I’m sorry, Dave (or whomever), I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Posted on: September 13, 2022 08:52 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Holistic project management is both business and personal! Without a personal and business commitment from the project people, you can expect them to say "I'm sorry Michael, I'm afraid I can't do that."

Thanks Sir,
Well, taking the PMIS personally can be good if it fuels your drive to make things better

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