People, Planet, Profits & Projects

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Richard Maltzman
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Can Science Solve Anti-Science?

Shipping Off


Backward Pass - Forward Fail?

Forest Gumption

Can Science Solve Anti-Science?

Many project managers are left-brain thinkers.  We’re analytical.  We’re get-r-done type folk.  Give me the facts, man, and I’ll deliver your project, we say.  Or, if we’re the one presenting the facts, we expect that they’ll deliver action by our project team contributors.

The science of the human brain, however, indicates that as humans, we take many ‘mental shortcuts’.   Our decisions are not always rational.

A recent article in Scientific American has one of the most interesting titles of an article – at least in that esteemed journal: “The Science of Anti-Science Thinking”.   The subtitle also caught my attention: “Convincing people who doubt the validity of climate change and evolution to change their beliefs requires overcoming a set of ingrained cognitive biases”.

The article starts with a porpoise.  Porpoises live in the ocean.  They look like a fish.  Until fairly recently, most people thought they were a fish.  But scientific evidence proved that they are a mammal, and that is now a fact.

When science – or at least technological advancement based on science – yields the automobile, the laser, the smartphone, or a cure for a disease, the advance is welcomed.  But when science tells us something that disturbs the prevailing thought or challenges a societal norm, or, in projects, “that’s not the way we do things around here” – watch out.  The human mind can slip quickly into mental shortcuts and biases.

In the article, which I highly recommend reading, there are some excellent examples and compelling evidence.  But let me focus on the hurdles to accepting facts, since that (accepting facts) is what we need for good project management.


The brain is an organ.  Organs use lots of energy and as a living thing, we try to reduce the energy we use – that’s instinct.  On top of this, these days, we’re presented with an overload of information to process.  So we take mental shortcuts – heuristics – rules of thumb – to cut down our processing time.  One example in the article is the “Authority Heuristic”.  In an experiment by psychiatrist Charles Hofling, nurses in a hospital received a phone call from a person identifying himself as a doctor, and directing the on-duty nurse to give their patient a double dose of a drug called Astroten to a patient, even though the label on the bottle boldly limited the dosage, and even though the hospital had a policy requiring handwritten prescriptions for such changes.  95% of the nurses obeyed the unknown “doctor” without raising any questions.  See this link for more detail:  Other research in this area comes from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, summarized well in the video below.  It’s just a few minutes.  Have a look.

These nurses, I think you’d agree, were using “System 1” thinking.


Confirmation Bias:

Even if you have the time to go to System 2 (slower, more disciplined) thinking, there is the chance that we won’t process information impartially.  We will “mix in” our beliefs and give higher priority to the patterns we have seen more often and the ways in which we’ve always thought.

Social Goals:

Now let’s assume you have surpassed the hurdles of shortcuts (System 1 thinking) and confirmation bias, there is still something else that may prevent scientific fact from getting through.  And that is “social pressure”.  Group consensus is a strong thing.  You’ve probably even seen it in your projects.  “Everyone knows that Vendor XYZ is the best in the business”, says the ‘common wisdom’.  Do the facts bear it out?  If you don't think social pressure can make a difference, take a journey back in time and watch this old video from an American TV show called Candid Camera.  It's about something called "The Asch Paradigm".  You'll get a kick out of it.

All three of these hurdles get in the way of conveying real, factual information. 

I bring this up for two reasons – first, to help readers understand why they may be pushing back on research showing that climate change is real and caused by humans, but even if you want to bypass that element, I also bring it up because as project managers need to work based on facts, and that as a PM you will often find yourself in the role of the conveyor of facts and faced with an audience or a functional manager who is taking mental shortcuts or is suffering from confirmation bias.  At a minimum, you need to be aware of how information flows into, around, and back out of the human brain to accomplish your project objectives.

So: think fast, think slow, and consider the facts – including the facts about your own thinking!


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 14, 2018 02:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Shipping Off

Stakeholder Management is an increasingly important topic in project management.  In the 5th Edition PMBOK® Guide, it was given its own Knowledge Area, born mostly from the Communications Knowledge Area.  After PMI’s Role Delineation Studies, Stakeholder Management got even more priority and attention.

When a new project is launched, we carefully identify stakeholders – broadly and deeply.  We could think of releasing new regulations meant to reduce the impact on the environment - as projects, and for that, we also think about stakeholder management. 

In this post, I’ll discuss some new regulations meant to reduce the impact of shipping on the environment.  In this, obviously, shipping companies are stakeholders.  And so is human health and the environment.  Although the shipping industry accounts for only 2% of global carbon emissions, the emissions that the shipping industry does contribute is very dangerous because it uses ‘heavy’ fuel oil.  Remember: CO2 is not the only culprit to cause climate change and otherwise damage our environment.  The shipping industry also produces 13% of the world’s sulphur emissions – which are responsible for air pollution and acid rain -  and 15% of nitrogen oxides, according to a June 23, 2018 article in The Economist.

The International Maritme Organization (IMO) of the UN, has recently issued regulations that force shippers to install equipment by the year 2024 to clean dirty ballast water.  Seems like a good idea, but it’s not cheap.  This will cost the shipping industry about $50B.  Also recently, the IMO has cut the allowed carbon emissions 50% from 2008 levels.  Sulphur regulations may be the toughest – the new rules from the IMO cut allowable sulphur content from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020.  Switching to low-sulphur fuels could cost the industry US$60B. 

If you think the reductions are expensive, they are.  However, without them, according to a recent study by the government of Finland shows that without these cuts there could be 570,000 deaths from air pollution worldwide after 2020.  If one values human life, the price does not seem so high after all.

A recent study by Nature magazine (see table below) also shows hundreds of thousands of saved lives and reduced occurrences (3.6% drop) of childhood asthma if the low-sulphur fuels are used.  The article has almost 100 scientific and academic references.

 You can watch a brief video about the impact of the shipping industry here:

From the shipping industry’s perspective, there are two ways to look at it.  The first is to give up the ship (so to speak).  Junichiro Ikeda, the head of Mitsui OSK Lines, is quoted in this Economist article as saying, “we’re all going to go bust”.  The other way to look at its to realize that you are indeed part of a problem and seek to be leaders in solving that problem.  Shipowners will have to switch to the lower-polluting fuels, will have to invest in projects to add scrubbers to their ships, and need to consider switching their power systems altogether to liquefied natural gas (LNG) or other alternatives.

For project managers, all of these initiatives, mandated (or at least triggered by) the regulations from the IMO, are an opportunity.  Scads of projects will be launched to retrofit older ships.  And many ships will be retired and scrapped, meaning that new, more environmentally-friendly ships will also be launched.  Perhaps you will be shipping off to one of these projects yourself one day soon!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 14, 2018 12:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)


Most of you know the city of Xi’an for the famous terracotta warriors.  In fact, this necropolis project is featured in the introductory chapter of our book, Bridging the PM Competency Gap, as a way to indicate how skills and capabilities used to be passed down from generation to generation and now we simply do not have the time for that version of apprenticeship training. 

But this post is not about the warriors.  Well, in a way it is about Xi’an warriors, but a different kind of warrior – one battling pollutants, not foreign invaders. 

As background, let’s learn a little more about Xi’an – from this article in China’s Global Times:

Northwest China's Shaanxi Province has one of the most polluted provincial capitals in the country, China's environment watchdog says, as it singled out Xi'an for "severe" air quality issues.

The sixth inspection group of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has sent feedback to the Shaanxi government, saying that conditions in central Shaanxi have become severe, and the ecosystem in the province's Qinling Mountains is "severely damaged," China Youth Daily reported Wednesday.

According to the inspection group, the heavy chemical industry has played a significant role in central Shaanxi for historical reasons, and in recent years the region has expanded its problem with huge amounts of highly contaminated projects.

The inspection group indicated that Xi'an has now become one of the most-polluted provincial capitals in China.

Indeed, here’s a post that compares the smog levels in Xi’an to other cities in China.

So what’s a warrior to do about it?

Well, this is a project management blog – so of course, the answer is: launch a project!  Indeed the project was featured in the June edition of PM Network in an article called “Soak It In”.

One “warrior”, chemist Cao Junji, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, quoted in Nature magazine, has built a tower in Xi’an, as described in Nature magazine as referenced in the PM Network feature.

A 60-metre-high chimney stands among a sea of high-rise buildings in one of China’s most polluted cities. But instead of adding to Xian’s smog, this chimney is helping to clear the air. The outdoor air-purifying system, powered by the Sun, filters out noxious particles and billows clean air into the skies. Chinese scientists who designed the prototype say that the system could significantly cut pollution in urban areas in China and elsewhere.

The technology has excited and intrigued researchers — especially in China, where air pollution is a daily challenge. Early results, which are yet to be published, are promising, says the project's leader Cao Junji, a chemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Aerosol Chemistry and Physics in Xian in central China.



In the PM Network article, the project parameters are impressive:

  • Funding $2M
  • Capacity: 353 million cubic feet of air processed each day
  • Results: 15% reduction of the most harmful particles during heavy pollution days

Here's a photo of the tower:

Since this was only a proof-of-concept project, the next steps envisioned include more – and larger – towers, including one that will be 1,640 feet high.  It’s going to take more than one warrior-tower to fight this battle.

The small article in PM Network intrigued me enough to do some research.  You can, as well with this scientific review of the project – visit the article in Nature here.

Other attempts to “soak up” pollutants have been glamorous but not as successful.  Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde build a tower with the idea of “turning China’s smog into diamonds” with mixed results.  See below for a photo of the artist and his tower.

The website of the artist claims success, but an article in The Shanghiist says,

(The tower’s planners promises that it will) suck up 75% of the dangerous particles in the nearby air, and then spit back out clean air into the surrounding space. The captured smog particles would then be turned into diamonds, which would be sold as rings, cubes or cufflinks to fund the creation of more towers.

And that all sounds really awesome! Unfortunately, it sucks. Like really sucks. But not in a good way.

…the tower does manage to filter air particles, it doesn’t do it particularly well, or for a very large area. Despite claims that it could purify 30,000 cubic meters of air an hour, the machine has failed to create a non-toxic air bubble around even itself. Experts estimated that every hour the amount of harmful particulates that the machine captures doesn’t even add up to a single spoonful of salt, and have renamed it the “Smog Warning Tower.”

So on this version of vacuuming carbon and making that into diamonds, “your mileage may vary”.

And let’s get back to our ‘stone army’ - It also turns out that these two reasons for Xi’an’s fame (pollution and the terracotta army) are related.  In this article from Smithsonian magazine, it turns out that the army is deteriorating, in part due to exposure to the polluted atmosphere.  It says,

In an analysis of air pollutants affecting the soldiers, the researchers found notable concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. The levels the researchers recorded exceeded those typically reported each year by the museum.


For further reading:

Critical review – will it work?

Clean Air Alliance of China


Blogger’s Note: The title of the post, while catchy, is actually a bit inaccurate as the idea is to remove a multitude of pollutants, not just carbon or CO2.  Still – I couldn’t resist.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 28, 2018 10:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Backward Pass - Forward Fail?

In Part 1 of this post, we left off with this:

NARRATOR: But the models can be checked against things we know, like air temperature over the past hundred years. The models can be started in the past and run forward. The blue line shows the average of those predictions.

When compared with the actual temperature record, in red, their accuracy is revealed.

Below is a screenshot that compares the model output for temperature when run backward (blue) against the actuals (red) – you can see that the alignment is pretty good, speaking to the ability of the model to forecast.  So what happens when you let the model run forward?

As a reminder, I was discussing the Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA broadcast, “Decoding the Weather Machine”. 

The documentary covers a lot of ground, but I had focused Part 1 on the idea of modeling and the concept of a “World Breakdown System” used by scientists to slice up the globe (and atmosphere) into chunks that we can reassemble into reliable data.  If this sounds like a Work Breakdown Structure, well, that’s why this post exists – my PM antennae went up as I watched this segment.

So indeed, what does happen when this simulation model, based on a “World Breakdown Structure” is run forward?

I’d paraphrase, but it just won’t do the show justice.  Let me share what happens next:

JOHN HOLDREN: Computer models don't exist in isolation. We calibrate them against what we've observed. We test them against the history of climate change. And we now know they're pretty good.

NARRATOR: The models can be used to run a virtual experiment: if we continue emitting carbon dioxide on the path we are on, what do they say our world will look like in 2100?

This map shows how temperatures could change. The models predict the average temperature could be 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. That means in New York City, days with temperatures over 90 degrees would more than triple. And in the Arctic, which will heat up even faster, it could rise, on average, more than 15 degrees.

HEIDI CULLEN: One of the things we understand really well about our climate system is that if you crank up the average temperature of the planet, it is going to fundamentally change your weather.

JOHN HOLDREN: Their results suggest we will see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and the prevalence of devastating heatwaves will be much more extreme.

NARRATOR: The models also show that by the end of the century, it is likely the ocean will rise one-and-a-half to four feet. Without major changes, this would put parts of cities like Miami under water.

And new insights are coming in all the time. The work of David Holland and other scientists suggests that if large parts of western Antarctica break off, eight feet or more of sea level rise by 2100 is not out of the question.

DAVID HOLLAND: All bets are off for Antarctica. That is a place where very large sea level rise, on the scale of 100 years, is quite possible. That doesn't mean it will happen; but it actually could physically happen.

NARRATOR: The road ahead is a world that could be increasingly hard to live in. The question now is what can we do about it to reduce the possible damage?

PAUL DOUGLAS: We're going to figure this out, because, in the end, we are not going to have a choice; we're going to have to figure this out.

NARRATOR: The path ahead comes down to three basic options (Suffer, Adapt, or Mitigate – see this post's header image). We can do nothing and suffer the consequences;…

…we can adapt as the changes unfold, or we can act now to mitigate, or limit the damage. The options are connected. The more we mitigate, the less we would need to adapt. The more we adapt and mitigate, the less we would suffer.

JOHN HOLDREN: Society has only three options; and if we want to minimize suffering, as should be our goal, we need to maximize both mitigation and adaptation.

Again, another connection to project management – this time in the area (I’m sure you sense it) of Risk Response.  “Suffer” would be Passive Acceptance in our language – do nothing, not even setting aside contingency.  Adapt, in our language, would be mitigate the impact, and what they call mitigate would be mitigating probability and impact*.  

Suffer: I won’t even go here, because that is just not an option.

Adapt: In the program, they refer to the efforts of US city Norfolk, VA and the way it is working to adapt, since it is facing impact of climate change right now – streets are already regularly flooding there.  See this recent article from the New York Times: “When Rising Seas Transform Risk Into Certainty”. If you watch the show, watch the part in which they interview Colonel Jason Kelly of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Mitigate: Reduce the use of fossil fuels.  An example of a Whirlpool’s Findlay, Ohio.  Watch the interview with Dale Laws about how this factory has converted to renewable energy. They also take you to NREL (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory near Denver, Colorado.  They are an innovation hub for renewable energy.  They’re working on reinventing solar cells using perovskites, tame algae to create a new form of jet fuel, and improve the way wind power generates power.

The forward pass – what the simulator shows us – is not very rosy.  But it does underline the need for us to choose a combination of Adapt and Mitigate, and luckily, that means that project managers can be key contributors to reduced suffering – and that’s no BS.


**one could argue that what they discuss as “Mitigate” is actually “Avoid”, because the work here is about “changing the plan completely”.  This aspect is not worth arguing – the point is that this is all about risk response.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 23, 2018 03:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Forest Gumption

Screenshot from the movie "Forest Gump" via YouTube


My last post – Project Managers – We're full of BS - promised a follow up, a second part called, Backward Pass, Forward Fail, and that is still forthcoming.

However, in the meantime, and in the process of researching that post, an article in the June issue of PM Network caught my eye and deserves treatment immediately if only for its awesome title - which I have borrowed for this post.  Full credit to the article - read it here.

The story is about a very low-tech, and literally down-to-earth application of fighting climate change.  And it’s as basic and old-school as planting trees, but with a fancier, more project-management name: reforestation initiatives.  The United Kingdom launched a 500 million pound , 25-year project to plant 50 million trees in a large area of northern England.  China’s government is launching a project in 2018 to plant trees covering a an area the size of Ireland, aiming to increase forested areas in China over 5% by 2030.  And in Africa, a joint 21-nation program, seeks to cover almost 250 million acres with trees by 2030 – a $1B investment in fighting climate change with CO2-capturing trees.  That’s equivalent to the total combined area of US states Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma!

The initiatives also require public-private partnerships, like the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact program in Brazil which will restore 2.5 million acres of tropical forest in Brazil.

What’s important to note here is that these projects – of course – reap ecological benefits.  Forests help absorb carbon dioxide, and provide wildlife habitats, but they also provide social and economic benefits.  Assembling a coalition of stakeholders is key.  In a partnership with the World Bank, for example, Conservation International worked with the Brazilian Ministry of Environment and other NGOs on a six-year project to plant 73 million trees by 2023.  In doing so, the coalition of stakeholders hired indigenous community members and farmers to execute the project, bringing in as many as 2,000 local people to aid in the reforestation of each hectare.  This generates jobs and income for the communities.  Taking stock of the long term benefits from reforestation is an important element in reaching out to the various stakeholder groups.  And yes, gaining this stakeholder engagement early on means a longer time between planning and execution - but it makes for a more sustainable sustainability project. 

It’s not all success stories, however, when it comes to planting trees.  My own hometown, Boston, as recently reported in this Boston Globe story, is lagging other cities in keeping its promises with respect to planting trees.  The photo of Boston’s iconic Citgo sign with a tree stump in the foreground, is representative of what you’ll find in the story.

Photo Credit: John Tlumacki, Boston Globe

The story begins:

A decade ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino stood with other local officials in the Geneva Cliffs Urban Wild in Dorchester and vowed that Boston would plant 100,000 new trees by 2020, expanding the city’s tree canopy by 20 percent.

With climate change a growing concern, cities across the country made similar pledges, a simple way to soak up carbon emissions and curb energy use, among many other benefits. That same year, New York City set an even loftier goal to plant 1 million trees by 2017. New York met its goal — two years early. Boston, however, has fallen woefully short. Not only has the city abandoned its goal for this decade, but it has barely kept up with tree mortality.


The article goes on to describe some or the reasons the project has failed so far – a mixture of mismanagement, lack of focus on the project objectives, and some realized threats, such as the amount of trees that have actually had to be removed based on such things as redevelopment projects and disease.  It’s actually a good case for students of project risk management, I suggest reading it from that perspective.

But it doesn’t take away from the overall thrust of the post – the focus on reforestation projects – mainly successful ones – and the contribution they have to offer in helping to provide long-term benefits of the social, ecological, and economic variety… in other words, People, Planet, and Profits.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 16, 2018 10:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

"How much deeper would the ocean be if sponges didn't live there?"

- Steven Wright