I devoured over the beautiful works in quantum theory a few years back while I was rummaging through the mystical land of quantum mechanics. I bumped into Schrödinger’s cat along the way before I caught up with a precarious bloke by the name Heisenberg. The idea of an impossible dead and alive cat has taught me that a project cannot be both on schedule and delayed at the same time, but it was the madness of uncertainty in Heisenberg’s world that has since set me off in a pursuit of analyzing a similar problem we have in Earned Value Management (EVM). The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle can be simultaneously known since the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be determined.
As most of us are familiar with, EVM is a project management technique for measuring project performance and progress in an objective manner combining measurements of scope, schedule and cost in a single integrated system in order to provide accurate forecasts of project performance problems. This can be achieved by working with three key project metrics – Planned Value (PV – budgeted cost for work scheduled), Earned Value (EV – budgeted cost for work performed) and Actual Value (AV – actual cost for work performed). EVM essentially projects and converts everything from ‘what you need to do’ to ‘how much time you need’ into dollars and cents so that it can be easily tracked and monitored (your finance department would be delighted to hear this).
An ingenious touch, isn’t it? But, wait a second. Didn’t uncertainty principle tell us that the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be determined? Following along this argument, shouldn’t we expect that the more we try to assess a project from a cost perspective, the more we will lose sight of it from the scope and schedule perspectives? Indeed, this was exactly what Walt Lipke intended to address when he introduced Earned Schedule (ES), an extension to EVM, in his archetypical article “Schedule is different” in 2003. According to Walt, there is a fundamental problem with EVM: “At the completion of a project which is behind schedule, Schedule Variance (SV) is equal to zero, and the Schedule Performance Index (SPI) equals unity. We know the project completed late, yet the indicator values say the project has had perfect schedule performance.” What an exemplary Schrödinger’s cat paradox we are looking at. The main reason behind this quirky behavior is, unlike AV, EV has to be equal to PV at the completion of the project making it impossible to determine if the project is behind schedule or not. In fact, due to this reason, both SV and SPI become less meaningful as we progress nearer to the end of the project. In order to complement this shortcoming in EVM, Walt proposes a slightly modified way to compute SV and SPI in the Earned Schedule approach by projecting EV from cost into ES as time value and computing everything in time unit to obtain a new pair of time-based SV(t) and SPI(t). For those who are interested in the details of this approach, you may get everything you need from the Earned Schedule site.
So now we have all these models that serve as good indicators for the health of a project. The key question is – “Do they make us better in predicting project performance?” As much as we would like to encapsulate the whole kit and caboodle in the models, deep down inside, we know that they can never be 100% perfect. Project management is all about change and there are far too many factors that may affect the success of a project. The concern here is therefore, whether we should entrench ourselves so deep into the nitty-gritty of the quantitative models and miss out the whole picture of what project management should be. This is exactly the same concern that Jacques Olivier has on the global financial crisis in 2008 when he commented “The crisis is due in part to all the people who know how to count marbles but have no idea what those marbles mean.” One final word – at the end of the day, all these are just models. We are as blind as what these models can show us.
CIO: “It seems like we’re all set in the right direction. Things look really great.”
IT Manager: “It’s awesome! We’ve never been in such a good shape before.”
Product Manager: “This is going to be the next killer app.”
Business Analyst: “Yeah, it looks really fantastic!”
Project Manager: “Kudos to everyone in this great team.”
And this went on and on and in the next few minutes, the room was filled with a cacophony of deafening clapping and laughing sounds. I could have joined in and sung the ‘Kumbaya’ like the rest of the folks. Yet, deep inside me, a voice was ringing. “Are these people crazy?” Unfortunately, the voice was too feeble to be noticed and eventually subsided in the sea of laughter.
Scenarios like this are very common and happen every day in every organization. Whenever the top person says something, the rest will join in the chorus eagerly just like the chicks following the mother hen. Has anyone bothered to do a reality check and challenge the sanity of the optimism? It looks as if people are so afraid to be seen as holding a different view from the leader – the inherent fear of being blacklisted as ‘Negative’. Why is everyone ignoring the elephant in the room? Where is the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong in thinking positively and I am not going into a lengthy debate on optimism versus pessimism with “a glass with water at the halfway point”. However, there is a difference between attitude in thinking and aptitude in judging. The former is about our perception, or worldview, of a situation and the latter is about our ability to assess a situation. Complacency builds and danger looms when the emotional part of attitude overshadows the logical part of aptitude. This is usually the case for those failed projects that are overdose with optimism. It is important to have dreams, but we still have to wake up someday.
Now, if we split aptitude into ‘Weak’ and ‘Strong’ and attitude into ‘Pessimistic’ and ‘Optimistic’ and plot them against one another, we could easily come up with a quadrant similar to the one shown in the diagram below.
Let’s first take a look at the two squares in the lower half of the quadrant. These are the people who are weak in their ability to assess the situation and, therefore, often overrule by their emotional mind. They react to the situation based on what they perceive. Hence, the pessimists will be more negatively inclined and assess the situation in a negative way while the optimists will tend to think more positively. In other words, their aptitude is strongly affected by their attitude. On the other hand, those with stronger ability to judge are in the two squares in the upper half of the quadrant. They are the rational thinkers who are able to balance biased views with better judgments and assessments; not the typical dreamers or naysayers that you would bump into in a day-to-day encounter.
“Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.” – Zig Ziglar.
Some of you would likely to argue that attitude is more important than aptitude, so it is imperative to have positive thinking. No doubt this is true, but it is equally essential to maintain a logical mindset. Be skeptical and take all the optimisms with a pinch of salt. Challenge a positive view critically with negative assumptions and see if it survives the test. You won’t get too wrong doing that. In fact, this is the exact approach that we should take when we are managing risks in our projects. Do not be afraid to be labeled as a ‘devil’s advocate’. If positive thinking is the fuel that keeps you going, then negative criticism is the GPS device that helps you stay in the right path and avoid dead ends. The aim is to get to the top right corner of the quadrant – i.e. to be negatively positive.
The world is full of fools.
You can find them in every nook and cranny of the streets. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” wrote Shakespeare in his famous play “As You Like It”. Well, this literally means that, once in a while, you will find yourself bumping into one of these fools whether you like it or not. Are you able to sift them out from the crowd? How should you deal with them?
I have met enough fools in the projects that I have worked on. As Bertrand Russell once said, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” I share the same sentiment as Russell. This is exactly how fools behave; regardless of whether they are the genuine or the imagined type. Their overconfidence or lack of confidence may turn out to be the latent Achilles’ heel in your projects. The outcome could be catastrophic if it is not being managed well. Unfortunately, they represent one of those top key people issues you have to deal with in project management.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University jointly coined the phenomenon described above as the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’ - a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. In short, this has a similar meaning to the popular quote “he who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool, shun him”, or the fools are too foolish to know that they are foolish. Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper that – “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”
How could you differentiate fools from experts when the fools proclaim themselves to be experts while the experts believe that they are fools? As Kruger and Dunning conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” Haven’t you come across some smug-faced suppliers who are always boastful about their capabilities but constantly weak in their deliveries? Or a wimpy worrywart in your team that is forever skeptical about what could be accomplished in the project? It is also obvious that Dunning-Kruger effect is applicable to project managers too. Does your project manager have the capability to manage the project in the way that it should be? You probably do not have the answer. The reason is you will need to be very experienced and knowledgeable in project management before you can assess whether your project manager has the capability. Unfortunately, according to Putt’s Law, most people typically do not have good understanding in what they manage.
There are several factors that constitute to the Dunning-Kruger effect. The main argument postulates that fools, due to their incompetency, do not have the necessary skills that are required for self-assessment. In other words, “We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know,” as Dunning nicely put. On the other hand, flatteries and excessive kudos could be just as bad. Remember the emperor in the tale “The Emperor's New Clothes”? Sometimes, people are being cajoled unknowingly to believe that they are good in something which, in reality, is the exact opposite. I have come across managers that send out standard “Good job, well done!” compliments to the team regardless of the actual performance. All these blindfolded the fools from their incompetency.
So, what can you do to avoid having your project team turning into a ship of fools? Here are a few ideas that you may try:
I could go on and on rambling about Dunning-Kruger effect and ways to minimize its impact. However, I am not an expert in psychology and definitely not very good at knowing what I don’t know. Hence, I will leave it to the rest of you to chime in with your ideas and thoughts on this topic.
I hardly write follow-up post for my articles. However, a recent article “To Kill A Woodpecker” has generated some interesting comments that prompted me to explore further into the topic of ‘Attention’. Specifically, a comment from Manik Sanadi, Head – Projects PAM ACG Worldwide, has caught my ‘attention’. Manik says “What you need is right mix of when to look from 30K feet and when to look at the ground.” I couldn’t agree more.
Being able to navigate through different levels of information and zoom into a specific level to focus on the desired details provides us a holistic view of what we are managing. Take the experience of driving as an example. We have to keep our focus on the traffic in front of us while constantly checking back on the rear and side mirrors for the surrounding traffic conditions. It is precisely this ability that helps us to keep road accidents at bay.
The same analogy may apply to project management as well. What methods do you use to stay abreast of the deluge of information coming from different levels in your projects? How do you keep an eye on the potential risks at each level and prevent them from turning into real issues? Sometimes, as a project manager, we tend to get too deeply entrenched in a particular area of work and lose track of the bigger picture. Just like driving, we can’t keep focusing on the traffic ahead and forget about the brake pedal. It takes seamless concurrent coordination among the hands, legs, eyes and ears to drive a car. In other words, it means that attention has to be shared and switched continuously from one to another. Now, how do we achieve this in the projects we are managing?
Before we continue, let’s try out a simple visual experiment. Take a look at the image below. Now, focus on the black dot in the center. Keep staring at it and move closer to the image if necessary. After a while, you will notice that the colored fluffs around the black dot start to disappear. Eventually, you will only see a grey square with a black dot in the center. Do not get startled. There isn’t any trick here.
From the above experiment, we can see that attention is a scarce and limited resource. Once you have set your focus on something you will tend to lose track on the others. As William James aptly described in his textbook “Principles of Psychology”:
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought... It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others...”
If this still sounds murky, then probably what we have discussed so far on the various facets of ‘Attention’ could be better explained and represented in the Sohlberg and Mateer hierarchical model. Below are the five hierarchical levels of the model in ascending order.
Although this model was originally developed for clinical use, it has since been widely adopted in evaluating a person’s ability to pay attention. As we have seen from the above, attention is multi-faceted. Thus, it follows logically that the methods we employ to address attention-related problems should also be manifold and adaptable to the actual needs. This is definitely a good starting point for us to explore what we could do to help project managers stay focused in their projects.
Congratulations! You have reached the end of the article. Thank you for paying attention without switching.
I attended a talk conducted by an IT leader recently. He is a funny guy. I would describe him as a witty old veteran with a bagful of stories up his sleeve. Hearing him speak was like enjoying a folktale told by an old wise man in the corner of an old Irish pub. He basically treated the audience with a feast of unusual juicy stories that were both entertaining and enlightening. One of those stories resonated with a thought that I have been struggling with lately and sparked a series of frenzy ideas that had kept me busy musing for the rest of the day. What he had actually shared with us was an uncommon method to kill a woodpecker.
What? Killing a flicker?
Don’t get me wrong. Before you start calling up the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), I would like to assure you that I am not an ornithophobe. According to the IT leader, the easiest way to kill a woodpecker is to use an air horn. Those who have watched a woodpecker drumming and hammering a tree would agree that it takes a lot of concentration to achieve the precise, rapid and repeated blows. The sound from the air horn seems to be able to distract the woodpecker causing it to land its bill in an improper position thereby breaking its neck. Now you get it. As you can see, it is very important for us to stay focused on the things we do. Everybody knows the danger of talking over the phone while driving. We love multitasking. However, losing focus could be fatal sometimes.
“Project management is like juggling three balls – time, cost and quality. Program management is like a troupe of circus performers standing in a circle, each juggling-three balls and swapping balls from time to time.” G. Reiss once said.
As a project manager, quite often we have to manage several projects at the same time just like the juggler in the circus. Like it or not, this is how we should be making full use of our time efficiently. However, if we are not careful, we may lose our focus and end up with a broken neck like the woodpecker. So, should we just stick to only one project at all times so that we can keep the focus level high? Unfortunately, this is realistically not possible; we all know that.
First of all, people get bored easily and when that happens, they lose their focus. We are well-aware that boredom is one of the main causes for most long-haul truck accidents. Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University (Ontario, Canada) and colleagues at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo define boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks. In other words, monotony breeds boredom. The irony is that the more we try to focus on just one project alone, the more likely we will lose our focus due to monotony. It seems like rotating from one project to another occasionally might not be a bad idea after all.
Although staying focused helps us to block off unwanted noises and distractions, there is an undesirable consequence to it. Focused attention makes us oblivious to things happening in the environment around us. For example, most of us should be familiar with this experience where we are so engrossed in the book in hands, totally unaware of someone entering the room, until the person suddenly stands in front of us and gives us a shock. Everyday experiences like this are examples that show that when we are focused, we tend to miss out something that might otherwise be glaringly obvious. Psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris have further demonstrated this in the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment to study a psychological phenomenon that they called ‘Change Blindness’. Likewise, once we get too focused on and absorbed by a single project, we may miss out important details and warning signs from other projects.
Now, here is the real dilemma. We have learned that Woody needs full undisturbed concentration to do his wood-pecking work. However, by doing so, he loses vigilance on the environment surrounding him. Woody will not be aware of any imminent danger or threat. Had Woody been alert enough to spot the air horn, he would have paused for a while and avoided the fate of a broken neck. To focus, or not to focus, that is the question.