People, Planet, Profits & Projects

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Richard Maltzman
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Clarity Parity

Reef Grief Relief

You're Right!

Chunk your project

What Moves You - Part 2 of 2

Clarity Parity

Categories: transparency

This post is about transparency. It’s based on an article in a special edition of Scientific American.  For full disclosure, we should notice that this special edition is produced by Scientific American Custom Media, produced for SC Johnson, the article’s subject.  By telling you this, I want to be transparent about the transparency about which I’m writing.

Here are some of the highlights from an article called “The Deepest Family Trust”:

I’ll key in on a few points which will be of interest to project managers.

The Greenlist™process (and program)

Going back to 2001, SC Johnson developed and instituted Greenlist, which evaluates ingredients on environmental and human impact.  The four steps are shown below.

The Greenlist process may look familiar to those of us in product development – a sort of gate process for release of hardware or software products, in which the criteria are not feature and functionality focused but rather ‘impact’ focused.

The Greenlist program has yielded results.  See the chart below for an illustration.

It’s a risk assessment on an ingredient level, which results in elimination if an ingredient doesn’t meet standards on effects on human health and environment.  SC Johnson intends to publish the scientific criteria behind the Greenlist program.  The process looks to be a good benchmark for others to follow, however, in the name of transparency, here is an alternate view.

Regardless of your view, it is clear (excuse the pun) that SC Johnson has put significant effort and has the “right” idea.  From the section of the article which contained an interview with CEO Fisk Johnson, he says:

“It was not a small task.  There were tens of thousands of raw materials and components, and countless ways to classify and rate them, so we had to figure out how to simplify and systemize the approach.  The biggest challenge by far was one of internal resistance. People were concerned it would increase costs or reduce efficacy of our products and put us at a competitive disadvantage.  That certainly ended up being the case in certain instances, like when we eliminated some of the insecticides in our bug killers.  But, because it was so important to make those changes, we accepted those costs or changes efficacy.

What’s Inside

SCJohnson is indeed focused on ingredients. In addition to the Greenlist program which helps determine what goes in to the products, you as a consumer can find out what’s in the products – and what each ingredient does.

Visit to look up a product for detailed ingredient information.  Since Windex® is a product used to clean glass and make it more transparent, we chose it as an example to illustrate the website for you, and focus on one ingredient - Lauryl dimethyl amine oxide.

Lauryl dimethyl amine oxide is a cleaning agent, or "surfactant," that can also be found in a variety of products including shampoos and dishwashing detergents. We use it in our products to remove dirt and deposits by surrounding dirt particles to loosen them from the surface they're attached to, so they can be rinsed away.

Are your projects transparent?  More importantly, are the products of your projects focused on ‘trustworthiness’?  And, probably most importantly, is your organization’s culture such that it promotes this form of transparency in its portfolio of projects?  Do you have parity with this level of clarity? The SC Johnson story can be a trigger or inspiration.


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: August 06, 2017 07:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Reef Grief Relief

Categories: risk

I like to say that the ‘animator’ of projects is risk.  Without risk, projects would just be ‘deliverable factories’.  Where’s the fun in that?  Also – as project managers, we earn our pay by dealing with uncertainty that comes naturally with projects, due to their cute uniqueness.

I know... sometimes risk is not cute.  In fact, it can be deadly.  Imagine a category 5 hurricane.  Deadly.

Remember, though, that risk – by definition – can be threat OR opportunity.

“An uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on one or more project objectives.”

In this post we’re going to talk about something that sits at the intersection of risk management and sustainability – and a way that a company has turned a threat into an opportunity – an opportunity that could provide both economic and ecological benefit.

I think that means it’s worth reading on, right?  Yes.

The article, from Bloomberg News, is called Coral Reef Gets An Insurance Policy Of Its Own.

It discusses an insurance company, Swiss Re AG, which is currently writing a policy for a stretch of the Mesoamerican Reef in Mexico (see red areas in map below). Here you have an insurer covering a natural structure. The actual policyholders will be the beachfront hotels protected by that reef.

If you recall from the PMBOK® Guide, risk transfer is one of the seven ways we can respond to risk – and one of the four ways we can respond to threat.  In this case we are talking about the threat of natural disaster (i.e. tropical storms and hurricanes).  What shape does risk transfer usually take?  Insurance.

Who normally covers (provides insurance for) damage from natural disasters?  The government. The numbers are huge. The U.S. government spent at least $278 billion on disaster assistance between 2005 and 2014.  The U.S. GAO (Government Accountability Office) says that climate change as one of the most significant financial risks to the federal government.  This is one of the reasons that I think government can make a great rationale for investing in reducing climate change – a preventive approach.  But I digress.

From the article:

Insurance groups have long urged governments to address climate change—the companies are, after all, at risk for big disaster payouts. But the Mexican example shows that risks can also be a business opportunity.

The Nature Conservancy has proposed a different approach: The extra money paid by the hotel owners to the government could be converted into premium payments to Swiss Re to cover the reef. The policy would be what’s called parametric insurance, in which a large hurricane would trigger near-immediate payouts. By having the money arrive quickly, reef repairs could begin sooner.

More about Parametric Insurance here.

Is this a Mexican thing?  Is it limited to one country or region? Again, from the article:

The approach planned in Mexico can be expanded to other countries, says Kathy Baughman McLeod, the Nature Conservancy’s managing director for coastal risk and investment. She says at least 26 countries around the world are both protected by and economically dependent on coral reefs. The model could also be used for other publicly owned features that shield coastlines from storms, such as mangrove forests and coastal wetlands. The Nature Conservancy was one of the sponsors of a July conference of the International Insurance Society in London, which focused on the potential for insurers to augment governments in protecting against extreme weather.

What do you think?  Is this a good example of People, Planet, Projects, and Profits?  We think so.  Launching this new type of insurance is a project, as would be any physical projects to protect the reef.  It all comes together.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: August 01, 2017 10:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

You're Right!

Being right is important. Getting to facts is important.  This has been a theme of People, Planet, Profits and Projects – avoiding bias, seeking to remove emotion from issues such as climate change and sustainability thinking, and in particular the effects of such on projects and project managers.  And even if those aren't of immediate concern to you, wouldn't it be better to have better, more accurate estimates for your project?

To that end, we draw your attention to a recent episode of an excellent podcast called Hidden Brain.  The episode is called: I’m Right, You’re Wrong

There’s a very interesting part to the podcast that has to do with something called the Surprisingly Popular answer.  It explains how you can mine data from a crowd with 20% (or greater) improvements over a simple democratic vote.  It relies on the distributed expertise in the crowd who may ‘know better’, and requires the addition of a subtly different additional question when asking a group to make a determination about a factual answer, or even to zero in on a good estimate of a sales price for a piece of artwork.

The podcast explains this very well, but if you aren’t in the mood to listen to it now, we go to Princeton University’s website for an excellent summary:

The researchers tested their algorithm through multiple surveys conducted on various populations. In one test, they asked people a yes-or-no question, Is Philadelphia the capital of Pennsylvania? Respondents also were asked to predict the prevalence of “yes” votes. Because Philadelphia is a “large, historically significant city,” most people in the group thought that, yes, it is the capital of Pennsylvania — Harrisburg is in fact the state’s capital. In addition, the people who mistakenly thought Philadelphia is the state capital also predicted that a very high percentage of people would answer “yes.”

Meanwhile, a certain number of respondents knew that the correct answer is “no.” But these people also anticipated that many other people would incorrectly think the capital is Philadelphia, so they also expected a very high percentage of “yes” answers. Thus, almost everyone expected other people to answer “yes,” but the actual percentage of people who did was significantly lower. “No” was the surprisingly popular answer because it exceeded expectations of what the answer would be.

Across all topics, the researchers found that the “surprisingly popular” algorithm reduced errors by 21.3 percent compared to simple majority votes, and by 24.2 percent compared to basic confidence-weighted votes (where people express how confident they are in their answers). It also reduced errors by 22.2 percent compared to answers with the highest average confidence levels. On the 50 test questions related to state capitals — such as the Harrisburg-Philadelphia question — the SP method reduced incorrect decisions by 48 percent compared to the majority vote.

Perhaps this could be adapted to getting more accurate project time and cost estimates?

Here's a figure from the Nature article.

Additional links on the Surprisingly Popular methodology:

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 28, 2017 11:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Chunk your project

Categories: chess, cognitive

This is a short blog post about a long-term view of project management.

And, it comes with some tips for becoming a better … chess player... or, whatever it is you want to become good at.

You (considering where you are reading this) probably want to become better at project management.  And if you could learn how to aid in the effort to boost sustainability, well, that would be nice, as well. 

The idea for this post came from a podcast called Inquiring Minds.  This was their episode 161 – “How to Become a Grandmaster Chess Champion”.  In this podcast (an excellent one – consider subscribing) the hosts interview Patrick Wolff, a chess Grandmaster. 

Wolff talks about a variety of subjects related to his rise to power in the world of chess, including the great debate about talent versus teachable skill.  And then, he mentions a technique he used called “chunking”. 

What is Chunking?

We explain with a ‘chunk’ taken from this article at The Mission.

Explainer: How Chunking Happens

Think about when you first started learning to read (or when you see a child learning to read). Although you didn’t realize it, you were chunking!

The first phase was learning that these random shapes you were seeing were actually a new concept called letters. You combined multiple things into one new thing. That is the essence of chunking. In this case, you combined shapes into a new chunk called letters.

As you developed mastery of letters, you learned that they could be combined into a new concept called words and that these words could be accessed automatically.

Over time, you continued additional levels of chunks. You realized that words could form word groups, which could form clauses, which could form sentences, which could ultimately form stories.

And voila! You suddenly had a new magical ability: the ability to read. You no longer had to sound out each letter. Where there used to be randomness, you now saw order.

This is more than just popular psychology.  In a 2015 article published by the International Society for Computational Biology, chunking is studied in detail.  Have a look at this paper's abstract: Learning of Chunking Sequences in Cognition and Behavior:

We often learn and recall long sequences in smaller segments, such as a phone number 858 534 22 30 memorized as four segments. Behavioral experiments suggest that humans and some animals employ this strategy of breaking down cognitive or behavioral sequences into chunks in a wide variety of tasks, but the dynamical principles of how this is achieved remains unknown. Here, we study the temporal dynamics of chunking for learning cognitive sequences in a chunking representation…

In the Inquiring Minds podcast, Wolff explains that he doesn’t see pawns, or knights, or even queens or kings.  He sees chunks.  Chunks of pieces in certain positions.  There’s even a video that shows Wolff excelling – or failing – at identifying, learning, and memorizing chess pieces when they are put in logical placement (that’s when he can chunk) or in random order (that’s when he fails).

If you’d like to learn about chunking through video, here’s a short animated explanation.

To cut to the chase, here is the connection.

So what’s the connection? Projects, like chess pieces, are smaller components of programs and portfolios.  If you can learn how projects fit into the larger picture, you are able to better understand how the chess board (the enterprise) works, and to better connect the benefits from a single project to the mission, vision and values of the overall enterprise.

I’m not taking anything away from projects, mind you.  Under your leadership, they are things of beauty, just as is a finely-carved knight in a collector’s chess set.  But your project is more important, more understandable, more beneficial, more sustainable if it is planned and managed in the context of the greater whole – as Andy Jordan says in a post here on just yesterday,

“Leadership must therefore be extremely clear on what the strategy is intended to deliver, with a focus on:

The long-term goals they wish to achieve in terms of market share, revenue, positioning (i.e. volume leader, quality niche, etc.), customer satisfaction, etc.

The internal improvements they expect to see: capabilities, efficiency, employee satisfaction, etc.

Stability and resilience: the primarily balance sheet performance that ensures long term survival and ability to grow.”


So… Queen to King's Rook 5, and “Chunk on”, project managers!


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 21, 2017 10:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

What Moves You - Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of “what moves you”, I discussed the demise of ICE.  No, not melting polar ice, but the Internal Combustion Engine.  Transportation is changing.  The vehicles’ power source is not all there is to it, however.  The whole concept of getting from point A to point B (and back?) is changing.  Vehicles may be driving themselves.  Ownership of cars may turn into ownership of transportation capability and have nothing at all to do with a car. 

If this seems strange, and you think it’s a game-changer, consider what the car itself did to society when it first arrived on the scene.  It was a huge pivot in the entire concept not only of moving people around but in the way that cities and commerce and social networks grew. 

The inspiration for this Part 2 comes from a great article by Carlo Ratti and Assaf Biderman in the most recent edition (July 2017) of Scientific American.

The focus of the article (and the special report within this issue of the magazine) is on cities.  This article is called “From parking to paradise”, and is (I believe) a tribute to the Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi”, in which she sings, “they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”.  The article talks about how the possibility exists to reverse that trend (thus… parking to paradise, not the other way around).


Here are some of the ways that ‘what moves you’ is going to change in the future, and how project managers will be leading the way – because this is change, and that is what project managers lead – change. 

  • Traffic Control

Have you ever thought about how much fuel is wasted, and emissions arrive simply based on the fact that traffic sits idle at an intersection?On top of this there is the frustration and sometimes anger (and accidents) that occur at sloppily-designed intersections. The concept here is that vehicles would be given time slots to pass through intersections.With the increase in autonomous (or at least intelligently-communicating) vehicles, city planners could eliminate traffic lights.Studies show that twice as many vehicles may be able to pass through intersections in the same timeframe using this method of ‘batching’ vehicles into timeslots, based on their requests to pass through the intersection.

  • Shared Vehicles

What percentage of time do you think cars sit idle?  50%? 70%? 90%?  Keep going.  It’s actually ninety-six percent.  That is a resource that is perfect for a sharing economy.  Already, Zipcar and Car2go have taken advantage of this huge resource.  Does it make a difference?  According to the article, every shared vehicle removes the equivalent of 9 to 13 cars from the streets.  A study at MIT showed that with such sharing, the ‘mobility demand’ for a city like Singapore could be met with only 30% of its existing vehicles.  Imagine that: 70% of the cars (and the accompanying noise, emissions, manufacture, maintenance, and disposal of such – gone.

  • Shared Taxis

The authors used data from 170 million taxi trips and studied the effects of ride sharing to these trips, finding that taxi sharing could reduce the number of cars needed by 40%, with only minimal delays for passengers.

  • We get New Jersey Back!

Here’s another trivia question for you.  How much of the USA is “parking lot”?  Guess.  No, really.  Guess. Turns out, it’s an area almost as large as New Jersey. With the changes that the new transportation (yes, I am going to use that word) paradigm provides, much of that parking would no longer be needed.  What does that look like?  New public spaces, parks, playgrounds, more living space…


  • Risk = Opportunity + Threat

There is a lot of positive risk here (as PMs we know this as opportunity).  However, it must be managed properly.  Of course, there are safety threats.  If we put too much faith in computer-driven cars, it could bring a whole new meaning to a system crash.  Here’s another one.  If autonomous cars become so inexpensive that public transportation is less utilized, this could backfire and there could actually be an increase in the number of vehicles in cities.

Still, the article concludes that if the transition is done thoughtfully (which I interpret as with good long-term project management practices) the shift to these new transportation mechanisms will achieve “a safer and more pleasant urban experience”, reflecting “the very mission of our cities, which dates to the …first human settlements 10,000 years ago – bringing us together, regardless of the kind of vehicles we are moving in”.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 13, 2017 11:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important. "

- Bertrand Russell