Project Management

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Richard Maltzman
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Driving Overoptimism - Part 2 of 2

Driving Overoptimism - Part 1 of 2

Stupid is as CO2 does

Build Back Better!

Bioretention Part 3: The Maker Movement

Driving Overoptimism - Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of this brief series, I discussed optimism bias and how it applies to projects, and to us as project managers.  I referred to this article in Nature magazine and focused on this key point:

Consumers decide whether to own a vehicle on the basis of considerations such as where they live and the vehicle’s upfront and lifetime costs.  If they systematically underestimate total costs, this could increase car ownership and its associated emissions.  It could also make alternative forms of transport – car sharing, alternative-fuel vehicles, public transport, biking or waking – seem less attractive.

Next, I asserted that the question now becomes: would individuals gasp the idea of a broader “total cost of ownership” ?  And, armed with this better-quality information and knowledge, would they make a different choice?

Indeed, that’s what I will close with in this Part 2 of 2.
The authors of the article surveyed over 6,000 citizens across Germany, aiming to find out what the implications of an expanded (and less optimistically-biased) understanding of vehicle cost would mean to the number of cars on the road.
This is Nature magazine, after all, a respected scientific journal, so they were very careful about their data set and their methods:

  • They focused on head-of-household, those who made the financial decisions
  • They noted the individuals’ car type, driving behavior, socio-economic characteristics
  • They worked with the Forsa survey institute

6,233 surveys were completed by car-owning individuals and about 5,500 stated their opinions of what the true monthly costs of ownership were.
Then, they went to the German Automobile Club (similar in nature to the USA’s AAA) and other sources to validate the actual monthly costs of car ownership including depreciation, fuel, taxes, insurance, and repair.

The results
Consumers underestimate the total cost of vehicle ownership by an average of about $240 per month.  For many people, that number is a car payment.  The total actual cost is nearly double what people estimate.  There it is: optimism bias in action.  In motion.  In their cars.
Even when respondents took all cost factors into account, the underestimation was over $190 per month.  See the data in the figure at the bottom of this post.

Interestingly, respondents were fairly accurate when it came to fuel, but when it came to financial measures such as depreciation, this was the largest underestimation by far.  Why?  It’s information that is seemingly unrelated to driving.  Fuel, maintenance, purchase price (or leasing costs) – these “fit” in the mindset of drivers.  Depreciation – not so much appreciation for depreciation!

So next comes the hypothesis: what would happen if we completely eliminate the degree to which people underestimate the total cost of owning a car?  If people really “got” that they were paying about twice as much (on average) as they thought, would more cars ‘vanish’ from the road?

The authors modeled how vehicle ownership costs changes, when the associated costs change.  Their conclusion? More than 1/3 (in fact 37%) of the vehicles in Germany would be removed from the road.  What does this mean?  In terms of CO2 emissions, this is about 23% of Germany’s entire transportation sector, and in real terms, 37 million tonnes per year!

What are the recommendations and next steps?
The authors recognize that nothing will likely ‘entirely stop people from underestimating the total cost of owning a car’.  But they do believe that they can close the awareness gap in the following ways:

  • Automobile manufactures should label their vehicles with the real estimated total costs at point of sale
  • Provide average future fuel cost of driving the vehicle (already done in many countries)
  • Assure that independent agencies provide the total cost information 
  • Empower ride-sharing and public transportation agencies to advertise these total costs (with certification that the data is valid, per the above)
  • Continue research in this area, answering questions like:
    • Why do consumers underestimate total cost?
    • Is this a local phenomenon to Germany?  Replicate this in Japan, the US, Brazil, and elsewhere
    • Inform policymakers of these findings

I found this to be a fascinating story – I hope it helps you when making a purchase decision, and in your day-to-day project management role.
I’m optimistic about it.  Don’t let me down.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 29, 2020 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Driving Overoptimism - Part 1 of 2

Photo credit: Consumer Reports Magazine

One of the most important lessons that is threaded through several of my graduate project management classes is the bias that we have as humans for optimism, often showing up in underestimating cost and time.  And graduate student or practicing, pragmatic project manager, clearly that over-optimism is deadly to our projects if we want them to come in under budget and on time.

In fact, I estimate that 10% of projects have this optimism bias, and that estimate is probably overoptimistic by at least 110%.

(pause for ironic chuckle)

In fact, I’m writing this blog post as I wait for service on my vehicle.  They told me “about an hour or less”.  Let’s see how that works out! (UPDATE: it took 92 minutes, so.... mic drop).

Keeping the automotive theme, I’d like to post today about a Comment article in Nature magazine from 23-April-2020.  In this article by Mark A. Andor, Andreas, Gerster, Kenneth T. Gillingham an Marco Horvath, the tagline is:

Car owners underestimate total vehicle costs.  Giving consumers this information could encourage the switch to cleaner transport and reduce emissions.

So the points are these:

  • Private cars cause about 11% of the world’s CO2 emissions
  • That’s the largest single slice of the transport sector
  • Getting cars off the road would have a big impact not only in CO2 but in other costs such as road maintenance (which has a CO2 impact of its own), but in reduced injuries and deaths due to traffic accidents (that last bullet mostly my own)

Some countries realize this and are taking stringent actions to control behavior and the mechanics of the emissions.  For example, the UK, starting in 2035 will make the sale of new gasoline, diesel, and hybrid cars unlawful.  Cities are taking action, too, by electrifying their buses.  Still, almost all passenger cars still rely on fossil fuels, and, vehicle ownership continues to rise.

Electric vehicles are expensive in upfront cost, although they are much cheaper to operate.  Another bias we have as humans is to look only at the short term (and envision the upfront cost only and not the operating costs).

So really, this is about decision making.  Decisions – at least good ones – are based on data, or preferably, information, knowledge, and wisdom (see the DIKW pyramid – an excellent framework on this topic).

What if, as this article, and my courses assert, what if the information we get – or the way we process it into wisdom – is incomplete or incorrect?  Stands to reason: bad decisions, right?


And that’s the point of this article:

Consumers decide whether to own a vehicle on the basis of considerations such as where they live and the vehicle’s upfront and lifetime costs.  If they systematically underestimate total costs, this could increase car ownership and its associated emissions.  It could also make alternative forms of transport – car sharing, alternative-fuel vehicles, public transport, biking or waking – seem less attractive.

So the question now becomes: would individuals gasp the idea of a broader “total cost of ownership” ?  And, armed with this better-quality information and knowledge, would they make a different choice?

Turns out that the authors did some detailed work in this area,surveying over 6000 decision makers in Germany to see, and produced significant data on this.

That data analysis – and a conclusion – will be Part II of this blog post.


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 27, 2020 12:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Stupid is as CO2 does

Categories: co2, cognition, forrestgump, stupid

First: an explainer of the title.  Many of you have seen the terrific film, Forrest Gump, and if you haven’t, consider that homework (not work, really!) from this blog post.  Watch it – or re-watch it if it’s been a while.   One of the most memorable lines from the film is, “momma always said, ‘stupid is as stupid does”, meaning that one should make judgements based on actions, not on appearance.

Well, CO2 is invisible, so we cannot judge it on appearance, but after reading this post, you will see that it does have an ability to act, and to act on humans – and unfortunately, that action is to make us stupider.

Some background first

It’s not really up for debate, or at least not the debate of this post – as to whether there is a significant rise in CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.  And, there’s no longer much debate about the fact that human activities are the cause (that is, that the CO2 rise is anthropogenic).

Figure 1 (above) shows the increase in CO2 in parts per million (PPM) from 800,000 years ago to today.  Of course, there are glacial cycles*, but what you see is a recent, sudden, and meteoric rise – an increase of 50% between 1813 and 2019.  The chart also projects what will happen depending on the mitigation strategies (called RCPs – Representative Concentration Pathways). 

On to the main topic

Even if you debate the causes of the rise shown in the figure, the numbers are there.  The CO2 is up.  What would it mean – or better yet, what DOES it mean – if our CO2 levels are increased.  What does it mean for humans, for projects, for work, if CO2 levels are elevated? 

In this post, I am NOT talking about the other effects of CO2 and Greenhouse Gasses, such as:

  • Ocean acidity
  • Ocean level rise and glacial decay
  • Species loss
  • Climate change

All of those things are, of course, horrific, but here I want to focus only on one aspect of CO2 concentration increase that I’d never before considered, and one that may be of particular interest to project managers, so pay attention!

As you read this, keep in the forefront of your mind that project managers and team members require strategic decision making and higher-level cognitive skills.

I’m talking about the findings from a recently-published article from the American Geophysical Union’s publication GeoHealth called, Fossil Fuel Combustion Is Driving Indoor CO2 toward Levels Harmful to Human Cognition”, by Karnauskas et al, which you will find posted on the US Government’s National  Institutes of Health website.

Here is the abstract of that article:

Human activities are elevating atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels unprecedented in human history. The majority of anticipated impacts of anthropogenic CO2 emissions are mediated by climate warming. Recent experimental studies in the fields of indoor air quality and cognitive psychology and neuroscience, however, have revealed significant direct effects of indoor CO2 levels on cognitive function. Here, we shed light on this connection and estimate the impact of continued fossil fuel emissions on human cognition. We conclude that indoor CO2 levels may indeed reach levels harmful to cognition by the end of this century, and the best way to prevent this hidden consequence of climate change is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Finally, we offer recommendations for a broad, interdisciplinary approach to improving such understanding and prediction.


Testing for the effects of indoor CO2 concentration on cognition is nothing new.  As you would expect, military organizations are very interested to know how (for example) submarine crews are affected.  That’s why these studies date back to the 1960s, and indicate that there are significant impacts on cognition if the CO2 levels rise, mainly in the area of:

  • Responding to stimuli
  • Reasoning
  • Processing threats

From the article:

Early experimental studies testing for the influence of relatively high concentrations of CO2 (5–8%) that might be present in confined and enclosed  spaces like submarines found significant  impacts on ability to respond to a stimulus (Harter, 1967), reasoning (Sayers et al., 1987), and threat processing (Garner et al., 2011).

But submarine crews aren’t the only ones who have to respond to threats, use logic and reasoning, and make strategic decisions.  You’ll recognize this as the stuff you need to do each week, maybe every day as a project manager.

More recent studies have demonstrated a tens of percent decrease in cognitive function with increases of CO2 that would occur with double our current concentration of CO2.  That doubling is not too hard to imagine with the current unmitigated strategy with respect to limiting emissions.

Of even more concern is the fact that the effect is stronger for higher-level cognition.  From the article:

It may be that higher‐level, more cognitively demanding tasks are more likely to be sensitive to the effects of moderate levels of ambient CO2.

A study in juvenile rodents found that increased CO2 in the air reduced levels of a neuroprotective growth factor, severely harming brain development, increasing anxiety, and impairing learning and memory (Kiray et al., 2014).

I know that many of you will point out that your project team members are rarely juvenile rodents.  And I know that some of you will point out that you often think of your project team members as juvenile rodents.  Comedy aside, the point remains.

But these are all forecasts.  What about now?  We’re okay, right?


According to the article, which I remind you, is on the US Government’s own NIH site:

On the unmitigated CO2 emission pathway (RCP8.5), we may be in for a ~25% reduction in our indoor basic decision‐making ability and a ~50% reduction in more complex strategic thinking, by the year 2100 relative to today. These results are almost entirely avoidable by reducing global CO2 emissions according to RCP4.5, which is tantamount to achieving the broad goals set forth under the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

...we estimate that our basic engagement and decision‐making ability should have (already) been reduced by about 8% (or 13%, if the urban CO2 dome effect is both entirely anthropogenic and developed over the same time period). It is important to note that this is an estimate of the influence specifically of the rise in CO2 concentration, all other factors being equal.


So our project teams are already likely affected by the increases in CO2. What can we do to prevent this from getting worse?

I’ll conclude the way the article concludes:

The best way to prevent indoor CO2 levels from reaching levels harmful to cognition is through reduced fossil fuel emissions.


*the CO2 level varies only between 172 and 300 in these cycles over hundreds of thousands of years.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 20, 2020 02:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Build Back Better!

As most of us are now, I’m consumed by the subject of COVID-19 and its effects.  It’s all around us, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.

But it will.  Maybe at the end of this year, maybe in early 2021, we’ll prevail.  I don’t expect a return to normal, but a return to something much closer to normal.

The thing is: “normal’ also includes the ongoing issues we faced BEFORE the pandemic – the largest of them all being climate change.

I stumbled upon this article from BBC, called “Has COVID-19 brought us closer to stopping climate change?”  Interesting question, but how is it connected to project management?

The connection to project leadership here seemed weak at first, but then in blossomed into a bit of an obsession when I discovered so many connections between COVID-19 recovery, a green economy, and projects that it justified at least one blog post, and maybe a few.

One question posed in the article, for example is this one:

As the world has changed around us, how has that changed our perception of the environment and our behaviour towards it? Elise Amel, a professor in psychology at the University of St Thomas in St Paul and Minneapolis, points out that when people can see the impact they cause – when the invisible becomes visible – they behave differently. “When you are spending time at home, working there or because you’ve lost your job or been furloughed, you could see for the first time how much energy you are using or how much food you are throwing away, which may make you stop, think and change your behaviour,” says Amel.

See this paper on the topic from the American Psychological Association:

This is revealing in and of itself but think out it… we could (should!) apply this to our projects, couldn’t we?  Show progress… show a vision… complete milestones… and you get buy in.

The biggest connection, however was something called Build Back Better, which I hadn’t heard of before this article.  Build Back Better is a phrase that has existed for years* but has now been adopted as a mantra for a more focused and productive global recovery from COVID-19.  Now we’re talking projects!  Building!  Better!  Yes!

You can learn about the basic idea from this BBCNews article:

Is there a push for Build Back Better, related to sustainability and climate change?  Or should be just be focusing on ‘vanilla’ rebuilding – plain old getting back to where we were before the pandemic hit us?

Three in four people polled across 16 countries expect their government to make protection of the environment a priority when planning a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic

And this is what the Build Back Better movement is about (as applied to COVID-19).

It is probably best summarized on this webpage

On this site, they say (and I agree):

Governments working on plans to rebuild their economies should pair recovery action with climate action to ensure that they, and the companies they support, emerge stronger than before. Clear and consistent government policies that drive the full decarbonization of every system of the economy are critical to accelerate progress towards the zero-carbon economies of the future.

By applying a climate and resilience lens to longer-term economic stimulus, governments can boost economic growth, create good jobs, reduce emissions, ensure clean air, and increase resilience to future shocks.

Longer-term stimulus measures to tackle the economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak should consider the wider impacts of spending decisions on the health and wellbeing of citizens.

We urge policymakers to:

Design policies and spending measures that create good jobs and drive economic recovery whilst reducing emissions and building resilience.

Place climate specific conditions on longer-term financial support for companies.

To boost economic growth, drive job creation and increase resilience to future shocks, governments should prioritize policy and spending to:

Accelerate the transition to an inclusive, just, resilient, zero-carbon economy. Implement policies and incentives and fund projects that accelerate the delivery of a just transition to economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

Advance the delivery of 100% clean power. Invest in deploying renewable energy, storage and grid reliability solutions, and enable corporate procurement of renewables.

Enable clean mobility. Increase funding for electric public transport and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, and support fiscal incentives for electric vehicle purchases.

Deliver zero-carbon infrastructure and buildings. Launch home and building efficiency retrofit programs, and utilize public spending on infrastructure to drive demand for low-carbon materials such as steel and cement.

Support industry to transition to zero-emissions. Invest in R&D, demonstration and deployment of emerging zero-carbon technologies and use the power of public procurement to drive demand for zero-carbon materials.

Invest in nature-based climate solutions. Support farmers to invest in climate smart agriculture, to reduce emissions from land use and restore natural carbon sinks.

Avoid rollbacks of environmental protections and ensure foreign economic assistance is used to support zero-carbon, resilient recovery and development.

To ensure companies are reducing risk, building resilience and setting themselves up for long-term success in a zero-carbon future, those receiving long-term public financial assistance should be required to:

Integrate risk into company disclosures in line with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). Consistently screening for risk in company investments and strategy will ensure future investment decisions mitigate climate change, avoid stranded assets and prevent future risks.

Build science-based approaches to inform company strategy. Companies should set science-based targets consistent with limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5°C and reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. Understanding and integrating science into decision making is the best way to protect against future shocks.

Invest in low-carbon solutions that create new jobs. Companies should prioritize investment in available solutions like the retrofitting of buildings, deployment of renewable energies or in achieving mass production and economies of scale in technologies that can decarbonize industry. This will support the creation of new jobs now while reducing the risk of climate change.

 Here's what the  UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had to say about this a few weeks ago.


If you can’t watch the video, here is a summary:

I am therefore proposing six climate-related actions to shape the recovery and the work ahead.

First: as we spend huge amounts of money to recover from the coronavirus, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition.

Second: where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it needs to be tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth.

Third: fiscal firepower must drive a shift from the grey to green economy, and make societies and people more resilient.

Fourth: public funds should be used to invest in the future, not the past, and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate.

Fossil fuel subsidies must end, and polluters must start paying for their pollution.

Fifth: climate risks and opportunities must be incorporated into the financial system as well as all aspects of public policy making and infrastructure.

Sixth: we need to work together as an international community.

These six principles constitute an important guide to recovering better together.

Note that in the video, there are many references to “projects”, “work”, and “jobs”.  So it should catch your attention.

There is indeed a large movement to “build back better” from the pandemic in a way that confronts the climate crisis. Attitudes are changing. But however good our intentions as individuals, it will take determined moves by industry, national and local government to modify the environment so that we can all build on any attitude changes. Has the pandemic helped us make the changes needed to tackle the environmental crisis?


Your comments are appreciated.  Let me know if I should do a follow-up post on this topic.  I’m very tempted!


Here are some resources for you regarding the Build Back Better movement, and a graphic that summarizes the basic ideas:




Interview on the topic of Build Back Better



Video from University of Exeter



5-minute video


*The term build back better first caught international attention in 2006 during the recovery from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, where the UN Special Envoy Report offered Ten Key Propositions for Building Back Better:

  1. Governments, donors, and aid agencies must recognize that families and communities drive their own recovery.
  2. Recovery must promote fairness and equity.
  3. Governments must enhance preparedness for future disasters.
  4. Local governments must be empowered to manage recovery efforts, and donors must devote greater resources to strengthening government recovery institutions, especially at the local level.
  5. Good recovery planning and effective coordination depend on good information.
  6. The UN, World Bank, and other multilateral agencies must clarify their roles and relationships, especially in addressing the early stage of a recovery process.
  7. The expanding role of NGOs and the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Movement carries greater responsibilities for quality in recovery efforts.
  8. From the start of recovery operations, governments and aid agencies must create the conditions for entrepreneurs to flourish.
  9. Beneficiaries deserve the kind of agency partnerships that move beyond rivalry and unhealthy competition.
  10. Good recovery must leave communities safer by reducing risks and building resilience.



Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 06, 2020 09:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Bioretention Part 3: The Maker Movement

Categories: makermovement

In Parts 1 and 2 of this multipart post, I focused on a local bioretention project near my temporary home in Washington DC.  Please read those short posts to get oriented.  That said, I know you won’t do that right now, so here is a quick refresher on bioretention.  It’s a three-minute video, and I know you can do that!


Okay, so now that you know what bioretention is all about, let’s catch you up with Part 2’s content in which I invervewed Volker Janssen from Limnotech and we discussed the collection of data in his project, and the idea of crowdsourcing the collection of data.

Turns out, there are growing communities out there who are helping us understand our environment a little better, literally from the grass roots.

An example:  is a community for do-it-yourself environmental science and monitoring.

It is part of which is a web toolkit designed to help citizens, conservation practitioners, municipal decision-makers, researchers, educators, and students advance knowledge and stewardship of fresh water.

And this in turn is part of which has this mission: “we seek to advance knowledge and stewardship of freshwater systems through global research, education, and watershed restoration”.

Both of the above are part of Stroud™ Water Research Center.  Their mission:

Stroud™ Water Research Center is overcoming the obstacles to large near-real-time data collection networks by using Arduino, an open source electronics platform. We are sharing our experiences building wireless sensor networks in an online community, so that anyone can replicate and implement their own versions of our instrumentation. To follow our progress and share your experiences, visit

That led me to research Arduino and it’s amazing.   It also changed the whole theme of this post, although if you are patient enough, this will come back full-circle to talk about water flow…


As to Arduino, watch this TED talk about it:

It’s really about the “Maker Movement” which could be a FOURTH post in this series but I’m not going there.  I do, however, encourage project managers and my colleagues in academia to pay attention to this Maker Movement because it is such a powerhouse of innovation and project launches.

When you see the video, note the reference to the crowdsourced data collection related to the Fukashima nuclear disaster.  Think about how something like that could conceivably be used to help us pinpoint epicenters and spread of COVID-19.

Actually… we don’t have to think about it.  Here’s an article from Bloomberg or Scientific American about that exact topic!

And check this out:

You will find ideas here in their “Tech for Care” segment about assisting in the solution (vaccine for COVID-19) but also the very human element of innovating to provide an interactive robot video ‘butler’ that helps patients connect with their families and friends.

They did it by smooshing (it’s a technical word – look it up!) together a Roomba, an ipad and a tripod (and of course some other hardware and software) to make this robot.

Everything here is open source.

No patents, permissions, privacy of ideas.   If you want to build on something you find here – just do it.

Watch this robot in action here:

Excited?  Want to try this yourself?  Try #HACKTHEPANDEMIC – go to this site: and you can download the STL files (3D printing format), as well as all sorts of info and instruction and background on producing/modifying the much-needed N95 mask.  Their rationale: NanoHack was inspired by a great global pandemic. The most radical innovations are born from crises, which is why NanoHack is a unique design.

By the way: it’s called Copper3D because (read about it in this article from Smithsonian magazine) copper has some surprising (good) traits when it comes to coronavirus.  Bottom line: the virus doesn’t live very long at all when it lands on copper. To quote the author of the article, “copper zapped the virus within minutes while it remained infectious for five days on surfaces such as stainless steel or glass”.

Or, to bring this back full-circle, here is a video to close the loop.  It’s about automatic watering of a garden… excellent effort by this gentleman, Grady Hillhouse!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 21, 2020 11:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)