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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-34230-001
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: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-52488134
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 https://www.wemeanbusinesscoalition.org/build-back-better/
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:
BUILD BACK BETTER
Interview on the topic of Build Back Better
Video from University of Exeter
*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:
Bioretention Part 3: The Maker Movement
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: https://www.envirodiy.org/ is a community for do-it-yourself environmental science and monitoring.
It is part of https://wikiwatershed.org/ 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 https://stroudcenter.org/ 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 EnviroDIY.org.
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: https://copper3d.com/hackthepandemic/ 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!
This blog’s title is People, Planet, Profits & Projects. Much of the time I am talking about the Planet and Projects components (case in point, the series on Bioretention). This particular post focuses on the People and Projects components. It's a book review and a book recommendation.
People. Roughly half of the people on the Planet (okay, so there’s the planet piece, too) are female. An increasing number (luckily, in my humble opinion) are becoming project managers. Ipek Sahra Ozguler (pictured below) of Turkey decided that she would take on a book project to gain insight and perspective of women in project management.
She says, “The aim of realizing this book project is to share the interviewees’ opinions without including my own comments. It is surprising to find out that the majority of the answers were similar across different regions of the world. I think that the perspectives of women project management professionals are more or less similar.”
Ipek interviewed women in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, India, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, United Kingdom, United States.
The book (shown in this post’s photo) is a fascinating read for anyone, because it provides some depth and breadth on an array of concerns that all project managers have. Here are the questions that Ipek asked:
Q1: Describe your journey as a project management professional.
Q2: Why did you choose to become a project management professional?
Q3: Have you encountered any related obstacles in advancing your career?
Q4: Why is it important that more people work in the project management area?
Q5: How can we encourage more people to pursue project management as a career?
Q6: What do you think are the top issues that project managers face today?
Q7: Do you think there is a stereotype attached to project managers?
Q8: Why is it important to celebrate international women's day?
I’ve been a manager and supervisor in the world of project management for a long time (about 4 decades). I have had reported to many male and female line managers and I have had many male and female employees. I have always been interested in knowing how any differences between people (including gender) contribute to the success of projects. Importantly, I also know that I can never really know what a female project manager has to go through in their career progression and in doing their work without the actual perspective of a woman who has been through. This is why I was interested in Ipek’s work.
The particularly interesting finding for me – a male project manager, PMO leader, and academic – was that although there were (of course) differences between the women who shared their perspective, many themes were the same, and most of those themes were not particularly focused on, or limited to, gender issues at all, but rather focused on the general state of project management as a profession.
So there is a lot to learn here!
When there were mentions of gender (and of course, that came up) it went something like this: “We should take advantage of the complementary attributes of males and females” to build better teams. This aligns with my own experience.
My own finding (before the book!): The most successful project teams, and the most successful groups of PMs, when I was a PM director, were about 50% male and 50% female and also were more diverse from a national culture background.
Below I share some categorized observations from the book. You should still get yourself a copy – this is a recommendation, after all!
Regarding PM stereotypes:
The negative stereotypes attached to the project managers are summarized below.
• PM is seen as ‘just an administrative role’. The roles are only operational, not strategic. The other terminologies used instead of the terminology “administrator” are as following: librarians, a kind of secretary.
• PMs are unwanted disrupters who don’t get anything done.
• PMs are nagging people that just get in the functional workers’ way of doing work.
• PMs don’t want any change in their projects.
Sound familiar? Not a male or female issue* – but a project management issue we all face as PM people.
*although I would bet females suffer these stereotypes more than males!
Another theme was the need (as PMs) for our discipline (of project management) to focus on value – lasting value. Here we are talking about value that is delivered well after we’ve moved on to a second or third other project, impacts that may continue after we have long retired.
Yet another theme was career path: the vast majority of these women did not prepare for, or expect a career in project management. They were mostly “accidental” PMs.
When gender differences did come up (and again, I had to look rather hard for this), this is what I found as a theme (paraphrasing here): “we had to work harder than our male counterparts to get work done and to get recognized for that work”.
What other challenges do female PMs face in their career? Some examples:
I do get annoyed though when I see conferences with no or token female presenters. In fact these days I simply don’t go. It’s my personal stand. No females, no Diane!
Deena Gordon Parla
Several challenges come to mind:
1. When project success was determined by a yes/no answer to “was it on time” and “was it within budget”, rather than assessing value realized by the business for the resources invested.
2. Success factors tied to soft skills were not as valued. For example:
As a result, team building and stakeholder communications tasks were the first to be “trimmed” to shorten project schedules.
Also, soft skills were not consistently given the same priority for talent development.
What do you think are the top issues that project managers face today?
• Unskilled people passing themselves off as project managers, giving experienced and credentialed project managers a bad name.
• The lack of understanding and respect for project management skills. Inexperienced stakeholders expect project managers to be super beings. If a PM is unable to articulate their value anddemonstrate their work and how it is helping an organisation, they can be easily devalued and dismissed.
As a woman in project management, in the field of technology and IT environment where men dominate, was always challenging. I had to work and study harder than any man that I know in my profession. I had to repeatedly prove that I am an experienced and trustworthy project manager with great results. I admit it was hard but worth it. I had worked with many amazing and innovative teams and together we managed to bring great benefits and values to the company.
Another obstacle definitely concerns gender: As female project management professionals, it seems we have to prove twice as much that we are knowledgeable and experienced. We have the feeling we should hide the fact that we have children. This can be very tedious at times, but all the more incentive to help more women choose and develop careers in project management, then this will hopefully stop one day.
Within the project management profession, I’ve worked in many industries and for many companies. The least mature of the organizations from a project management perspective perceive project managers as administrators, those who set up meetings, take notes, and provide reminders for upcoming milestones. They are missing the significant value that project managers can provide, and the truly unfortunate aspect is that this may be propagated by the project managers themselves, and their own leadership as well. By behaving in a way that supports this notion, it is supported. Instead, project managers need to challenge the existing stereotypes in their organizations by driving projects to completion, realizing business benefits, and communicating widely those benefits.
I was impressed that these professionals did not lean on gender as a career obstacle. They acknowledge it of course, as I am glad they did, but they aren’t using inequality as an excuse. Instead, they lamented the same sort of obstacles any project manager would lament:
So, overall – a definite great read for male or female project managers, and, because it has some coaching for those senior managers who hire and gain benefits from projects, I think it’s a great book for senior managers of any stripe. If you are interested in learning more about the book, or want to join others interested in expanding your own perspectives, you can join the LinkedIn group set up by Ipek here.