Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
Leonardo de Vinci said these words some 500 years ago. The words of a visionary. Fast forward to 1960, the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Silly (or Stupid, depending on the source) – states that most systems work best if they are kept simple. In other terms, unnecessary complexity must be avoided. This postulate resonates well with other famed quotes of Albert Einstein "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough" or French writer Antoine de Saint-Éxupery “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. We aim for simplicity in an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world (VUCA, an acronym coined in 1987). As a society and as individuals, we face a constant challenge: to be able to simplify in a complex environment.
In the recent history one can find examples of how simplicity has led to successful stories. I recall that my first cell phone, back in the mid-90s, came with a thick booklet of instructions. Operating the phone – not yet smart – required some serious reading and testing. As technology advanced, phones became smarter and simpler. As a matter of fact, Apple’s cofounder Steve Jobs developed a phone with a revolutionary user interface that made an instructions booklet unnecessary. The user was able to operate the phone and test its functionalities in a simple manner. The customer valued the iPhone’s simplicity. It is not surprising that the message displayed on the wall of Apple’s marketing department reads “
Project management is a discipline affected by the shift towards simplicity. An example of this can be seen in the evolution of the number of pages in one of the most used resources, the PMBoK (Project Management Body of Knowledge, from the Project Management Institute). From the 1st ed., released in 1996, until the 6th ed., released in 2017, the number of pages has steadily increased until reaching an staggering 978 pages for the 6th ed. The 7th and last edition to date, released in 2021, has knocked this figure down to 370. The decrease of the number of pages is a consequence of a shift towards simplicity and a focus in performance over processes; the 49 (!) processes in PMBoK 6th ed. have turned into 8 performance domains and 12 project management principles. It is a step in the good direction and opens up the door to further simplicity in the coming years.
Along these lines, I would like to recommend the Project Management Handbook by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez (Harvard Business Review), who is able to address project management from an outsider’s perspective in a pragmatic and hand-on manner. As he writes, a simple framework and a common language are key elements to the success of almost any endeavor.
Last but not least. Simplicity derives from a standard with which we are all equipped: common sense, although Voltaire said in 1764 that common sense is not so common. Surely we have experienced conversations at work that have spiraled towards complexity. Before we know it, parallel arguments and theories are thrown in about topics that add little in solving the real issue; on the contrary, they add up complexity. In these cases, applying a dose of unbiased fact-based common sense is often the first step in the right direction. It is not my intention to claim that the application of simplicity is a silver bullet for all issues. But amid a bombardment of dozens of methodologies and practices, it is important to make sure that we do not neglect something as valuable as common sense.
Project success... predicted?
Categories: Project Management, Stakeholder management, Team management
I recently came across an attention-grabbing paper titled “Dance hit song prediction”. In this research, the authors developed a predictive model to evaluate the likelihood of a new tune making it to the chart’s Top 10. For that purpose, a vast database containing dance hit songs from 1985 to 2013 was built; attributes such as tempo, duration, loudness, energy and danceability were measured. Amazingly enough, the model showed a success predictability of more than 70%!
Could a homologous predictive model for project success be successfully developed (pun intended)? In a world that spends $48 trillion every year on projects, a success ratio of only 35% is not acceptable (data published by the Standish group). Invigorating the success rate is not a trivial task. Before a model can be developed - not in the scope of this humble article - it is indispensable to identify the key parameters that play a role in project success.
The list below captures my Top 10:
Do all ten items above have similar weights or is Pareto playing a role? Are there other factors missing? Have your saying in the comments section below.
Let this mouse run the project!
When I was a little kid I used to read “Don Miki”, a thin booklet containing graphic comics of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other characters like Goofy, Gyro Gearloose or the orange colored dog Pluto. It came out every two weeks and my grandmother visited the kiosk regularly to buy the latest issue, so I could enjoy reading it during my visits. Looking back, I realized that my passion for reading started perhaps with Walt Disney’s comics.
Fast forward to today, I found myself flipping through the pages of an ancient Don Miki together with my daughter; although she is still too young to grasp the content and moral of the stories, she surely enjoys glazing at the colorful pages. As I read the booklet, I put on the project manager lenses to realize that the fictitious characters with beaks and feathers could well be blueprints of their flesh and bone counterparts!
Another one that I would enlist without hesitation is Gyro Gearloose, the genius inventor with an outrageous productivity rate, although sometimes his inventions do not work out the way he planned to. Can you picture Gyro in a scrum meeting? He would flourish in this setting, coming up with new features and ideas, and probably driving the rest of the development team crazy. Gyro is a superb mix of a generator and a conceptualizer who thrives on solving problems and exploring new opportunities. Assign him a predictable project and he’ll soon become demotivated and bored; enroll him in a highly adventurous initiative and he’ll quickly become the team cornerstone.
Last but not least, Mickey Mouse. He is a sweet, easy-going and carefree character, always eager to share his positivity with others and keep their spirits high during low times. Moreover, he is a composed professional even when inconveniences get in the way. On top of that, he is a true altruist who risks his own life for the safety of others without expecting any reward in return. I don’t know if you’d agree, but I believe that Mickey Mouse would make a striking project manager!
Value generation and project management: two sides of the same coin
The objective of this article is to provide a high-level analysis of the relationship between project management and the contribution of value in the achievement of strategic objectives. Concepts such as agile transformation or project economy have become part of the business lexicon in a rapidly changing environment. The covid-19 vaccine development and commercialization project is a representative example of a new paradigm in the creation and management of value.
From the Great Pyramids to the project economy
Moving to more recent times, it was not until the 20th century that the popularity and professionalization of project management increased and different associations began to emerge to proselytize various project management frameworks, tools and techniques. A transition process is currently underway towards the so-called project economy, in which people acquire the skills and abilities necessary to turn ideas into reality. Value is created through successful project completion, product delivery, and alignment with the organization's strategic goals. In the project economy, project managers abandon operational tasks and begin to bear higher levels of responsibility in converting ideas into value.
The project manager of the 21st century
Broadly speaking, there are two factors to consider when evaluating the suitability of a predictive or adaptive model to achieve the objectives of a project: the need for creativity and the speed of commercialization.
A manufacturing line validation project or one for the development of new drugs requires different levels of creativity and speed to market. The former fits well into more traditional or predictive management while the latter requires an approach that facilitates greater adaptability. There is no one model superior to the other, the two models or their mixture are perfectly viable and must be molded according to the specific needs that each situation and moment demands. Something similar to what happens with the so-called scrumban, an unregulated mixture of scrum and Kanban that creates misgivings in some purists but can be highly effective.
There is no doubt, the world today is changing at a great speed. The acronym VUCA has been added to the dictionary of professionals in all fields. The paradigm shift affects aspects such as corporate culture, promoting collaboration and entrepreneurship, or structural ones, moving from a hierarchical or silos arrangement to others with a higher level of self-management. Projects and their managers are not impervious to these changes, continuously adapting without losing sight of the main objective: to promote change and add value.
A 2019 Gartner study ensures that 80% of the tasks carried out by a project manager will have been eliminated by 2030 as a result of the rise of artificial intelligence. Report writing, monitoring or data collection will add to the list of machine payroll activities. Even the selection of projects that make up the portfolio can be delegated to computers. However, the project manager is still in the top 20 of the most in-demand roles across all industries. To stay in this privileged position, the project management professional must expand their field of action and incorporate a series of elements such as agile, lean, design thinking or product management, among others, thus becoming an implementing agent of business strategy.
Vaccines in record time
Although the stages are the same for both cases, there is a factor of 10 to 18 between the duration of the projects, thus making it possible to obtain value early. The accelerated development of vaccines against covid-19 is due to a multitude of circumstances: a very short research phase due to the prior knowledge of vaccines for SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, the parallel execution of phases I and II of the clinical study (fast-tracking, in traditional project management jargon) and large-scale vaccine production before obtaining a marketing permit from regulatory authorities (another traditional project schedule management technique called lead).
From a management point of view, the development of the new vaccines has used a hybrid model that adds traditional elements such as lead or fast-tracking to a highly agile environment. In addition, it is an example of generating value throughout the life cycle of the project. For example, mRNA technology was developed before the pandemic, thus generating value that was later realized in the creation of the vaccine. Gone are the times in which it was common to spend long periods without harvesting any fruit to end up delivering the value generated shortly before closing the project. The hybrid model used to commercialize coronavirus vaccines in record time has created a precedent for future developments in the biotechnology field.
To quote the famous saying, the best way to deal with change is to help create it. Are you in?
Owning by learning
One of the frequently asked questions is whether a project manager should be knowledgeable (or an expert) in the field of the project. For example, can someone with a background in chemistry and little knowledge in IT systems architecture effectively manage a project to deploy a new ERP system? Most respondents indicated that although having a deep knowledge on the specific domain(s) is not mandatory to successfully lead a project, a certain degree of familiarity does certainly add value.
My experience leading projects in the pharmaceutical sector, and within the manufacturing area in particular, concurs with the survey outcome. In fact, I have witnessed heavy struggles from seasoned IT project managers in the management of projects related to the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products.
One reason that could explain this is that the pharmaceutical industry is very highly regulated. Before one moves his right hand needs to ask permission to his left. Hyperbole aside, failing to understand and adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (or GxP in general) will raise eyebrows from team members and other relevant stakeholders. How can this person manage these type of projects when he is lacking the very basic foundation upon which the rest is built?
In addition, the manufacturing of medicines or APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) involve several disciplines such as chemistry, biology and engineering. A project to validate a new production process or to qualify a new equipment requires the completion of a set of deliverables such as IQs (Installation Qualification), OQs (Operational Qualification), PQs (Production Qualification) amongst many others. These documents are highly technical and even though they are authored, reviewed and approved by diffferent team members, the PM must be able understand their significance. By failing to do so, he risks becoming a mere project administrator whose main task is to follow up on the status of documents which importance can't explain. By using the suitable professional jargon, the PM increases his credibility and boosts his engagement towards the team and the project.
Some theories indicate that organizations across all industries are transitioning towards a project economy. In this setting, the project manager must step up and expand his duties beyond the usual planning and controlling. In this paradigm shift, the PM will own the project in a broader sense of the term. The project economy requires well rounded professionals that can lead the whole process from idea to reality, from a drawing on a white board to a tangible item. If the project economy crystallizes, it is yet another reason to take all the necessary steps to become a knowledgeable individual and own the challenges that await us.