I’ve Really Got to Use My (Determinism) to think of good reasons to keep on keeping on

Where do we go from here?

Made some comments on the use of risk in estimates to complete (ETC)/estimates at complete (EAC) in a discussion at LinkedIn’s Earned Value Management Group.  This got me thinking about the current debate on free will between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.  Jonathan MS Pearce at A Tippling Philosopher, who wrote a book about Free Will, has some interesting perspectives on the differences between them.  Basically the debate is over the amount of free will that any individual actually possesses.

The popular and somewhat naïve conception of free will assumes that the individual (or organizations, or societies, etc.) is an unhindered free agent and can act on his or her will as necessary.  We know this intuitively to be untrue but it still infects our value judgments and many legal, moral, ethical, and societal reactions to the concepts of causality, responsibility, and accountability.  We know from science, empiricism, and our day-to-day experience that the universe acts in a somewhat deterministic manner.  The question is: how deterministic is it?

In my youth I was a fan of science fiction in general and Isaac Asimov’s books in particular.  One concept that intrigued me from his Foundation series was psychohistory, developed by the character Hari Seldon.  Through the use of psychohistory Seldon could determine when a society was about to go into cultural fugue and the best time to begin a new society in order to save civilization.  This line of thought actually had a basis in many post-World War II hypotheses to explain the mass psychosis that seemed to grip Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  The movie The White Ribbon explored such a proposition, seeming to posit that the foundation for the madness that was to follow had its roots much earlier in German society’s loss of compassion, empathy, and sympathy.  Perhaps the cataclysm that was to occur was largely inevitable given the conditions, which seemed too small and insignificant by themselves.

So in determining what will happen and where we will go we must first determine where we are.  Depending on what is being measured there are many qualitative and quantitative ways to determine our position relative to society, where we want to be, or any other relative measurement.  As I said in a post in looking at the predictive measurements of the 2012 election as project management, especially in the predictive methodology employed by Nate Silver, “we are all dealt a deck of cards by the universe regardless of what we undertake, whether an accident of birth, our socioeconomic position, family circumstance, or our role in a market, business or project enterprise.  The limitations on our actions—our free will—are dictated by the bounds provided by the deal.  How we play those cards within the free will provided will influence the outcome.  Sometimes the cards are stacked against us and sometimes for us.  I believe that in most cases the universe provides more than a little leeway that provides for cause and effect.  Each action during the play provides additional deterministic and probabilistic variables.  The implications for those who craft policy or make decisions in understanding these concepts are obvious.”

So how does this relate to project management since many of these examples–even the imaginary one–deal with larger systems with much less uncertainty and paucity of data?  Well, we do have sufficient data when we lengthen the timeframe and actually collect data.

Dr. David Christenson in looking at DoD programs determined that CPI at the 20% mark did not change significantly at completion.  Later this observation was further refined by looking at project performance after the disastrous Navy A12 contract had had its remedial effects on project management.  This conclusion provided both a confirmation of the validity of CPI and the EVM methods that undergird it, and the amount of influence that actions have in determining the ultimate success or failure of the project after the foundation has been laid.  Subsequent studies have strengthened the deterministic observation made by Dr. Christensen of project performance.

The models that I have used incorporate technical performance measures with EVM, cost, schedule, and risk in determining future project performance.  But the basis for the determination of future project performance is a measurement of the present condition at a point in time, usually tracked along a technical baseline. Thus, our assessment of future performance is based on where our present position is fixed and the identification of the range of probabilities that are most likely to result.  The probabilities keep us grounded in reality.  The results address both contingency and determinism in day-to-day analysis.  This argues for a broader set of measurements so that the window of influence in determining outcomes is maximized.

So are we masters of our own destiny?  Not entirely and not in the manner that the phrase suggests.  Our options are limited to our present position and circumstances.  Our outcomes are limited by probability.