Rear View Mirror — Correcting a Project Management Fallacy

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” —  William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Over the years I and others have briefed project managers on project performance using KPPs, earned value management, schedule analysis, business analytics, and what we now call predictive analytics. Oftentimes, some set of figures will be critiqued as being ineffective or unhelpful; that the analytics “only look in the rear view mirror” and that they “tell me what I already know.”

In approaching this critique, it is useful to understand Faulkner’s oft-cited quote above.  When we walk down a street, let us say it is a busy city street in any community of good size, we are walking in the past.  The moment we experience something it is in the past.  If we note the present condition of our city street we will see that for every building, park, sidewalk, and individual that we pass on that sidewalk, each has a history.  These structures and the people are as much driven by their pasts as their expectations for the future.

Now let us take a snapshot of our street.  In doing so we can determine population density, ethnic demographics, property values, crime rate, and numerous other indices and parameters regarding what is there.  No doubt, if we stop here we are just “looking in the rear view mirror” and noting what we may or may not know, however certain our anecdotal filter.

Now, let us say that we have an affinity for this street and may want to live there.  We will take the present indices and parameters that noted above, which describe our geographical environment, and trend it.  We may find that housing pricing are rising or falling, that crime is rising or falling, etc.  If we delve into the street’s ownership history we may find that one individual or family possesses more than one structure, or that there is a great deal of diversity.  We may find that a Superfund site is not too far away.  We may find that economic demographics are pointing to stagnation of the local economy, or that the neighborhood is becoming gentrified.  Just by time-phasing and delving into history–by mapping out the trends and noting the significant historical background–provides us with enough information to inform us about whether our affinity is grounded in reality or practicality.

But let us say that, despite negatives, we feel that this is the next up-and-coming neighborhood.  We would need signs to make that determination.  For example, what kinds of businesses have moved into the neighborhood and what is their number?  What demographic do they target?  There are many other questions that can be asked to see if our economic analysis is valid–and that analysis would need to be informed by risk.

The fact of the matter is that we are always living with the past: the cumulative effect of the past actions of numerous individuals, including our own, and organizations, groups of individuals, and institutions; not to mention larger economic forces well beyond our control.  Any desired change in the trajectory of the system being evaluated must identify those elements that can be impacted or influenced, and an analysis of the effort that must be expended to bring about the change, is also essential.

This is a scientific fact, proven countless times by physics, biology, and other disciplines.  A deterministic universe, which provides for some uncertainty at any given point at our level of existence, drives the possible within very small limits of possibility and even smaller limits of probability.  What this means in plain language is that the future is usually a function of the past.

Any one number or index, no doubt, does not necessarily tell us something important.  But it could if it is relevant, material, and prompts further inquiry essential to project performance.

For example, let us look at an integrated master schedule that underlies a typical medium-sized project.


We will select a couple of metrics that indicates project schedule performance.  In the case below we are looking at task hits and misses and Baseline Execution Index, a popular index that determines efficiency in meeting baseline schedule planning.

Note that the chart above plots the performance over time.  What will it take to improve our efficiency?  So as a quick logic check on realism, let’s take a look at the work to date with all of the late starts and finishes.

Our bow waves track the cumulative effort to date.  As we work to clear missed starts or missed finishes in a project we also must devote resources to the accomplishment of current work that is still in line with the baseline.  What this means is that additional resources may need to be devoted to particular areas of work accomplishment or risk handling.

This is not, of course, the limit to our analysis that should be undertaken.  The point here is that at every point in history in every system we stand at a point of the cumulative efforts, risk, failure, success, and actions of everyone who came before us.  At the microeconomic level this is also true within our project management systems.  There are also external constraints and influences that will define the framing assumptions and range of possibilities and probabilities involved in project outcomes.

The shear magnitude of the bow waves that we face in all endeavors will often be too great to fully overcome.  As an analogy, a bow wave in complex systems is more akin to a tsunami as opposed to the tidal waves that crash along our shores.  All of the force of all of the collective actions that have preceded present time will drive our trajectory.

This is known as inertia.

Identifying and understanding the contributors to the inertia that is driving our performance is important to knowing what to do.  Thus, looking in the rear view mirror is important and not a valid argument for ignoring an inconvenient metric that may only require additional context.  Furthermore, knowing where we sit is important and not insignificant.  Knowing the factors that put us where we are–and the effort that it will take to influence our destiny–will guide what is possible and not possible in our future actions.

Note:  All charted data is notional and is not from an actual project.

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