Mo’Better Risk — Tournaments and Games of Failure Part II

My last post discussed economic tournaments and games of failure in how they describe the success and failure of companies, with a comic example for IT start-up companies.  Glen Alleman at his Herding Cats blog has a more serious response in handily rebutting those who believe that #NoEstimates, Lean, Agile, and other cult-like fads can overcome the bottom line, that is, apply a method to reduce inherent risk and drive success.  As Glen writes:

“It’s about the money. It’s always about the money. Many want it to be about them or their colleagues, or the work environment, or the learning opportunities, or the self actualization.” — Glen Alleman, Herding Cats

Perfectly good products and companies fail all the time.  Oftentimes the best products fail to win the market, or do so only fleetingly.  Just think of the roles of the dead (or walking dead) over the years:  Novell, WordPerfect, Visicalc, Harvard Graphics; the list can go on and on.  Thus, one point that I would deviate from Glen is that it is not always EBITDA.  If that were true then both Facebook and Amazon would not be around today.  We see tremendous payouts to companies with promising technologies acquired for outrageous sums of money, though they have yet to make a profit.  But for every one of these there are many others that see the light of day for a moment and then flicker out of existence

So what is going on and how does this inform our knowledge of project management?  For the measure of our success is time and money, in most cases.  Obviously not all cases.  I’ve given two cases of success that appeared to be failure in previous posts to this blog: the M1A1 Tank and the ACA.  The reason why these “failures” were misdiagnosed was that the agreed measure(s) of success were incorrect.  Knowing this difference, where, and how it applies is important.

So how do tournaments and games of failure play a role in project management?  I submit that the lesson learned from these observations is that we see certain types of behaviors that are encouraged that tend to “bake” certain risks into our projects.  In high tech we know that there will be a thousand failures for every success, but it is important to keep the players playing–at least it is in the interest of the acquiring organization to do so, and is in the public interest in many cases as well.  We also know that most IT projects by most measures–both contracted out and organic–tend to realize a high rate of failure.  But if you win an important contract or secure an important project, the rewards can be significant.

The behaviors that are reinforced in this scenario on the part of the competing organization is to underestimate the cost and time involved in the effort; that is, so-called “bid to win.”  On the acquiring organization’s part, contracting officers lately have been all too happy to award contracts they know to be too low (and normally out of the competitive range) even though they realize it to be significantly below the independent estimate.  Thus “buying in” provides a significant risk that is hard to overcome.

Other behaviors that we see given the project ecosystem are the bias toward optimism and requirements instability.

In the first case, bias toward optimism, we often hear project and program managers dismiss bad news because it is “looking in the rear view mirror.”  We are “exploring,” we are told, and so the end state will not be dictated by history.  We often hear a version of this meme in cases where those in power wish to avoid accountability.  “Mistakes were made” and “we are focused on the future” are attempts to change the subject and avoid the reckoning that will come.  In most cases, however, particularly in project management, the motivations are not dishonest but, instead, sociological and psychological.  People who tend to build things–engineers in general, software coders, designers, etc.–tend to be an optimistic lot.  In very few cases will you find one of them who will refuse to take on a challenge.  How many cases have we presented a challenge to someone with these traits and heard the refrain:  “I can do that.”?  This form of self-delusion can be both an asset and a risk.  Who but an optimist would take on any technically challenging project?  But this is also the trait that will keep people working to the bitter end in a failure that places the entire enterprise at risk.

I have already spent some bits in previous posts regarding the instability of requirements, but this is part and parcel of the traits that we see within this framework.  Our end users determine that given how things are going we really need additional functionality, features, or improvements prior to the product roll out.  Our technical personnel will determine that for “just a bit more effort” they can achieve a higher level of performance or add capabilities at marginal or tradeoff cost.  In many cases, given the realization that the acquisition was a buy-in, project and program managers allow great latitude in accepting as a change an item that was assumed to be in the original scope.

There is a point where one or more of these factors is “baked in” into the course that the project will take.  We can delude ourselves into believing that we can change the course of the trajectory of the system through the application of methods: Agile, Lean, Six Sigma, PMBOK, etc. but, in the end, if we exhaust our resources without a road map on how to do this we will fail.  Our systems must be powerful and discrete enough to note the trend that is “baked in” due to factors in the structure and architecture of the effort being undertaken.  This is the core risk that must be managed in any undertaking.  A good example that applies to a complex topic like Global Warming was recently illustrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the series Cosmos:

In this example Dr. Tyson is climate and the dog is the weather.  But in our own analogy Dr. Tyson can be the trajectory of the system with the dog representing the “noise” of periodic indicators and activity around the effort.  We often spend a lot of time and effort (which I would argue is largely unproductive) on influencing these transient conditions in simpler systems rather than on the core inertia of the system itself.  That is where the risk lies. Thus, not all indicators are the same.  Some are measuring transient anomalies that have nothing to do with changing the core direction of the system, others are more valuable.  These latter indicators are the ones that we need to cultivate and develop, and they reside in an initial measurement of the inherent risk of the system largely based on its architecture that is antecedent to the start of the work.

This is not to say that we can do nothing about the trajectory.  A simpler system can be influenced more easily.  We cannot recover the effort already expended–which is why even historical indicators are important.  It is because they inform our future expectations and, if we pay attention to them, they keep us grounded in reality.  Even in the case of Global Warming we can change, though gradually, what will be a disastrous result if we allow things to continue on their present course.  In a deterministic universe we can influence the outcomes based on the contingent probabilities presented to us over time.  Thus, we will know if we have handled the core risk of the system by focusing on these better indicators as the effort progresses.  This will affect its trajectory.

Of course, a more direct way of modifying these risks is to make systemic adjustments.  Do we really need a tournament-based system as it exists and is the waste inherent in accepting so much failure really necessary?  What would that alternative look like?

The Times They Are A-Changin’–Should PMI Be a Project Management Authority?

Back from a pretty intense three weeks taking care of customers (yes–I have those) and attending professional meetings and conferences.  Some interesting developments regarding the latter that I will be writing about here, but while I was in transit I did have the opportunity to keep up with some interesting discussions within the project management community.

Central among those was an article by Anonymous on PM Hut that appeared a few weeks ago that posited the opinion that PMI Should No Longer Be an Authority on Project Management.  I don’t know why the author of the post decided that they had to remain anonymous.  I learned some time ago that one should not only state their opinion in as forceful terms as possible (backed up with facts), but to own that opinion and be open to the possibility that it could be wrong or require modification.  As stated previously in my posts, project management in any form is not received wisdom.

The author of the post makes several assertions summarized below:

a. That PMI, though ostensibly a not-for-profit organization, behaves as a for-profit organization, and aggressively so.

b.  The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) fails in its goal of being the definitive source for project management because it lacks continuity between versions, its prescriptions lack realism, and, particularly in regard to software project management, that this section has morphed into a hybrid of Waterfall and Agile methodology.

c.  The PMI certifications lack credibility and seem to be geared to what will sell, as opposed to what can be established as a bonafide discipline.

I would have preferred that the author had provided more concrete examples of these assertions, given their severity.  For example, going to the on-line financial statements of the organization, PMI does have a significant staff of paid personnel and directors, with total assets as of 2012 of over $300M.  Of this, about $267M is in investments.  It’s total revenue that year was $173M.  It spent only $115M from its cashflow on its programs and another $4M on governance and executive management compensation.  Thus, it would appear that the non-profit basis of the organization has significantly deviated from its origins at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Project management is indeed big business with vesting and compensation of over $1M going to the President & CEO of the organization in 2012 alone.  Thus there does seem to be more than a little justification for the first of the author’s criticisms.

I also share in the author’s other concerns, but a complete analysis is not available regarding either the true value of the PMBOK® and the value of a PMP certification.  I have met many colleagues who felt the need to obtain the latter, despite their significant practical achievements and academic credentials.  I have also met quite a few people with “PMP” after their names whose expertise is questionable, at best.  I am reminded of the certifications given by PMI and other PM organizations today to a very similar condition several years ago when the gold standard of credentials in certain parts of the IT profession were the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) certifications.  They still exist in some form.  What was apparent as I took the courses and the examinations was that the majority of my fellow students had never set up a network.  They were, to use the pejorative among the more experienced members among us, “Paper CNEs and MCSEs.”  In interviewing personnel with “PMP” after their name I find a wide variation in expertise, thus the quality of experience with supporting education tends to have more influence with me than some credential from one of the PM organizations.

Related to this larger issue of what constitutes a proper credential in our discipline, I came across an announcement by Dave Gordon at his The Practicing IT Project Manager blog of a Project Management Job Requirements study.  Dave references this study by Noel Radley of SoftwareAdvise.com that states that the PMP is preferred or specified by 79% of the 300 jobs used as the representative baseline for the industries studied.  Interestingly, the study showed that advanced education is rarely required or preferred.

I suspect that this correlates in a negative way with many of the results that we have seen in the project management community.  Basic economics dictates that people with advanced degrees (M.A. and M.B.A. grads) do come with a higher price than those who only have Baccalaureate degrees, their incomes rising much more than 4 year college grads.  It seems that businesses do not value that additional investment except by exception.

Additionally, I have seen the results of two studies presented in government forums over the past six months (but alas no links yet) where the biggest risk to the project was identified to be the project manager.  Combined with the consistent failure reported by widely disparate sources of the overwhelming majority of projects to perform within budget and be delivered on time raises the natural question as to whether those that we choose to be project managers have the essential background to perform the job.

There seems to be a widely held myth that formal education is somehow unnecessary to develop a project manager–relegating what at least masquerades as a “profession”–to the level of a technician or mechanic.  It is not that we do not need technicians or mechanics, it is that higher level skills are needed to be a successful project manager.

This myth seems to be spreading, and to have originated from the society as a whole, where the emphasis is on basic skills, constant testing, the elimination of higher level thinking, and a narrowing of the curriculum.  Furthermore, college education, which was widely available to post-World War II generations well into the 1980s, is quickly becoming unaffordable by a larger segment of the population.  Thus, what we are seeing is a significant skills gap in the project management discipline to add to one that already has had an adverse impact on the ability of both government and industry to succeed.  For example, a paper from Calleam Consulting Ltd in a paper entitled “The Story Behind the High Failure Rates in the IT Sector” found that “17 percent of large IT projects go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company.”

From my experiences over the last 30+ years, when looking for a good CTO or CIO I will look to practical and technical experience and expertise with the ability to work with a team.  For an outstanding coder I look for a commitment to achieve results and elegance in the final product.  But for a good PM give me someone with a good liberal arts education with some graduate level business or systems work combined with leadership.  Leadership includes all of the positive traits one demands of this ability: honesty, integrity, ethical behavior, effective personnel management, commitment, and vision.

The wave of the future in developing our expertise in project management will be the ability to look at all of the performance characteristics of the project and its place in the organization.  This is what I see as the real meaning of “Integrated Project Management.”  I have attended several events since the beginning of the year focused on the project management discipline in which assertions were made that “EVM is the basis for integrated project management” or “risk is the basis for integrated project management” or “schedule is the basis for integrated project management.”  The speakers did not seem to acknowledge that the specialty that they were addressing is but one aspect of measuring project performance, and even less of a factor in measuring program performance.

I believe that this is a symptom of excess specialization and lack of a truly professional standard in project management.  I believe that if we continue to hire technicians with expertise in one area, possessing a general certification that simply requires one to attend conferences and sit in courses that lack educational accreditation and claim credit for “working within” a project, we will find that making the transition to the next evolutionary step at the PM level will be increasingly difficult.  Finally, for the anonymous author critical of PMI it seems that project management is a good business for those who make up credentials but not such a good deal for those with a financial stake in project management.

Note:  This post has been modified to correct minor grammatical and spelling errors.

Full disclosure:  The author has been a member of PMI for almost 20 years, and is a current member and former board member of the College of Performance Management (CPM).

Mo’Better Risk — Tournaments and Games of Failure Part II

My last post discussed economic tournaments and games of failure in how they describe the success and failure of companies, with an comic example for IT start-up companies.  Glen Alleman at his Herding Cats blog has a more serious response in handily rebutting those who believe that #NoEstimates, Lean, Agile, and other cult-like fads can overcome the bottom line, that is, apply a method to reduce inherent risk and drive success.  As Glen writes:

“It’s about the money. It’s always about the money. Many want it to be about them or their colleagues, or the work environment, or the learning opportunities, or the self actualization.” — Glen Alleman, Herding Cats

Perfectly good products and companies fail all the time.  Oftentimes the best products fail to win the market, or do so only fleetingly.  Just think of the roles of the dead (or walking dead) over the years:  Novell, WordPerfect, Visicalc, Harvard Graphics; the list can go on and on.  Thus, one point that I would deviate from Glen is that it is not always EBITDA.  If that were true then both Facebook and Amazon would not be around today.  We see tremendous payouts to companies with promising technologies acquired for outrageous sums of money, though they have yet to make a profit.  But for every one of these there are many others that see the light of day for a moment and then flicker out of existence

So what is going on and how does this inform our knowledge of project management?  For the measure of our success is time and money, in most cases.  Obviously not all cases.  I’ve given two cases of success that appeared to be failure in previous posts to this blog: the M1A1 Tank and the ACA.  The reason why these “failures” were misdiagnosed was that the agreed measure(s) of success were incorrect.  Knowing this difference, where, and how it applies is important.

So how do tournaments and games of failure play a role in project management?  I submit that the lesson learned from these observations is that we see certain types of behaviors that are encouraged that tend to “bake” certain risks into our projects.  In high tech we know that there will be a thousand failures for every success, but it is important to keep the players playing–at least it is in the interest of the acquiring organization to do so, and is in the public interest in many cases as well.  We also know that most IT projects by most measures–both contracted out and organic–tend to realize a high rate of failure.  But if you win an important contract or secure an important project, the rewards can be significant.

The behaviors that are reinforced in this scenario on the part of the competing organization is to underestimate the cost and time involved in the effort; that is, so-called “bid to win.”  On the acquiring organization’s part, contracting officers lately have been all too happy to award contracts they know to be too low (and normally out of the competitive range) even though they realize it to be significantly below the independent estimate.  Thus “buying in” provides a significant risk that is hard to overcome.

Other behaviors that we see given the project ecosystem are the bias toward optimism and requirements instability.

In the first case, bias toward optimism, we often hear project and program managers dismiss bad news because it is “looking in the rear view mirror.”  We are “exploring,” we are told, and so the end state will not be dictated by history.  We often hear a version of this meme in cases where those in power wish to avoid accountability.  “Mistakes were made” and “we are focused on the future” are attempts to change the subject and avoid the reckoning that will come.  In most cases, however, particularly in project management, the motivations are not dishonest but, instead, sociological and psychological.  People who tend to build things–engineers in general, software coders, designers, etc.–tend to be an optimistic lot.  In very few cases will you find one of them who will refuse to take on a challenge.  How many cases have we presented a challenge to someone with these traits and heard the refrain:  “I can do that.”?  This form of self-delusion can be both an asset and a risk.  Who but an optimist would take on any technically challenging project?  But this is also the trait that will keep people working to the bitter end in a failure that places the entire enterprise at risk.

I have already spent some bits in previous posts regarding the instability of requirements, but this is part and parcel of the traits that we see within this framework.  Our end users determine that given how things are going we really need additional functionality, features, or improvements prior to the product roll out.  Our technical personnel will determine that for “just a bit more effort” they can achieve a higher level of performance or add capabilities at marginal or tradeoff cost.  In many cases, given the realization that the acquisition was a buy-in, project and program managers allow great latitude in accepting as a change an item that was assumed to be in the original scope.

There is a point where one or more of these factors is “baked in” into the course that the project will take.  We can delude ourselves into believing that we can change the course of the trajectory of the system through the application of methods: Agile, Lean, Six Sigma, PMBOK, etc. but, in the end, if we exhaust our resources without a road map on how to do this we will fail.  Our systems must be powerful and discrete enough to note the trend that is “baked in” due to factors in the structure and architecture of the effort being undertaken.  This is the core risk that must be managed in any undertaking.  A good example that applies to a complex topic like Global Warming was recently illustrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the series Cosmos:

In this example Dr. Tyson is climate and the dog is the weather.  But in our own analogy Dr. Tyson can be the trajectory of the system with the dog representing the “noise” of periodic indicators and activity around the effort.  We often spend a lot of time and effort (which I would argue is largely unproductive) on influencing these transient conditions in simpler systems rather than on the core inertia of the system itself.  That is where the risk lies. Thus, not all indicators are the same.  Some are measuring transient anomalies that have nothing to do with changing the core direction of the system, others are more valuable.  These latter indicators are the ones that we need to cultivate and develop, and they reside in an initial measurement of the inherent risk of the system largely based on its architecture that is antecedent to the start of the work.

This is not to say that we can do nothing about the trajectory.  A simpler system can be influenced more easily.  We cannot recover the effort already expended–which is why even historical indicators are important.  It is because they inform our future expectations and, if we pay attention to them, they keep us grounded in reality.  Even in the case of Global Warming we can change, though gradually, what will be a disastrous result if we allow things to continue on their present course.  In a deterministic universe we can influence the outcomes based on the contingent probabilities presented to us over time.  Thus, we will know if we have handled the core risk of the system by focusing on these better indicators as the effort progresses.  This will affect its trajectory.

Of course, a more direct way of modifying these risks is to make systemic adjustments.  Do we really need a tournament-based system as it exists and is the waste inherent in accepting so much failure really necessary?  What would that alternative look like?