Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 52;   December 28, 2005: Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part III

Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part III

by

Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.

Peter loved his chocolate chip cookies, but he liked this conversation with Trish and Nan even more. Holding his hands over the side of his chair to brush the cookie crumbs off them onto the ground, he added "And his discussion of wishful thinking was really insightful."

Chocolate chip cookies

In 1997, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a bill proposed by the third grade class of a school in Somerset, and thereby designated the chocolate chip cookie as the official state cookie of Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Lara Schneider.

Nan broke off a tiny chunk of her cookie, ate it, and sipped her coffee. "Mmmm, I thought so too," she said. "Knowing that we fall into these fallacy traps because of our humanness made me more accepting of it, less guilty."

Trish was puzzled. "Yeah, but how does that help the project?"

"That's just it," said Nan. "Knowing that the fallacies are part of being human makes it easier to acknowledge these errors when we make them."

Peter finished Nan's thought. "And that way we can own up to them faster, maybe even before they do any damage."

Fallacies aren't just false. Because they have a deep connection to what we are as human beings, they'll never go away. Here's Part III of a little catalog of the fallacies of project management. For Part II, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part II," Point Lookout for December 14, 2005, and for Part IV, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part IV," Point Lookout for January 11, 2006.

The Fungibility Fallacy
The Fungibility Fallacy holds that each person produces one hour of output in one hour, and that we can substitute people for one another. Terms that suggest this fallacy are man-month headcount and FTE.
Often, only a few people can perform certain tasks. Using the project management tools that distinguish the skills of large numbers of unique individuals takes time and effort, and even then they produce somewhat fictitious results.
And running "lean and mean" makes the problem worse. If you count the cost of delays and lost market windows due to overloading key people, running a little "fatter and kinder" might actually be more profitable.
The Linearity Fallacy
Fallacies have
a deep connection
to what we are
as human beings
This fallacy holds that the human effort required to execute a project scales in proportion to project attributes such as project size or total budget.
Not only do operating costs per unit of output grow rapidly with project size, but the converse is also true: costs decline unexpectedly slowly as we scale the project down in size. This happens because we have difficulty abandoning control processes as we move down in size. We lose in both directions.
Project management is an inherently nonlinear activity. The complexity of an effort grows not in proportion to the effort, but combinatorially with the size of the effort, following the growth in the number of possible person-to-person interactions with increasing team size.

These two fallacies both arise because of our hopes and wishes. We long for a world where we can substitute any person for any other; for a world where doubling resources halves the schedule. But longing doesn't make it so. In the next and final installment of this series we'll look at fallacies that arise from failures of critical thinking. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: The Uses of Empathy  Next Issue

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The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
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Wishful "thinking," as we call it, can arise in different ways. One source is the pattern of choices we make when we interpret what we see, what we hear, or any other information we receive. Here's Part II of an inventory of ways our preferences and wishes affect how we interpret the world.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

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