Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 7;   February 14, 2001: Quantum Management

Quantum Management

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we plan projects, we estimate the duration and cost of something we've never done before. Since projects are inherently risky, our chances of estimating correctly are small. Quantum Management tells us how to think about cost and schedule in new ways.
Allison presenting

Allison stood at the front of the room, next to the LCD, wanting desperately not to be there, as the marketing VP demanded, "Don't give me 'March 15 to April 29.' I want to know when exactly this thing will ship!" Trouble was, she couldn't say exactly — things were too unpredictable, and he just didn't seem to get it. So she caved: "OK, we'll have it by April 29."

"Oh, no you don't," he replied. "We'll take the middle of your range. What's that," he turned to the director beside him, "April 5? April 5. That's it. Next case!"

So that's what they did, and Allison's team finally shipped on April 26, three weeks late. A black eye for Allison, for the team, and for the engineering group. What was going on here?

Problem-solving organizations do two kinds of work — Operations and Projects. Operations work is ongoing effort repeated often — things like manufacturing, "routine" administration, and infrastructure operations. Project work is one-of-a-kind — new product development, relocation, and reorganization. Operations are repeatable and less risky. Projects are unique and riskier. Although we usually manage Projects as if they were Operations, Projects must be managed differently. Quantum Physics can help us understand why.

In Quantum Physics some things are inherently unknowable. For example, the more precisely we know the position of a moving body, the less precisely we can know its velocity, and vice versa. Classical Physics had no such restriction.

You get
to choose:
innovation or
predictability.
Not both.
There is an analogy in management. If we want to know cost and schedule precisely, we must reduce innovation, because innovation creates risk. If we accept risk, we must settle for less predictability of cost and schedule. Quantum Management says that you can't have precision in the context of risk.

Since our management practices originated in operations-oriented organizations, our managers don't like to hear that "we expect completion within 4-6 months." They often demand "drop dead" dates. This is Classical Management, and it's analogous to Classical Physics.

You can move your organization toward Quantum Management. As a manager:

  • Ask not "When will it be ready?" Ask, "When is there a 95% probability that it will be ready?"
  • Reward project managers who make estimates in 95% confidence bands.
  • Require that Corporate Finance manage risk across a portfolio of projects, rather than by demanding precision at the individual project level.

As a project manager:

  • Estimate best and worst case as 95% confidence bands.
  • When people ask you for a drop-dead date, try to educate them in Quantum Management. You might fail — or you might make some progress.

Whenever you're at the front of the room being hammered for a drop-dead date, remember that accepting one doesn't change the laws of Quantum Management. Go to top Top  Next issue: Celebrate!  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Bottle of poisonToxic Projects
A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage the organization — sometimes irreparably.
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If you're responsible for an organizational effort with many stakeholders, communicating with them is important to success. Publishing an internal newsletter is a great way to keep them informed.
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The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
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When we encounter a problem at work, we must choose between short-term fixes (also known as workarounds) and long-term solutions. Often we choose workarounds without appreciating the risks we're accepting — until too late.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

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Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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