More often than we'd like, our projects are late or over budget. Or we find that the problem we've tackled is much more difficult than we thought. We aren't stupid (though some might argue otherwise), and we aren't trying to gild lilies our build empires (though some might argue with that, too). Still, these things happen with such regularity that there must be an explanation.
Part of the answer might be that much of the work we do is of a nature that our minds have difficulty comprehending. One property that gives us trouble is nonlinearity.
For example, consider the issue raised by Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month. If three people can complete a task in six months, many would suppose that nine people can complete it in two months. We now understand that this belief is unfounded, and that our expectations are rarely met.
To understand why, let's begin by defining linear work. Work is linear when the outcomes are directly traceable from, and scale with, inputs. When work is linear, we can successfully plan the outcomes before we begin, because we can predict the course of the effort. To make linear tasks go faster, we can divide them into parts that we execute in parallel, without risking complication.
For example, two identical, independent assembly lines can produce output at double the rate of one single line, assuming that their supply and delivery chains are also independent. A manufacturing process implemented as independent assembly lines is a linear process.
But In a system that doesn't
obey superposition, the whole
can be different from
the sum of its partsnonlinear work doesn't follow this pattern. Although most of the work we do in project-oriented organizations behaves linearly in response to small adjustments, the nonlinearities dominate when we scale those adjustments to a size where we expect to derive large benefits. One attribute of nonlinear work that explains this phenomenon is its failure to obey superposition.
In a system that doesn't obey superposition, the whole can be different from the sum of its parts. In such cases, as we apply more and more resources, the yield per unit of resource can decline. In the case of Brooks's mythical man-month, this can happen because of increased need for management and communication, and increased difficulty in scheduling.
But superposition can fail for a wide variety of reasons. For example, when we decompose a problem into parts, and try to work on the parts separately, one task team might require — solely for scheduling purposes — that another task team take an approach that is less effective than it would have taken if it were free to act independently. We can easily generate numerous examples like this that show failures of superposition that confound our expectations.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Films Not About Project Teams: I
- Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to
be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: II
- 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.
- Design Errors and Groupthink
- Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs,
because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental
causes of design errors.
- Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: III
- Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common.
Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog.
- Wishful Interpretation: II
- 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 for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
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- And on July 10: Barriers to Accepting Truth: I
- In workplace debates, a widely used strategy involves informing the group of facts or truths of which some participants seem to be unaware. Often, this strategy is ineffective for reasons unrelated to the credibility of the person offering the information. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on July 10.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.