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:
- Flanking Maneuvers
- Historically, military logistics practice has provided a steady stream of innovations to many fields,
including project management. But project managers can learn even more if we investigate battlefield tactics.
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or
iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
- Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources.
Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
- Missing the Obvious: I
- At times, when the unexpected occurs, we recognize with hindsight that the unexpected could have been
expected. How do we miss the obvious? What's happening when we do?
- Some Risks of Short-Term Fixes
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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