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:
- Restarting Projects
- When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage,
we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't.
There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
- Why Scope Expands: II
- 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.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: II
- When things go wrong and remain undetected, trouble looms. We continue our efforts, increasing investment
on a path that possibly leads nowhere. Worse, time — that irreplaceable asset — passes.
How can we improve our ability to detect undetected issues?
- Down in the Weeds: II
- To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of
detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing
with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions.
- Risk Creep: II
- When risk events occur, and they're of a kind we never considered before, it's possible that we've somehow
invited those risks without realizing we have. This is one way for risk to creep into our efforts. Here's
Part II of an exploration of risk creep.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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