If we think of a project and its people as a system, we can regard as external inputs the project charter, the project's requirements, and its resources. Changes in these inputs produce changes in the project's outputs. Consternation and frustration arise when changes in the outputs violate our expectations with respect to changes in the inputs.
As we've seen, nonlinear work doesn't always obey the superposition principle. That is, the result of two sets of inputs acting together is not always equal to the sum of the results of each input acting separately. This failure is one reason why our predictions of project results are so wrong so often.
Internal interactions within the project can provide another reason for our frustration. Here are three examples of internal interactions whose effects can dominate the effects of any change in project inputs.
- In the course of development, the project team might discover something that nobody knew or understood before work began. It might be an unanticipated obstacle (bad news), or a wonderful new opportunity (possible good news). Sometimes these discoveries lead to changes in requirements, even though no external agent sought a change in requirements. Whatever the discovery is, it can affect both project performance and project outcomes. And with alarming frequency, these effects can be far larger than the effect of any changes anyone — customer, manager, executive, regulator, marketer — might impose on the project. From this perspective, such changes come from nowhere.
- In complex The only real surprise in any
project would be the
absence of surprisessystems, emergence happens when many small identical elements of the system organize themselves into coherent behavior. For example, the organized movement of a school of fish is emergent behavior. Emergent phenomena are also observable in projects or portfolios of projects. When one task encounters difficulty, the consequences of that difficulty can propagate across the project, with the result that many other tasks find themselves in similar straits, resulting in a form of gridlock. This can happen at any time, in the absence of any external stimulus.
- Outputs can change even when inputs don't
- Even when none of the inputs have changed, mistakes, miscommunications, insights, and creativity can cause the outputs to develop along paths that differ from what anyone expected. This happens because the system contains more internal degrees of freedom than those that are specified by the inputs. We tend to call these unexpected changes "surprises," but the only real surprise in any project would be the absence of surprises.
Nonlinear work is frustrating not so much because it is nonlinear, but because we insist on believing that it is linear. We consider a project most successful when it behaves according to our expectations: no discoveries, no emergence, and outputs fully determined by inputs. It's a nice fantasy, but it's a fantasy nonetheless. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Risk Management Risk: I
- Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked,
and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the
trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have
to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- The Retrospective Funding Problem
- If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many
organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by
amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this.
What's stopping us?
- Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias
- As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and
other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions,
is one of these.
- 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.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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