Thursday, June 30, 2022

Mixed methodologies: Agile and ....

There comes a point where more planning can not remove the remaining uncertainty, instead execution must be used to provide data and remove uncertainty.

This quote comes from a nicely argued case -- from the agile blog 'leading answers' -- for mixing agile methods in rather traditional businesses, like the oil and gas exploration/production business

If ever there was a business that benefits from Boehm's Spiral Model, OGM (oil, gas, minerals) is certainly one. (Disclosure: I hold some OGM leases in Texas, so I've a bit of personal experience with this)

So, what have you got here?
  • A lot of risk acknowledged up front (can't know everything -- thus the opening quote)
  • A need to run with pilot projects before committing to production
  • A need to tie into legacy systems (in the OGM case, distribution systems)
  • A lot of deliverables that can be done incrementally and then integrated
  • Small (it's all relative re small) teams, co-located (or the virtual version thereof), personally committed, with risk hanging on every move.
  • A degree of local autonomy -- even if virtual -- required to meet the challenges of the moment
Sounds like an environment that needs agility, if not agile methods, on a lot of the stuff.

Of course, there's "one big thing":

You can't go around self-organizing (agile speak) willy-nilly! There are regulatory constraints everywhere and safety-first doctrine hanging on every move.

So, yes, there is a big bureaucracy that watches over... it's certainly more intrusive than a coach or a servant-leader (more agile speak)  (I'm sure they never heard this stuff in an oil field or an offshore rig!). In fact, I'll bet the rig boss is a force to be reckoned with!

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Monday, June 27, 2022

It's all about negative feedback

The question is posed: Is negative feedback good or evil?
Answer: Good!
Yes, 'negative' is good.

Ooops: did I mention what feedback is? Generally it is a sample or portion of an outcome, or something directly related to an outcome.

Here's the thing: 'Positive' feedback is reinforcing, agreed, but that may not be a good thing. 
Really? Why not?
Because positive feedback encourages or promotes outcomes to ever increase, following the rule: 'more is better'. But such may become unstable, erratic, even chaotic. And, if the outcome has elements of distortion, disturbance, or some other impurity, then rather than 'more' you want 'less'.   

Negative feedback -- which is to be understood as feedback phased or timed to be not reinforcing -- helps with stability, predictability, and puts a damper on chaotic impulses. Done right, properly phased feedback can reduce distortion and help cancel-out disturbances. (*)

We can summarize this way: 
The primary purposes of 'feedback' are to: 
  • correct behavior (not always, or even mostly, human behavior), 
  • prevent 'runaway' and chaotic responses, 
  • confirm outcomes as expected, and 
  • enhance the predictability of outcomes. 
These latter advantages come from so-called 'negative' feedback.

NOTE: providing feedback has its own jargon: We say: feedback closes the loop (the loop is from outcome back to the source that drives the outcomes), or the 'loop is closed'

Now the tricky part: Strength and timing are everything. 
To close the loop effectively, the strength (or amplitude) of feedback, and the timing (or phasing) of feedback has to be such that the feedback provides a countermeasure to the potentially errant outcome, the net effect being an outcome just as predicted, void of the bad stuff.
What could possibly go wrong?
Actually, a lot can go wrong.

No feedback at all is the worst of the worst: the 'system' is 'open loop', meaning that there are outcomes that perhaps no one (or no thing) are paying attention to. Stuff happens, or is happening, and who knows (or who knew)?

Timing errors are perhaps the next worst errors: if the timing is off, the feedback could be 'positive' rather than 'negative' such that the 'bad stuff' is reinforced rather than damped down. 

Strength errors are usually less onerous: if the strength is off, but the timing is on, then the damping may be too little, but usually you get some favorable effect

Practical project management
Feedback for correcting human performance is familiar to all. Too late and it's ineffective; too much over the top and it's taken the wrong way. So, timing and strength are key

But, the next thing is communication: both verbal and written (email,etc). Closing the loop provides reassurance of the quality and effectiveness of communication. You're just not talking or writing into the wind!

And, of course, in system or process design, loops should never be open. Who knows what could happen.

I should mention:
The study of feedback systems generally falls within what is called 'cybernetics'. As described by, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics as “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine." 

From Wikipedia, we learn: The core concept of cybernetics is circular causality or feedback—where the observed outcomes of actions are taken as inputs [ie, feedback] for further action in ways that support the pursuit and maintenance of particular conditions [ie, 'ways that support' requires the correct timing and strength]

(*) The difference between noise and song among many voices is timing or phasing. The members of a really good choir or ensemble sense the others and with that feedback each member adjusts to the pace of the others. But, get the timing wrong, and it's all just noise. 

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Measuring time

Daniel Miessler posted this bit of schedule data in a recent blog:
The difference between a million and a billion is counter-intuitively large.

As an example, a million seconds is 12 days, and a billion seconds is 32 years.

I had to look it up to confirm. That's bonkers.

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Monday, June 20, 2022

China Cyber report from NSA et al

NSA, FBI, and CISA have jointly issued a significant report on China's cyber activity.

A summary quotation is given below:
This joint Cybersecurity Advisory describes the ways in which People’s Republic of China (PRC) state-sponsored cyber actors continue to exploit publicly known vulnerabilities in order to establish a broad network of compromised infrastructure. These actors use the network to exploit a wide variety of targets worldwide, including public and private sector organizations. The advisory details the targeting and compromise of major telecommunications companies and network service providers and the top vulnerabilities—primarily Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs)—associated with network devices routinely exploited by the cyber actors since 2020.

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Cost management, and force majeure

Are you doing a project under a contract from a sponsor?
When did you do the cost estimating for the price you signed up for?
Is there a clause for "force majeure" (Look in the fine print in the contract's boilerplate)

A lot of contractors (and their lawyers) are spending time on "force majeure"

Three elements required:
(1) unforeseeable event, 
(2) outside of the parties' control, that 
(3) renders performance impossible or impractical.

Did someone say "black swan"? They might have.
So, among the favorites these days are:
  • Supply disruptions affecting schedule and price on account of the pandemic
  • The war in Ukraine (although there is a war somewhere almost all the time)
  • Historically high inflation wrought by the factors above
It's argued -- in the case of contracts that have been ongoing since before mid-2020 -- that these are all 'black swan' events or outcomes not reasonably predicted and their effects not reasonably understandable in foresight. So their impact could not have been accounted for in the original contract price. Ergo: invoke 'force majeure'

A case to be made
  • COVID brought, or is bringing, travel restrictions and quarantines. So that's a pretty solid case for some labor related costs. But, that's getting to be old hat. It's been around since early 2020. In 2022, it's perfectly foreseeable; but if you bid your contract in 2019, or even 2020, then you've probably got a case. 
  • So also has COVID impacted supply all around the world. Another arrow in the quiver, as it were. But again, supply problems have been around since the pandemic.
  • And COVID is behind  massive government stimulus which some believe is the root cause for inflation. Economists are a bit divided on this as the root cause because also there is somewhat independent monetary policy to consider (cost of money), but certainly 2022 is at significant variance with the prior 20 years.
Pricing leverage
So, it comes down to this: do you have pricing leverage with your sponsor? FM clauses may help, but a contract cancellation in the event of a sponsor push-back may not serve your interests either.

Tricky business, this!

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Monday, June 13, 2022

Risk, but no plan

In my experience, a lot of projects operate more or less on the edge of risk, with no real plan beyond common sense and a bit of past experience to muddle through if things go wrong.

Problematic, as a process, but to paraphrase the late Donald Rumsfeld: 
You do the project with the resources and plan you have, not the resources or plan you want
You may want a robust risk plan, but you may not have the resources to research it and put it together.
You may not have the resources for a second opinion
You may not have the resources to maintain the plan. 
And, you may not have the resources to act upon the mitigation tactics that might be in the plan.

Oh, woe is me!

Well, you probably do what almost every other PM has done since we moved past cottage industries: You live with it and work consequences when they happen. Obviously, this approach is not in any RM textbook, briefing, or consulting pitch. But it's reality for a lot of PMs.

Too much at stake
Of course, if there is safety at stake for users and developers, as there is in many construction projects; and if there is really significant OPM invested that is 'bet the business' in scope; and if there are consequences so significant for an error moved into production that lives and livelihoods are at stake, then the RM plan has to move to the 'must have'.  

A plan with no action
And then we have this phenomenon: You actually do invest in a RM plan; you actually do train for risk avoidance; and then you actually do nothing during the project. I see this all the time in construction projects where risk avoidance is clearly known; the tools are present; and the whole thing is ignored.

Show me the math
But then of course because risk is an uncertainty, subject to the vagaries of Random Numbers and with their attendant distributions and statistics, there are these problems:
  • It's easy to lie, or mislead, with 'averages' and more broadly with a raft of other statistics. See: How to Lie with Statistics (many authors) 
  • Bayes is a more practical way for one-off projects to approach uncertainty than frequency-of-occurrence methods that require big data sets for valid statistics, but few PM really understand the power of Bayes. 
  • Coincidence, correlation, and causation: Few understand one from the other; and for that very reason, many can be led by the few to the wrong fork in the road. Don't believe in coincidence? Then, of course, there must be a correlation or causation!
The upshot?
Risk, but no plan.
Or plan, and no action

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

How fast can you spend the money?

Here's the challenge: On your project, can you spend $1M in a month?
Take a minute and think about it.

  • If you've got 100 people with an annual payroll of $15M, then yes, it's possible, even likely
  • If you've got 20 people with an annual payroll of $3M, then maybe, with overtime and some material charges.
Got your answer?

Then here's another challenge: If you can spend $1M in a month, can you do a $1M project in a month? Are they one and the same thing?
  • It's hard to get 100 people up and moving coherently to start and finish something in a month (that $1M may disappear into "start-up" inefficiencies)
  • It's not too hard to get 20 people moving, but you might have to really work on motivation if you think you're going to spend $1M on people, but there may be tools, training, facilities, etc that will absorb funds.
So, having thought about it, maybe if you really need your 100-person team, 2 months and $2M is a better thing to have;
And, if you only need your 20-person team, even with overtime, you will be hard pressed to spend as much as $1M

What does all this mean?
You've just made some 'estimates' (gasp! that dreaded word)
Perhaps a bit crude and rude, but at least the 'breadbox' is somewhat defined

Never let it be said that nearly every minute of the day we are not making estimates:
  • How long to get to the computer (home or office)
  • How long for that meeting
  • How much time to spend on email
  • How much to spend on a car, hotel, or even a cruise
  • On, and on, estimating!

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