Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Riding a dead horse?

The code of tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. In the [project office], we often try other strategies with dead horses, including the following:
  • Buying a stronger whip;
  • Changing riders;
  • Saying things like ‘this is the way we’ve always ridden the horse;
  • Appointing a committee to study the horse;
  • Arranging a visit to other [PMOs] to see how they ride dead horses;
  • Increasing the standards to ride dead horses;
  • Declaring the horse is better, faster, cheaper dead; and finally 
  • Harnessing the dead horses together for increased speed 
Thomas Penfield Jackson

I was recently shown this by Alex Walton, principal at, a statement by U.S. District Court judge Jackson, while managing the Microsoft case in 1999. I've edited it with [ ] to apply it to project management.

I'm not sure that Jackson was a happy camper when he said this; a good deal of his ruling in the Microsoft case was reversed on appeal.

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Stage gates and Agile?

Stage gates and Agile? To some, that might sound horrifying! Not exactly! One of my Agile Project Management students asked me about stage gates and agile. My first response was this:
  • Agile is not a gated methodology, primarily because scope is viewed as emergent, and thus the idea of pre-determined gate criteria is inconsistent with progressive elaboration and emergence.
  • Agile does embrace structured releases; you could put a criteria around a release and use it as a gate for scope to be delivered
  • Re budget: agile is effectively 'zero base' at every release, if not at every iteration. You can call the question at these points of demarcation.
  • Agile is a "best value" methodology, meaning: deliver the 'most' and 'best' that the budget will allow, wherein 'most' and 'best' is a value judgment of the customer/user.
  • Of course, every agile project should begin with a business case which morphs into a project charter.
    Thus, the epic narrative (the vision narrative) is told first in the business case, and retold in more project jargon in the charter.
    Thence, there are planning sessions to get the general scope and subordinate narratives so that an idea of best value can be formed.
But, DSDM is one agile method, among others, that is more oriented to a gated process than say, SCRUM. To see how this could work, take a look at this presentation:

And, you can follow-up with this:

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Anti-fragile -- surviving shock

A good system is one in which the risks are visible
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, most famous for authoring "The Black Swan: the impact of highly improbable fragility", also has a just-as-interesting book: "Antifragile: things that gain from disorder"

Taleb's objective for this book is to be the definitive explanation of the spectrum of fragile (read: Black Swan, incalculable risk), robust (read: survivable, calculable  risk), and antifragile (read: risk driven improvement).

In a few words, his points are these:
  • Fragile systems can not absorb shock; they break, they fail, and they do great harm when they collapse
  • Robust systems can absorb shock, but robust systems are no better off after the shock than before; they don't learn or improve from the experience
  • Antifragile systems not only can absorb shock, but the disorder/disruption is actually fuel for innovation and improvement. They next shock will have less effect; any new system will build upon the disorder of the past and be better. 
Mulitple systems
And, we're not talking physical systems necessarily; all manner of human factors and biological systems are included, along with political systems, etc.

One example he has given in a television interview was comparing a taxi driver and an office worker. The former deals with the uncertainty of business every day and constantly adapts to stay afloat economically; the latter, if laid off suddenly, is devastated and adrift. The former is antifragle (because of constant learning and adaption); the latter is fragile (because shock is damaging)

In business, he says the restaurant and aviation sectors are antifragile, constantly learning from mistakes, and the financial industry is fragile -- vulnerable to black swan events.

Domain sensitivity
Taleb makes the point that the qualities of antifragile are at the same time domain dependent -- that is, context sensitive -- and domain independent -- that is, it is valid to represent the phenomenon in one domain with similar characteristics in another domain, though often we miss this cross domain connection.

Taleb wrties:

"We are all, in a way, ... handicapped, unable to recognize the same idea when it is presented in a different context. It is as if we are doomed to be deceived by the most superficial part of things, the packaging...."

Redundancy and risk management
We learn this about risk management:

"Layers of redundancy are the central risk management property of natural systems. ... Redundancy ...seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens— usually."

Project context
Almost every project I know of embraces continuous improvement. But to make it effective, CI should be paired with reflection, investigation of root cause, and actionable strategies. These get at the learning component of being antifragile.

Actionable strategies begin with a dolop of system engineering: decouple where possible to trap problems before they propagate. Decoupling is most often accomplished by modularity and defined interfaces.

And then we add redundancy -- equivalent capabilities implemented in different ways decoupled for independence -- and cohesion.

Cohesion is the property of absorbing shock without failure. We get at this with buffers, redundancy, and elastic physical properties.

The final test
Taleb gives us this as the final test:

[We] .. detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

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Monday, April 8, 2019

Risk un-management

Risk un-management?
Perhaps the largest task within risk management, and requiring the greatest judgment, is "risk un-management"

On any project there are going to be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unmanaged risks. These comprise the population to be un-managed.

I doubt this is news to anyone, but these are, as a group, more numerous than those selected for the usual risk management paradigm. Among the un-managed:
  • Weaknesses that are Low-Low on the risk register's probability-impact matrix, maybe even all the way to High-Low (p-I)
  • Threat events or their effects that are off baseline, not in the project plan, and range from Low-Low to High-Low, perhaps even Low-High also (p-I) 

So, you've not put the unmanaged event or its effects in the project plan, but probably you have identified some of them and put them below the line of those risks that you will actively manage. Other un-managed will pop up along the way, to be thought about, but then cast aside for active management.

Four strategies, but only one applies
Among the four big strategies--accept, avoid, mitigate, and transfer--which one is being used in this management scenario?

If you picked "accept", you get the risk manager's prize for this posting. Indeed, this is 'acceptance' of risks that are below the line and not being managed.

What could possibly go wrong?
Frankly, for many, the idea that we're going to sit back and accept risk is an uncomfortable position to take. But it happens all the time. When my risk management students lament that their organization has no risk management process or strategy and just deals with risk as they come along, I respond:
"No strategy" is a strategy of sorts in the sense that you've embraced "accept" as your risk response plan. In that event, the need to actually do a lot of work up front to identify risks is really not too productive.
If the organization is risk-seeking in attitude, this may be just fine.
After all, you're just going to accept whatever comes along and deal with it.

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Friday, April 5, 2019

No points in projects!

There should be no points in projects
That is, there should be no single-point estimates -- old news to be sure, but timeless
But also there should be no single points of simultaneity, like events finishing "at the same time"

But what about "now", as in "right now on the clock"? Is "now" not often a point in the PMO schedule?

Not exactly. A somewhat startling observation is that scientists estimate that our sense of "now" is not a single point, but indeed, a duration! (*)

How long is the "now" duration you ask? Nearly forever: 3 seconds!
From the essay "Time -- The Grand Illusion" (*)

"What science can tell us something about is the psychology of time's passage. Our conscious now -- what William James dubbed the "specious present" -- is actually an interval of about three seconds

That is the span over which our brains knit up arriving sense data into a unified experience"
Bottom line: No points in projects!

(*) Chapter 1 in the book "When Einstein Walked with Godel, Excursions to the Edge of Thought" by J. Holt, 2018

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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Executive leadership -- the big three

Want to be a leader?
Think you are a leader?
Admire someone who is a leader?

These three attributes better be in place, and obvious:
  1. Be able to recruit the right people. Recognize talent; get the talent fitted to the task, considering not only experience, but temperament and judgment; toughness and stress tolerance.
    Oh! if you make a boo-boo here, have the strength to relieve the untalented and move for a replacement!
  2. Be able to make the big decisions at the highest level of strategy: how, when, and why; where and how much.
    Be able to avoid the paralysis of analysis and have tolerance for the stress of uncertainty. And once a decision is made, leave it made.(You can't be a carpet walker reliving every decision)
  3. Be able to motivate, inspire, and marshal resources to the task. Follow me! I know where we are going, even as I need you to get us there (I'm not the tactician; I may have no competence in task execution)

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