Thursday, May 26, 2022

Systems thinking

"Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems"
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, USN
Matthew Squair, a systems safety expert, has this to say about that (*):
  • From the Gesalt (**) school comes the [systems] view that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts, i.e. there exists properties that emerge from parts aggregated together .... [which is a telltale sign of a 'system of parts']

  • From the cybernetic (**) school comes the view that systems can be understood by studying, in the abstract, control and communication between the parts that effects causal feedback loops and interactions with the environment [The 'blackbox' view of systems is a cybernetic concept]

In other words, there is more than one way to look at or perceive a system. For those that have given this some thought in the past, or have worked with or in system engineering, that there is more than one point of view of what we would call a system is not new news, but multiple views is a key concept when thinking about systems. 

But nonetheless, the I've found these ideas seem to be most common:
  • There is the hierarchical view of a system as a collection of subsystems that all combine in some way to make a system. In the hierarchical view, the system is parsed into major subsystems according to their similar position in a hierarchy, which, in turn, these subsystems are further reduced to lesser subsystems until there is no meaningful reduction to be made.

  • The proposition for breaking apart a system in order to understand it, to scope and specify it, and to be able to actually construct it is generally called reducing the system to its constituent parts, summarized as reductionism.

    And, the 'science' or 'art' of reductionism is no small matter. Some truly awful reductions have been made in my experience that harmfully impact the understanding and the means to implement the system successfully.

    The risk inherent in reductionism is that the focus is continuously narrowed until the 'big picture' fades way into the background; all sense of synergy and emergent properties that give rise to the 'sum is greater than the parts' is lost. 

  • There is the black box view of a system which is about boundaries, boundary conditions, and means to interface with the system for providing input, obtaining output, effecting control, and processing telemetry or feedback to establish stability and predictability of performance.

    The question is begged: is there a 'white box' view? Yes, such is the internal detail known to 'insiders', but not necessary to those system 'users' and controllers that stand outside the black box.

    Reductionism plays a lesser role; the main utility of reductionism is to decide or allocate functions and performance requirements to the black box, thereby setting boundaries for what is in the box and what is not.

    The great advantage of the black box view, apart from a clear understanding for boundaries, is that interfaces become the focus: how to stimulate the system; how to control it; how to measure it; how to use it's outcomes; and how to repair-by-replacement. In turn, these give rise to widely recognized standards for size, weight, connectors, and other physical attributes, as well as standards for intangibles like software objects and APIs.

    (*) "Critical Uncertainties; the theory and practice of system safety" Matthew Squair, Review Copy, April 2022

    (**) Gesalt is a term of art taken from German meaning that the attributes of the whole are not deducible from analysis of the parts in isolation. First used in psychology to understand behaviors.

    Cybernetics is “the science of control and communications in the animal and machine.” The core concept of cybernetics is circular causality or feedback—where the observed outcomes of actions are taken as inputs for further action in ways that support the pursuit and maintenance of particular conditions, or their disruption.

    Norbert Weiner, American mathematician, is credited with defining cybernetics in systems terms.


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    Monday, May 23, 2022

    It's your critical path ... do you own it?

    You've got a job to do; you've sequenced and scheduled it.
    You've go the critical path in sight. Do you own it? Maybe not!

    What if, in the middle of your critical path, there is another independent project (or task) over which you have no control. In effect, your schedule has a break in its sequence over which you have no influence.

    This is all too common in construction projects where independent "trades" (meaning contractors with different skills, like electrical vs plumbing) are somehow sequenced by some "higher" authority.

    So, what do you do?
    If you have advance notice of this critical path situation, you should put both cost slack and schedule slack in your project plan, but there may be other things you can do.
    Cost slack is largely a consequence of your choices of schedule risk management. 
    Schedule risk management may have these possibilities:
    • Establish a coordination scheme with the interfering project .... nothing like some actual communication to arrive at a solution
    • Schedule slack in your schedule that can absorb schedule maladies from the interfering project
    • Design a work-around that you can inexpensively implement to bridge over the break in your schedule 
    • Actually break up your one project into two projects: one before and one after the interposing project. That way, you've got two independent critical paths: one for the 'before' project and one for the 'after' project

     At the end of the day: communicate; communicate; communicate!

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    Thursday, May 19, 2022

    The problem with strategy ....

    Ideas matter, but they do not matter as much as intellectuals and [market strategists] think they do. What matters far more is [project craft], which is about sensing, adjusting, exploiting, and doing rather than planning and theorizing.

    It is the skill of judo player who may have plans but who important characteristic is agility.

    It is what philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "understanding rather than knowledge", the ability to "tell what fits with what: what can be done given the circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situation and how far"

    From an essay by Eliot A. Cohen

    Cohen's idea more or less aligns with the oft quoted concept that the first casuality of real work or activity is plans. Which is not to say plans are without value, it's just that their value has a limit, and thereafter comes "sensing, adjusting, exploiting, and doing".

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    Sunday, May 15, 2022

    Leading a team of rivals

    Bidding on large contracts often requires teaming with a rival(s) to fill gaps in skills and capabilities. One day you're trying to beat them in a competition as your rival, and the next day you're teamed with them, now trying to beat yet another guy, with your 'rival' now your BFF.

    And, what if you're the prime contractor PMO in this arrangement required to manage such a team of rivals with all the parochial tensions, biases, mistrusts, and suspicions that go along with such temporary truces between otherwise competitors?

    From experience: leading coalitions is not easy! 
    • It take the patience of Job, and the resolve to direct traffic -- sometimes saying Yes! and sometimes saying No! 
    • It can't be a matter of permission and consensus when the chips are down: you are the team lead, and lead you must.

    General Eisenhower had the mother of all coalition leadership jobs. Here's what he says:

    "Success in such organizations rests ultimately upon personalities: [executives, managers, technicians] --- and even populations(*) -- must develop confidence in the concept of single command and the leader by which the single command is exercised. 
    No binding regulation, [teaming agreement], or custom can apply to all its parts--only a highly developed sense of mutual confidence can solve the problem" ;

    And, the 'problem' Eisenhower is referring to how to get disparate personalities -- some prickly, some quiescent, and some rude -- to [temporarily at least] cooperate for the greater good, and put aside parochial tensions, biases, mistrusts, and suspicions that go along with such temporary truces.

    His remedy, not explicit above, is to attain confidence from performance. And that requires promoting the achievers and relieving the non-achievers -- with dispatch!

    (*) In the PMO context, 'populations' is akin to all the sundry stakeholders from project investors to product users and maintainers

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    Thursday, May 12, 2022

    Leadership by 'link and buffer'

    "Link and Buffer" is a leadership concept for a leader positioned between a governing board, to whom they must link the project, and a project team which must be buffered from the whims and biases of the board.

    Fair enough
    But it's not that easy.
    In the "link and buffer" space live various skills:
    • Vision and practicality: to the board, the project leader talks strategically about outcomes and risks; and about the strategic direction of the project. But, to the team, the leader talks practically about getting on with business. All the tactical moves are effectively smoothed and buffered into a strategic concept which the board can grasp

    • Tempers and angst: When there's trouble, tempers fly. Buffering is a way to decouple. The board's angst does not directly impinge on the project if properly decoupled by the project leader.

    • Personality translation: Few on the project team will know or understand intimately the personalities on the board. Taking the personality out of the direction and recasting instructions into a formula and format familiar to the project team is part and parcel of the buffering.

    • Culture translation: In a global setting, the board may be culturally removed or distant from the project team. Who can work in both cultures? That of the board, and that of the project team? This is not only a linkage task but a translation task to ensure sensitivities are not trampled.

    Examples of "link and buffer" abound in military history. Perhaps the relationship between Admiral Ernest King and Admiral Chester Nimitz is most telling. King was in Washington during WW II and was Nimitz superior in the Navy chain of command. Nimitz was in command of the Pacific Ocean Area from his HQ in Hawaii.  
    King was responsible for a two ocean Navy in a world war; Nimitz more limited. Nimitz was the link and buffer from the tactical fighting admirals at sea, and the strategic war leaders in Washington.  No small matter!

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    Monday, May 9, 2022

    There is a case for bureaucracy ... sometimes

    If you can't trust your people
    Or, you don't know your people well enough to trust them
    And, you can't replace the former
    Nor do you have time to get to know the latter .....

    Then the management solution is simplicity itself:
    Invent a bureaucracy and assign them to it!

    Bureaucracy is the management alternative to trust. 
    • Rules, regulations, and punishment do all the work. No fuss, no muss!
    • Sometimes, incentives are useful, so don't leave them out.

    Now admittedly, bureaucracy cuts against the flat, agile grain which is "the way to do it" for modern managers. 

    But, beyond a point, flat is too flat, and agile is too agile.
    Let's be realistic:
    • Many can not handle complete freedom, 
    • Have questionable judgement, 
    • Are misaligned to strategic goals and imperatives, and 
    • Generally spend time and money without regard to the fact that neither the time nor the money is theirs.
    Bring on the bureaucrats!

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    Thursday, May 5, 2022

    About communication

    Sometimes, our language idioms get in the way of the top three project management tasks:
    1. Communicate
    2. Communicate, and 
    3. Communicate!

    A few examples to illustrate.

    First, about schedule:
    "Slow down" and "Slow up" mean the same thing: make the schedule slower. 'Up' or 'down' is irrelevant; you can choose to go in either direction!

    The third hand of the clock is called the 'second hand'. Oh well; I'm not sure if this is a confusion of ordinality or cardinality, or something else.

    "After dark" actually means 'after light'; that is, after the sun goes down if you are scheduling a night action.

    About risk:
    "Fat chance" and "slim chance" mean the same thing: there's not much of a chance that things will go as desired. So, when it comes to weighting a chance, choosing slim or fat is unimportant They may play the same way.

    About management:
    "Overlook" and "oversee" are quite different management activities. The former means to ignore, while the latter means to observe. 

    About job satisfaction:
    "Work is terrific", but you won't do it unless you are paid. 

    About experience:
    "Wise man" and "wise guy" are really not the same thing at all. The former is about wisdom borne of experience, and latter is about ignorance, regardless of experience

    About environment:
    "If all the world is a stage" where are your customers going to be? Understanding the customer's environment is one key to quality (in the large sense).

    I could go on, but I won't!


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    Monday, May 2, 2022

    From strategy to plan to approval

    To state a strategic principle is one thing; to reduce principle to a practical plan is another; but then to get stakeholders to approve and invest in both the principle and the plan is yet another.

    General Eisenhower had something to say about this, and one should be fully aware that not only did his strategic principles have to satisfy those with a focus on Europe, but also in the larger context of  two simultaneous wars whose connectivity was largely their overlap of a common source of supplies and resources.

    "However -- and here is the rub -- it was easy enough to state [a strategic purpose] as a principle but it was to prove difficult indeed to develop a feasible plan to implement the idea and to secure it's approval by the [controlling investors]
    General Eisenhower in "Crusade in Europe"

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