Project Management: Believing in Lies

This is Gene Bellinger’s (@SystemsWiki) article on project management from his excellent ‘Mental Model Musings‘. I remember reading it a few years and ago and finally tracked it down.

Project Management

Believing in Lies

There are numerous ways to classify projects. The classification I would like to consider has to do with repeated familiarity. There are those projects which one repeatedly undertakes which are relatively the same, and then there are those projects which are unique one of a kind events. Unique in that the person or group tasked with their accomplishment has never undertaken a project of this nature in the past and is not likely to undertake again in the future.

For those projects which one repeatedly undertakes a level of expertise is developed and one gets better at planning and executing these projects. As one’s expertise develops it is expected that the planning and execution of these repeated similar projects become more and more accurate. Accurate in that the plan and actual execution become more closely in agreement. Things should happen pretty much as planned.

For those unique one of a kind projects there is little basis for developing a realistic plan, even with the best of intent. The project plan is at best an educated guess. An educated guess that can be improved upon by capitalizing on the expertise of others that have been previously involved in projects of this nature. And yet there are many projects for which there are exists no similar requisite expertise. As such, the project plan remains very much simply ones conscientious best guess at what needs to be done.

This type of project begins with everyone realizing that the project plan is little more than an educated guess. And yet somewhere along the way as the project gets underway people begin to lose sight of the fact that the project plan was just and educated guess. As the project progresses there remains less and less awareness regarding the non-reality of the project plan. Individuals begin to take the plan as gospel believing that it is an accurate projected of what is going to happen.

As individuals pursue implementation of the project they begin to learn more and more about what they didn’t know when they started and they begin doing revisions to the project plan. Revisions which seldom represent decreases in cost or time. When this happens the individuals that lost sight of the fact that the plan was little more than a guess consider that the project is lagging behind schedule and experiencing cost overruns. So, of course what is happening is considered to adversely reflect on the capabilities of those responsible for the project implementation.

At this point even the individuals responsible for development of the project plan and its implementation have lost sight of the initial understanding that the project plan was little more than an educated guess. The individuals involved begin to believe management derision and perceive they are simply not able to implement the plan. So they begin to cut corners attempting to drive the implementation in accordance with the plan as written. And when the project is coerced in this fashion the implemented result seldom lives up to its expectations.

The final result is a completed project that seldom accomplishes what was intended. The individuals involved in the project have depressed impressions of their own capabilities. And management probably has an unfavorable impression of the individuals responsible for execution of a plan that resulted in a less than expected result, in a time frame longer than predicted, and costing more than projected. The system has discounted itself because of its own ignorance and short-term memory. This is the foundation of a vicious cycle.

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Copyright © 2004 Gene Bellinger

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2 Responses to Project Management: Believing in Lies

  1. Bazonka says:

    Gene is right, and I have pointed out this classification before. I find as well that if you look at PM dedicated sites they focus very much on the first kind, those that you have done before. The very notion you may not know what products you need to produce (in PRINCE2 terms) is very alien to many project managers.

    However I think Gene is a little pessimistic about the outlook in the second case; maybe he had a bad experience. I usually have no difficulty telling people that I don’t know how long it will take, or how much it will cost, and indeed find they respect this honesty. I also find they usually really, really want whatever it is, and they have struggled to move beyond the stage of realising they don’t know how to get it. When I rock up and say that I don’t know either, but let’s try this… they are willing to try anything. What they really need is leadership, not project management.

    Perhaps most importantly I don’t let them walk away, they cannot outsource their problem to me. They may not be able to define what they want, but they will know better than me when they see it, so experiment, try stuff, don’t be embarrassed when it goes wrong, and most importantly keep in their faces asking for feedback. In my experience you can do this, keep friends and deliver something that delights for a price they are happy to pay.

    You may not pass every PRINCE2 audit though.

  2. This article is about what in PM theory and practice is referred to as the “cone of uncertainty”. Mention it and if you get a blank look in the room, you know that somewhere along the line, someone has missed out on some basic PM training.

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