Musing about project management and communications

Having worked in large organisations for most of my adult life, I have regularly been bemused by what happens in project estimation and reporting; how a series of intermediaries go through some sort of Chinese Whispers processes until there is an unsustainable deviance between what is reported and what is real. Quite often, that which is reported becomes that which is perceived as real, and we all know that perception is reality.

There is an incredibly large body of literature to do with projects, their management and their regular failures to meet cost, time and quality objectives. Most of the time, the “blame”, for want of a better word, is laid squarely at the feet of IT as a profession. We’ve tried many things in our varied attempts to “solve” this, focusing on the requirements gathering process via time-boxing and fast iteration, improving estimation processes using a plethora of tools, seeking to simplify coordination failures by disaggregating work packages and keeping project teams small, using enterprise bus architectures with reusable common components in order to simplify the design process, having regular design and code walkthroughs, sophisticated post-implementation reviews, what-have-you.

And yet the cases of sustained success are rare.

More recently, I have been looking at the psychological aspects of all this, both from an individual viewpoint as well as from an organisational one. Is there a group-think problem? Do I (and people like me) fall into a trap of self-deceit? And if so, where does this self-deceit enter the process? Unless you recognise a problem you cannot fix it.

It is with all this in mind that I chanced upon Richard Feynman’s submission to the Rogers Commission on the reliability of the Shuttle. Tragic as the occurrence was, we are all honour and duty bound to learn from it so that we can avoid repeating it.

You can find the full text of the submission here. I think his last sentence says it all:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over
public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

More to follow; let me hear what you think.

6 thoughts on “Musing about project management and communications”

  1. As an outisder, IT projects seem to me to suffer from clients (who think automation can make their life really easy but don’t bother to analyse or define the problem) interacting with IT people (who won’t say that’s not possible or I don’t understand). This is why I blog on about this idea of accentuating the negative. If you focus on fixing what’s wrong I believe you can make progress far easier than building the new machine which may or probably may not work. A stalled project demoralises and stagnates but a series of smaller victories builds momentum.

  2. Nature cannot be fooled; but humans can (and, while it is hard for all of us rationalists to grasp, many of them want to be)! This is why, for all the virtues of our modernist sentiments (so admirably embodied by Feyman), we need to be at least aware of postmodernist sensibilities, particularly where the high currency value of fiction is involved, as I tried to argue when JP launched his discussion on the Because Effect:

    John Dodds may call himself an outsider; but he has tapped into why so many technical achievements (not just in IT) now run the gamut from serious disappointment to abject failure. My variation on John’s description is that the problem arises from an unholy alliance of a client who does not appreciate what is reasonable to expect and an engineer eager to promise the world. The postmodern perspective emphasizes that, even if that promise is a fiction, it carries more weight than a rational analysis. Unfortunately, I do not put a lot of hope in John’s prescription, because, as I see it, this postmodern “withdrawal into fictions” has come about (among other reasons) in order to AVOID accentuating the negative.

  3. Edward Tufte would have us believe that poor project communication is at least partly as a result of badly-designed documents. Having seen many attempts at communicating project status that only serve to obfuscate the situation (sometimes deliberately) I am inclined to agree.

    As I’m sure you know, he deals at length with the same incident that you quote Richard Feynman on, indeed his critique of Feynman’s famous iced water experiment is worth reading in itself (Visual And Statistical Thinking: Displays Of Evidence For Making Decisions, Tufte 1997, Graphics Press LLC).

    Much of his essay on Microsoft Powerpoint (The Cognitive Style Of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Tufte 2006, Graphics Press LLC) returns to the same topic of the Challenger disaster and the failure to communicate the project status clearly to the decision-making body.

    Some psychology was certainly involved (a classic confirmation bias) but Professor Tufte’s conclusion is that project teams are not trained to communicate effectively using written documents and graphics.

    It’s not something everybody has a gift for but we can certainly educate people to have a higher degree of visual literacy.

  4. I share Dominic Sayers’ appreciation for the contributions of Edward Tufte, but I would like to argue that Tufte’s impact goes far deeper than visual literacy. Using Newton Garver’s Preface to a collection of essays by Jacques Derrida as a point of departure, I would claim that Tufte is addressing an issue that goes all the way back to the scholastic TRIVIUM of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Our modernist thinking has made great strides in our command of grammar and logic, but it seems to have done so at the expense of our appreciation for rhetoric. Tufte’s appreciation for rhetoric is particularly evident in an interview he gave to Mark Zachry and Charlotte Thralls in which he discussed his book BEAUTIFUL EVIDENCE:

    Furthermore, when we consider the full title of VISUAL EXPLANATIONS: IMAGES AND QUANTITIES, EVIDENCE AND NARRATIVE, we see than Tufte has a keen intuition for the literary theory of text types. This has nothing to do with how fonts are designed and used. Rather, it is an effort to classify texts (in the most general sense of the term) into the categories of argumentation, description, exposition, and narrative. Tufte’s recent concern with evidence addresses how his concerns with design impact argumentation, while ENVISIONING INFORMATION makes solid contributions to both description and exposition. I believe that VISUAL EXPLANATIONS was his first serious effort in the area of narrative, although he was already addressing narrative in THE VISUAL DISPLAY OF QUANTITATIVE INFORMATION.

    The point I am trying to make from my own reading of Tufte is that it is not only VISUAL literacy that is at stake. Rather, it is the full scope of literacy, where rhetoric is as important as grammar and logic and where that rhetoric is exhibited in the text types of argumentation, description, exposition, and narrative, whether the “texts” are traditional documents or PowerPoint presentations. As a matter of fact, rhetoric also comes into play in the conversations we hold; so I believe that we can invoke Tufte when we deal with questions of literacy “real-time” texts.

Let me know what you think