Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Secret Power of Time

Very interesting observations from Phillip Zimbardo and RSA on different perceptions of time between ages and geographies. It’s a thought-provoking video. The presentation style is also interesting – animation overlayed with commentary.

Economics and Sports

Moneyball by Michael Lewis is a classic. Lewis tells the story of the Oakland A’s succeeding with low budget and flawless insight, but also describes a statistical revolution in baseball that eventually became mainstream. One of the insights from the book is that many of the metrics in baseball are misleading. The only metric that really matters is a player’s on base percentage, whereas many scouts focused on good looks and were over focused on the ability to hit home runs. It’s interesting to see how a sport that produces so many statistics, overlooked the one that really mattered for so long.

By the standard of Moneyball, Soccernomics is a disappointment. The book mirrors the fad of applying ‘economics’ (or more correctly rational analysis) to everything.  Soccernomics also adds in some rash World Cup predictions. The result is interesting, but isn’t as robust as Moneyball. The regressions and unpublished papers that underpin the book feel flimsy, and unlike the Oakland A’s for Moneyball, there is no deep human story or any real demonstration that assertions in the book carry the statistical weight the authors suggest.

Don’t read Soccernomics, read Moneyball. And only if you really enjoyed Moneyball and really like soccer, should you consider Soccernomics.

Innovation – Molecular Gastronomy and Miracle Fruit

All cooking requires some understanding of chemistry, but molecular gastronomy takes it to the level by creating new flavors, textures and experiences by applying science to food. The pictures below are from the Molecular Tapas Bar in Japan and show (from top to bottom) a cocktail created in a test tube, olives made into a foam, ratatouille made from small balls of the constituent ingredients and the final photo is avocado, eel and pineapple, which when combined recreate the flavor of miso.

If you are keen to try molecular gastronomy and don’t have your own advanced chemistry set, another part of meal (not shown in the photos) can be done at home miracle fruit changes the taste of food for about 30 minutes to 2 hours after taking the tablet. Try tasting orange, lemon and lime pieces before and after chewing on a tablet, the effect is pretty amazing.

If you want to try molecular gastronomy at a restaurant, it isn’t cheap – examples of this style of cuisine include Alinea in Chicago, WD-50 in New York, The Fat Duck in the UK and El Bulli in Spain.

The Deepwater Horizon Disaster and Estimation Techniques

Effective estimation of time, money and other resources is key to effective project management. For that reason it’s interesting to look at best practises, and a hotly debated estimate for the past 2 months is how much oil is flowing from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

A Flow Rate Technical Group has been established to estimate this number and the approach there are taking is detailed here.

Basically, the panel of experts is splitting into sub-groups, using different methods. These estimates will then be combined into one overall estimate.

The methods they are using are:

  • Plume Modelling – looking at video of the oil escaping in the water
  • Mass Balancing – looking at satellite data of the volume of oil on the surface adjusting it for any oil that hasn’t reached or left the surface
  • Reservoir Modelling – analyzing the composition of the oil reservoir under the seabed and determining oil pressure and hence flow rate
  • Nodal Analysis – examining the leak points on the seabed and calculating flow based on that
  • Woods Hole Analysis – using acoustic technologies to collect data close to the leak source

This calculation of numerous estimates using independent techniques is best practise in estimation. As you produce estimates, explore different techniques to create independent estimates, the overall estimate is likely to be more robust as result.

Book Review – Tribal Leadership

Tribal Leadership centers on the insight that how and what gets done is driven by groups and their culture and relationships.

This is a book that focuses on the emotional aspects of team (tribe) success, rather than strategy in the Michael Porter sense, or individual success in the Franklin Covey sense. The authors, Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright present the results of deep research on team cultures and present a rich model of the traits of highly successful tribes. Interestingly, most organizations fail to achieve real success because they can’t move beyond cultures of individual success, where one employee’s gain is another’s loss. In fact, some organizations don’t even achieve that accomplishment and resemble a Dilbert cartoon (incidentally, the authors interviewed Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist for the book). The individual success model is weak because it is naturally zero-sum, implicit in the success of one employee is the ‘defeat’ or lack of success of another. The individual success model may work to a limited degree, but doesn’t scale to the level of an organization as not everyone can be fulfilled. If a strong performer leaves, there is no guarantee of replacement, and by definition there will always be low performers, and the authors argue that even in the Jack Welch model of cutting the bottom 10%, employees will continually drop down the stack to replace them over time. Furthermore, there is no sustainable legacy or permanence created by individual achievement. Therefore, true success can only come through mutual trust, not trust that is earned over time, but assumed trust between employees and a shift to shared values that the tribe genuinely believes in and everyone embodies. This model enables success beyond the limits of individual attainment. Successful individuals hit the limitations of 24 hours in a day and their own skills and knowledge, but an effective tribe can leverage the group dynamic and moves from one-on-one relationships to team relationships, and the authors stress the roles of triads, individuals brokering relationships between two other people, rather than just forming relationships themselves.

As with many business books, a handful of fundamental insights are scattered across many pages, but the anecdotes and breadth of coverage from the Mafia to start-ups to the military are insightful. In addition, Tribal Leadership feels new and refreshing. Tribal Leadership moves beyond the paradigm of individual success and excellence (Franklin Covey, David Allen etc.) and really explores group dynamics in a way that makes sense. The attempt to create ‘strategic maps’ toward the end feels like too much of a stretch, but the book contains fresh insight that should give anyone who thinks seriously about their work environment and how they operate within it a chance to reflect.

Quote of the Day

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Peter Drucker

Getting Your Message Across

Conventional messages are often ignored. Coming at things from a different angle, can help get your message across.

What We Can Learn From Near Misses

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal here referencing the work of Scott Shappell and Douglas Wiegmann. The argument is that major disasters are rare, but by measuring near misses we can form a better estimate of how likely these disasters are to occur. Plane crashes are a good example. They are rare, but near misses are a lot more common. Of course, this concept is equally applicable to project management, there’s a lot of sophistication around measuring the actual outcomes. It’s easy since the data is relatively black and white, but measuring what almost succeeded or failed, adds useful data to make better predictions.

You can see one of Shappell and Weigmann’s papers here. One of their key findings on airline safety is that now just about all sources of errors have been corrected, except for human error, where engineering a solution is more problematic. They also point out that given the relentless focus on safety, flying is one of the safest ways to travel.

Which is worse: under-estimation or over-estimation?

For any project task, it is unlikely that your estimate of how long it will take will be perfect. So, is it worse to overestimate the time it will take to complete a task or underestimate it?

Cost of overestimation

Overestimation creates the problem that the estimate become self-fulfilling. The task takes longer than it would have done with a more accurate estimate in place. There are two ideas behind this linked to how people behave. Firstly, Student’s Syndrome states that people often won’t start working until very close to a deadline. Secondly, Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available. Therefore, if you have a task with overestimated length, the impact is the task might take longer than it ‘should’ do.

Costs of underestimation 

If a task is assumed to take long time than it actually needs, one of two things will happen. Either the task gets done at lower quality, or the task doesn’t get done on time and any tasks dependent on it are pushed out.

Which is worse?

Whilst obviously accurate estimates are the best outcome, over-estimation is less bad than underestimation. Underestimation can impact dependencies and the overall quality of the project. Overestimation may be wasteful for the resources on a particular task, but it is less likely to impact other tasks or overall quality.

Of course, a third option following the critical chain methodologies is to consider adding buffers to the schedule to allow for some underestimation at the individual task level.

Innovation – World Cup Paintings

With the World Cup starting tomorrow in South Africa, these paintings on display in New York are a clever way to characterize and build awarenss of the event. Each painting represents a different team.