Category Archives: innovation

Project Management By Robots

Scott Adams, the author of the Dilbert cartoons blogged about The Future of Middle Management predicting that robots will make good project managers, in fact, he predicts robots to this task will happen faster than to other professions.

” Put a computer in a robot body and it can walk from cubicle to cubicle handing out assignments, checking on progress, and adjusting schedules and budgets on the fly. A robot could easily juggle the complexity of dozens of projects. It could be talking to you in your cubicle while simultaneously having a phone call with another employee and texting a third without you even knowing as it happens.” 

I don’t think this is a reasonable prediction. So much of project management requires soft skills and judgement to understand how a project is going that reducing it to a simple input/output process that can be accelerated by a machine is misleading. It’s it’s likely you’d just achieve ‘garbage in – garbage out’ at scale.

“The robots will be free of human bias and optimism, so I would expect them to do a better job of estimating budgets and timelines than humans.”

I totally agree with this, robots can make better decisions in certain contexts than humans (Nate Silver’s recent book Signal vs. Noise is good on this topic), and being free from bias and optimism is one advantage. However, without being too pessimistic, it’s likely that humans would tilt their inputs to the robot to get the biased outcome they want. In a sense, we estimate budgets and timelines with robots today, it’s called software, such as SAP, Excel or Microsoft Project. Not all robots have a human form, in fact, few do.

I recommend, the post The Future of Middle Management even if you disagree with it (as I do in most places) it makes you think. Thanks to Marc Gawley for spotting this article.

What Project Managers Can Learn From Advertisers

Advertising briefs are a specific type of project with three characteristics:
1. Extreme creativity. The goal with any advertising work is to come up with something sufficiently original to break through all the clutter.
2. Reliance on client management. It is not enough to merely come up with a great ad, but to make sure the client believes in it too.
3. Ongoing iteration. This reflects the creative process where the goal is to sift through ideas to find the highest quality solution before the deadline.

The Creative Process Illustrated by Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison, interview leading advertising executives to learn more about their processes. From these interviews a few insights emerge. The best advertisers start by questioning the client’s brief, and working with the client as soon as possible.

“most creative briefs cannot lead to good advertising unless they are developed with input from creatives”

Then the process of creativity has two important aspects. The first is to collect a large number of ideas.

“It’s like the old story about cows that are let out of the barn. The ones that stop at the first grass they come to end up chewing bits of weeds and muddy tufts. The more adventurous cows who make it through the first (or second) pastures find the good, deep, tasty stuff. Just don’t go too far and become roadkill.”

The second is to consume more than you create. Nothing is ever really a bolt from the blue, it more likely combines existing ideas in a new way. The more content you consume, whether through books, blogs or museums, the more ideas you’ll be able to combine into original concepts.

As a project manager, examination of advertising projects is a healthy reminder on the importance of ongoing client engagement and that creativity comes from ‘combining’ a large number of existing ideas and finessing the good ones, rather than any sort of truly unique gift.

Book Review – Mindfire

This is the most provocative book I’ve read in months. The ideas contained in the essays are persuasive and it’s a fun, well focused read. Ideally, I’d like the book to be longer than 30 relatively short essays (hence 4 stars, not 5) but the quality bar is super-high and everything is well written in Scott’s energetic and personal style, and a does a great job of making you take a step back and think/reflect. The essays are short enough that even if one of them isn’t your thing, you’re pretty quickly on to the next one.

To give examples of essays they include topics like “How to give and receive criticism”, which describes how criticism isn’t just about your own views and a perspective and a single correct answer, but also about thinking how different people will interpret the thing that’s being criticized. Many of the essays tend to be motivational such as “The surprise inspiration of death” or “How to be passionate”.

As the author discloses, the essays in this book can also be found on his blog, but either because of the editorial work that’s gone into the book or because of simply reading it on my Kindle rather than a webpage I found it a much more engaging experience than hunting around on the web.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. If you’re into the writing style of Malcom Gladwell or Michael Lewis then it’s a reasonable bet that you’ll enjoy this, and it’s sufficiently short and focused that it’s a very easy book to get through.

You can find it here on Amazon’s US site.

The Ig Nobel Prize and Innovation – Tanks and Structured Procrastination

Ever since the bra as gas mask idea, the Ig Nobel Awards have been worth following. They follow the same structure as the Nobel Prize, but focus on the most creative and improbable research conducted over the past year. Some are ideas are simply odd, but many are surprisingly clever and insightful here are two of the highlights from this year’s awards.

Using Tanks To Deal With Illegally Parked Cars

The mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania by dealing with the problem of illegally parked cars by running them over with a tank.


Structured Procrastination

According to John Perry of Stanford, you can still get things done if you procrastinate, the way to do it is to make sure that you rank all the things you have to do. You’ll still procrastinate and delay the top ranked item, but as long as your lower ranked items are worth doing you’ll still get things done. Therefore, the way to get things done is to work on many important things, rather than one single important thing. The article is here.

Better Brainstorming – Logic Trees

Brainstorming can be a useful exercise, and many books can help you with that process, such as The Riddle.

However, logic trees often aren’t discussed as an alternative brainstorming, but despite using a far more structured approach they can achieve a similar result. With a logic tree you start with a problem and map out solutions to it, trying to be exhaustive and comprehensive. Starting with broad areas and narrowing down to specifics that fall within scope of the broader areas, hence the ‘tree’ framework. It’s a far more structured approach than brainstorming, but it can lead to more complete analysis and, if done well, be just as creative.

The example below comes from the powerful problem solving blog. It starts with the problem of establishing a company as a high-end tailor and then maps out possible initial directions (build a brand, focus on quality, create a unique shopping experience) and then fleshes each idea out in increasing detail such as using the finest wool or associating with celebrities. It’s a simplified example, but it shows the underlying idea clearly – click on the image below to enlarge it.

Conversations With Your Future Self

Two perspectives on dealing with the future, one more time management oriented, the other a little more creative.

Follow Up Then

Follow Up Then (thanks Marc) is a site that enables you to set time based reminder on email. It’s a clever idea and covers for times when you expect a response, but don’t get one, or simply want to send an email away for a while to deal with it later. The ingenuity of the system is that it all works from the address line of whatever email tool you use.

Future Me

Future Me which is much an art project as a tool also has an accompanying book. Has been used by people to write over a million letters to their future selves, about exam results, break ups, job searches etc. In addition to writing to yourself in the future, you can also read what others have written, here are some of the better ones.

5 Things Project Managers Can Learn From Netflix

Netflix, the US movie subscription service posted this deck on Slideshare, which describes its creative approach to culture, people, process and incentives.

1. Inspire with context setting, rather than managing details

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the endless sea.”

Antoine De St-Exupery

2. Culture is not rules, but behaviors

Enron had an impressive list of values, but evidently didn’t practice them. Culture is not about what behavior gets talked about, but gets rewarded.

3. The best can be 2-10x as productive as the rest

In processes, the best people can be 2x as productive, in creative roles, the best can be 10x as good as the average person. Work hard to recruit and keep the best people on your projects, because they are disproportionately effective contributors.

4. Hard work doesn’t matter

It’s about results, working long hours isn’t relevant as long as results are achieved.

5. Too much process is counter-productive, encourage freedom.

Process will tend to frustrate high performers and drive them out. Maintaining process will often take more time/effort in creative industries than the cost of fixing a mistake. The goal therefore is rapid recovery, not perfect process. For example, spending under a fixed budget each quarter (high degree of freedom) is a better process than fixed approval for every $5k of expenditure (high degree of process).

Netflix also has no vacation policy, employees chose how to manage their vacation in a way that sense for them as long as they get their goals accomplished.

It’s an interesting model, they admit it’s not suited for nuclear power plants or open heart surgery where a checklist might be a better approach, but for a creative project, Netflix offers some interesting ideas to consider.

Agile – Adapt And Little Bets

The current Zeitgeist in a lot of business writing seems essentially to favor agile thinking. Peter Sims recent book Little Bets and Tim Harford’s book Adapt both go in this direction.

Both authors follow largely similar logic:

  • The future is hard (sometimes impossible) to predict
  • The best way to test something is to try it
  • The more you test the more likely you’ll hit on something good
The result is a rejection of top-down planning and an endorsement of decentralized creative processes, with clear success metrics in place to pick winners and a framework to make sure you don’t lose so much in the iterative testing that the gains of a win are erased.
This is all good, the logic can’t be faulted and the process is appropriate in many situations. But crucially not all situations and that’s where I take issue with both books.
If things are as complex as they both argue they are, then isn’t a one-size-fits all answer a little too easy? The examples too, are very similar between the books. For example, the Iraqi War and defeating the insurgents shows that troops on the ground pioneered smart ideas that worked in building local trust and were then used broadly across the military. The Soviet Union showed top down planning was a non-starter, and Pixar demonstrates iteration from demo shorts of jumping lamps, to computer generated adverts to ultimately the pioneering success of Toy Story.
That’s all great, but what about the fact that the initial ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq (if politically misguided) was an overnight triumph of top down planning? The Soviet Union failed, but China thus far could teach many other economies some tricks with a pretty high degree of command and control. Thirdly, whilst Pixar showed the success of incremental steps. Titanic and Avatar both show that James Cameron’s big bangs can be more successful than even Toy Story 3.
Finally, didn’t Karl Popper make these very persuasive arguments about iteration and testing back in 1962? Though, I admit his text is a little harder to read.
It’s great to see the tidal wave of support for agile processes, but let’s not forget that planning is needed in many circumstances. Indeed as Napoleon said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.”
In summary, both Little Bets and Adapt are well written books, but let’s not swing the pendulum over to agile processes too far and be careful about balance in the examples we pick for support.

VIDEO – Hamel on Reverse Accountability

The management guru Gary Hamel gives a great 15 minute presentation on the past and future of management. The most interesting concept is reverse accountability (front line employees getting more information and power), and examples of how it can operate in practise. In addition the presentation itself is first class in terms of the animation he uses to reinforce his points.

Book Review – Exploring Requirements – Quality Before Design

Exploring Requirements by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg is a very good basic text on the requirements process. It’s been available for some time, but only came out in paperback earlier this year. Although the ideas in the book are simple they are also very powerful and are the sort of things that seem obvious once you read them, but are not practiced as widely as they should be. The book shares ideas in an engaging, friendly tone, making use of some pretty frivolous examples that make it a more interesting read than your average project management book.

Much of the book is focused on the insight that the requirements process can be greatly improved by clearer communication and the removal of all ambiguity, and the authors use some clever examples that illustrate their points, and offer clear steps for communicating better and removing the typical barriers to collecting requirements. As with many books related to project management the book leans more towards software projects than other types of project, but this doesn’t harm the broad applicability of most concepts. The book is strongest on requirements gathering, but also has some tips for other areas like meeting management or brainstorming. If you’re feel a bit rusty on your requirements gathering skills this text is a quick way to sharpen your technique and broaden your perspective.