Category Archives: technology

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.

The Risks of Risk Management

What could be a more effective risk management practice than wearing a seat belt when driving? Surely that sort of improvement benefits everyone? Actually, economists have shown that it’s not that simple and there are lessons for project managers from this lesson too.

If you engage in risk management, as all project managers do, then be aware of the work of the Chicago economist Sam Peltzman.

What Peltzman identified is that behavior can change substantially in response to risk management policies. For example in the case of seat belts, people tend to drive faster and have more collisions when they use seat belts because of the sense of security it gives them. This is not to say that seat belts are ineffective, it seems that traffic safety overall (especially in terms of road deaths) has improved as a result of them, but not as much as you would have expected, because of this behavioral offset.

And more omniously, though drivers are safer from seat belts, cyclists and pedestrians are more at risk with seat belts because drivers tend to drive faster and those outside the car don’t have any offsetting protection.

Similar studies have shown the same phenomena in NASCAR racing, when safety improves drivers then notch up the risks they are willing to take, offsetting some of the benefit.

photo credit: Roger Barker

So the question for the project manager is are your risk management policies changing behavior? This is not to say you shouldn’t bother with risk management, just as with seat belts the overall benefit is likely to be positive, but pay attention to how behavior is changing as a result of the changes you implement. Are people less cautious knowing there is a more robust monitoring process in place for their projects? Are team members less focused on escalating problems knowing that someone else is watching out for them?

The lessons from other areas such these unintended consequences may be more important than you may initially suspect.

Data Visualization – The Economic Complexity Observatory

Cesar Hidalgo creates visualizations of economies as highlighted in Tim Hartford’s recent book Adapt.

This images are based on a mass of data to look at the materials an economy produces and compare different economies with each other, or with themselves over time. It’s a interesting approach to making sense of a large quantity of data.

You can try it yourself here.

The Key To Personal Improvement

There’s a lot of thinking at the moment around using agile methods, quick prototyping, seeing what works and rejecting what doesn’t. In all sort of  circumstances this is a valuable approach.

However, there’s one problem at the personal level. Our memory, or perhaps more accurately, our decision making processes, aren’t up it.

In essence the decisions we have made in the past can shape our perceptions of the future, and most importantly, we may not even be aware of it.

It turns out there’s a fairly simple solution to this issue. Namely, keeping a diary. And now, with tools like  Skydrive or Dropbox it’s much easier for a diary to follow us around, assuming the presence of an internet connection.
The goal is not to document your deepest feelings, just to document what you were trying to achieve – before you know the outcome of the decision – ideally right after the decision occurs, hence before bias can be introduced.
Doing this avoids the unhelpful tricks memory plays on you and ultimately will make you a better decision maker. Peter Drucker is a strong proponent of this style of documented decision making to improve learning.

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.

Google Book Search

As you probably know Google is digitizing the world’s books and putting them online, you can now search through the text of 5.2 million digitized books to see trends.

For example, here and below, is a comparison of the terms Gantt and Agile in books over time (note the search is case sensitive).

This tool is also creating opportunities for cultural studies examining words that aren’t in the dictionary, censorship and ideologies.

You can use the Google Books NGram Viewer online here. And the post in which the tool is described is here.

Top Five Innovations of 2010

I don’t actually know if this was launched in 2010 or not, but I love the idea of the Brownie Edge Pan. If you’re the sort of person who likes the brownies that have edges, this gives you more of them. Genius.

The Third Generation Amazon Kindle is also one of my favorites. As the New York Times recently pointed out, the iPad has not killed the Kindle. And optimization for reading, together with incremental improvements and and the addition of games continues to drive the Kindle forward.

XBox Kinect is impressive technology. It’s now possible to play video games just by moving your body. For example, you can throw a discus, drive a car or jump over a log. It’s not just fun technology, it also shows that gesture recognition has a lot of potential as a means of interacting with software in many fields beyond gaming.

NFL RedZone is a new concept in showing sport on television. Rather than showing a single game, the channel flicks between all the current games showing all the scoring as it happens. It’s a fairly intense way to watch sport, but undeniably innovative.

Finally, though the client version launched in 2006, the Google Reader for Android application just launched this month, and it’s the perfect way to read blogs on the go. Simple design, very well executed.

PopSci also have their top 100 innovations of the year here, PopSop’s brand oriented list is here and Time’s list is here.

How Good Is NASA At Project Management?

Source: NASA Ares Project Office

NASA too experiences schedule and cost overruns. Of the 10 NASA projects that have been in implementation phase for several years, those 10 projects have experienced cost overruns of 18.7% and launch delays of 15 months. In 2005 Congress required NASA to provide cost and schedule baselines, so no long term data is available. NASA’s projects are consistently one of a kind and pioneering, therefore uncertainty is likely to be higher than for other sorts of projects.

These cost and schedule overruns are largely due to the following factors:

External dependencies

The primary external dependencies that cause problem for NASA are weather issues causing launch delay and issues with partners on projects. NASA projects with partners experienced longer delays of 18 months relative to 11 months for those projects without partners.

Technological feasibility

As the Government Accountability Office assessment states: “Commitments were made to deliver capability without knowing whether the technologies needed could really work as intended.” This is so often a cause of project failure, see my articles on the Sydney Opera House, Denver Airport Baggage System and many
others for examples of how common this cause of failure is.

Failure to achieve stable designs at Critical Design Reviews

90% stability at Critical Design Review is cited by the Government Audit Office as a goal for successful projects, which is consistent with NASA’s System Engineering Handbook. Without this, designs are not sufficiently robust to execute against. It’s clear that NASA takes Critical Design Reviews seriously, but doesn’t always achieve 90% stability. The exact value varies across projects, but appears to be in the 70-90% range for most NASA projects. Raising the stability level at theseCritical Design Reviews would reduce project risk.

Though long, the Government Audit Office report contains lots interesting of further detail and can be found here.

Stockmapper and Data Visualization

To close out this week’s posts focused on data visualization, Stockmapper by Herman Zschiegner was nominated for a Webby Award. Stockmapper allows you to look a large number of financial stocks to see what’s moving and visualize market trends. What is interesting here is the interactivity – everything is clickable and clicking yields useful data.

Trefis and Data Visualization

It doesn’t matter how good your information or analysis is. If you present it poorly, it won’t get the recognition it deserves. Trefis is an interesting tool for this purpose. It focuses exclusively on stock price analysis, but the interactive nature of the information they show is inspiring. I can’t comment on how robust their analysis is, but they break a company down into its parts and then show the key financial drivers for each area, which you can then change to match your own assumptions. It certainly brings some clarity to the complex problem of financial valuation. They are also bringing a social element to the analysis process too, by enabling you to compare your valuation to others. Currently, they only cover approximately 50 technology focused companies, but it will be interesting to see if and how they grow. Signing up for the service does result in them sending you quite a few annoying emails, but it’s worth it to try out the tool.

The screenshot below shows some of the analysis they offer of Amazon: