Category Archives: trends

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.

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.

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.

The Importance of Timezones

As much as the world is shrinking, timezones still matter. The chart below shows what proportion of the world lives in which time zone (with 0 as GMT/London). It’s a view of the world I wasn’t able to find, so I created it.

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.

SCRUM for Wedding Planning

Gregory Heller gave an interesting talk on using SCRUM for Wedding Planning at the Seattle Ignite event yesterday. Ignite is an interesting concept where all presenters get just 5 minutes to speak and this is made up of 20 slides at 15 seconds each. The slides are programmed to advance automatically so presenters are forced to stay on time. Despite the provocative title, the talk is encapsulates some of the key aspects of SCRUM nicely. You can see his notes here and the slides are below (though you really need the notes to make full sense of it)…

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.