Things want to work, not punish errors

For better or worse, things want to work.

Consider driving at night on unlit, curvy mountain roads, at a speed about twice the limit, zigzagging between cars, including oncoming ones. Obviously dangerous, and yet many do this, and survive. How?

  • Roads and cars are built with big safety margins
  • Other drivers don't want to die and help you get through
  • Practice makes perfect, so you get good at this bad thing

The road, the car, you, other drivers, and their cars all want this to work. So for a long while, it does, until it finally doesn't. I know 3-4 people who drive like this habitually. At least 2 of them totaled cars. All think they're excellent drivers. All have high IQs, making you wonder just what this renowned benchmark of human brains really tells us.

Now consider a terribly managed project with an insane deadline, and a team and budget too small. All too often, this too works out. How?

  • Unless it physically cannot exist, a solution wants you to find it. You carve out a piece and the next piece suggests itself. Even if management fails to think how the pieces fit together, the pieces often come out such that they can be made to fit with modest extra effort.
  • And then the people who make the pieces want them to fit. Even if the process is totally mismanaged, many people will talk to each other and find out what to do to make parts work together.
  • The project was approved because a customer was persuaded. At this point, the customer wants the project to succeed. A little bit of schedule slippage will not make them change their minds, nor will a somewhat less impressive result. More slack for you.
  • The vendor, too wants the project to succeed, and will tolerate a little bit of budget overrun. More slack.
  • Most often, when things fail, they fail visibly. It's as if things wanted you to see that they fail, so that you fix them.

The fact is that by cutting features, having a few non-terminal bugs, and being somewhat late and over budget, most projects can be salvaged. In fact, when they say that "most projects fail," the PMI (*) defines "failure" as being a bit late or over budget. If "failure" is defined as outright cancellation, I conjecture that most projects "succeed."

Which projects are least likely to be canceled? In other words, where is being late, over budget and off the original spec most tolerable? Obviously, when the overall delivered value is the highest, both in absolute terms and relatively to the cost. In other words, reality punishes bad management the least in the most impactful cases.

What is the biggest problem with bad management? Same as crazy driving: risk. The problem in both cases is you risk high-cost, low-probability events. It's terrible things that tend not to happen. And people are pretty bad at learning from mistakes they never had to pay for.

Wannabe racecar drivers fail to learn from driving into risky situations which their own eyes tell them are risky. For managers, learning is harder – the risks accumulated through bad management are abstract, instead of viscerally scary. In fact, a lot of the risks are never understood by management, or even fully reported. There's just too much risk to sweep under various rugs to make it all ingrained in institutional memory.

In fact, it's even worse, because risk-taking is actually rewarding as long as the downside doesn't materialize. The crazy driver gets there 10 minutes earlier. Similarly, non-obviously hazardous management often delivers at an obviously small cost. And while driving is not actually competitive, except in the inflamed minds of the zigzagging few, most projects are delivered in very competitive environments indeed. And competition can make even small rewards for risk decisive – as it can with any other smallish factor large enough to make a difference between victory and defeat.

Things want to work more than they want to punish us for our errors. The punishment may be very cruel and unusual alright, but it's rare. It seems that the universe, at least The Universe of Deliverables, is Beckerian. It delivers optimal punishment for rational agents correctly estimating probabilities. Sadly, humans are bad at probability.

And thus crazy drivers and bad managers alike (often the same people, BTW) march from one insane adventure to the next, gaining more and more confidence in their brilliance.

(*) PMI (The Project Management Institute) is a con, where they sell you "PMBOK" (Project Management Body of Knowledge, a thick book you can use as a monitor stand) and "PMP" (Project Management Professional, a certification required by PMI's conscious or unwitting accomplices in dark corners of the industry.) A variety of more elaborate cons targeted at narrower audiences incorporate PMI's core body of cargo cult practices.

23 comments ↓

#1 Bernd on 02.27.17 at 11:03 am

Re project success – in the hipster areas of IT like web stuff it's also popular to just declare extreme failure a success, move on to bigger and better things, then let the suckers (maintenance coders/ops) deal with the crap, e.g. pretty much everything including mongo and/or docker. Is that a success? From the perspective of the guys walking away from the explosion w/o looking back, bigly! Also how loser careers get cemented for those holding the shit shovels when the music stops.

Rr PM scams: the god tier is still scrum alliance in terms of price charged/value delivered, where it's quickly working up to -INFTY.

#2 "Bad" Driver on 02.27.17 at 11:39 pm

It's funny how whenever there's a snowstorm (or any kind of inclement weather– a little torrential rain will do), it's the "good" drivers who always stay well within the safety margins who end up skidding off the road in single-car accidents all over town.

Why is that?

#3 Kelly on 02.27.17 at 11:43 pm

Good article; there's a lot I agree with in there, and excellent insight about the benefits of risks.

I disagree with calling PMI and PMBOK a scam, though. I think the PMBOK is a good reference guide that new PM ought to read and keep around. But unless you're in some kind of process-heavy industry (defense, medical, aviation) you'll never have the time and top cover to spend your time doing all that management stuff.

I agree with you about PMP certification: newbies will pay for the course and mistakenly think they can run a big project. Idiot HR folks will screen resumes for that buzzword.

Sounds a lot like the CMMI and the various SCAMPI appraisals: a reasonable list of things to think about wrapped up inside a marketing scam.

#4 Yossi Kreinin on 02.28.17 at 10:06 pm

@"Bad" Driver: even if you're right, and you could be and the reason could be that more careful drivers aren't as alert as the less careful ones and so react more slowly to changing situations where their habits no longer work, such single-car accidents cause less damage than what you, quote unquote bad drivers or call it what you like, end up doing. Not that I wish it upon you – may luck always be with you. I just doubt that your quotes are warranted if driving skill is to be measured primarily by injuries and property damage (lower is better.)

Regarding what management training is and isn't a scam: I have a very pessimistic view of this, but that's me.

#5 Anatoly on 03.01.17 at 5:19 pm

Things "want to work" because if they didn't, and the risk was much higher and materialized more often, the practice would stop. "Bad" drivers zig through the lanes at 140kph but not 180kph. Projects get mismanaged, but (usually) not so mismanaged that they have to get cancelled; why? Because such cancellations may actually have real-world consequences to the managers, like causing setbacks to their careers.

You're saying that even though we're doing things badly, things want us to succeed enough so that the risk of failure stays small. Why is the universe arranged in such a way that the risk of failure is small enough when we do things badly? I'd say the severity of our screwups lies on a spectrum, as does the severity of the consequences. The universe isn't predisposed to like us, it just punishes those of us that screw up badly enough so harsh that they drop out of the competition and disappear from the sample; or never get to the level of authority that's required from the activity you're sampling.

#6 Yossi Kreinin on 05.05.17 at 9:01 am

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#7 Michelle on 05.21.17 at 11:39 pm

Failure of a project is not delivering to the expectations that were agreed upon with the customer. Canceling a project could be the best thing for it – if it's throwing away money on the wrong thing.

I've seen project teams be rewarded for recommending and canceling a project because it was NOT going to deliver. Thus saving money that would have been wasted.

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#9 Clive Robinson on 11.29.18 at 6:58 am

The way to be a success at managment is to start projects but only ever finish the first one…

It works like this if you –successfuly?– finish a project you have jumped over the fence into the "can manage a project paddock" where the grass is generally greener than on the outside of that fence.

Thus you get to do other projects as long as you look good, and the way to always look good is never ever be around when a visable failure happens…

Projects can be divided up into the three basic areas of 1) Startup phase 2) Work phase 3) End phase.

Projects once accepted don't publically fail in the first phase, and actually rarely fail because there are no deliverables that have real meaning. You also can blow budget in the first phase without having to really account for it… Thus make the project big and grandiose with lots of potential, thus apparently one that will launch the organisation into XXX swiftly concisely and will make the organisation not just respected but famedd in not just it's market sector but others… Yarder yarder yarder where XXX is the latest buzz that the organisation knows nothing about but thinks is realy desirable (yes senior managers are con artists thus fall victim to a clever con more than most…)

The trick now is to setup things for the second phase where you have a team to do that whilst you go off and network and make your face known and talk big things happening etc and "big up" the project even more. The reason for this is you are going to jump ship at most half way through the second phase. Because it's highly unlikeky the project will have failed (though it might be approaching the rocks).

You get your knew job based on your networking, because every senior manager wants an expert in the XXX buzz…

You are gone, the trick was to have set up things prior to that such that the project will run on for a while and might make it through the increasingly difficult time of the later stages of the second phase and the third phase, which is where everyone you leave behind are desperate to make things work…

Now the important thing to note is regardless of if the project is a success or failur does not matter, you are onto your next big project somewhere else before it does. Thus later when you've jumped ship again, if the project was a success you claim it was you ezceptional abilities to do the ground work and set the direction –yarder yarder yarder– that made it the success it was because they followed your plan etc etc. If the project fails then you make the same claims but put the failure down to those left behind who wilfully chose not to follow your plan… So win win on the two extreams, but what if the project becomes a "lamer", well you can blaim not just those you left behind for failing to follow the plan, because senior managment became indicicive / timid / distracted / etc and moved all the goal posts / made unreasonable changes / etc etc… The thing is that both those you leave behind and their managment don't want to get tarnished by failure or even the smell of it, so they will either "talk it up" or "not talk at all", so you win again…

But with luck you will have jumped ship atleast a couple of times by then so nobody in your future will much care any way.

You just keep up with the cycle till you find a place in sebior managment where you kind of do the same thing again but you do way way less in the way of getting your hands dirty, you become a visionary etc…

The point is that this works, and taking major risk at the begining is not realy risk for you, because although you might drop the ball big time you won't be there when it hits the ground, it's the problem of those you have left behind.

Does it work, yes and you can spot it with some quite famous names if you look…

And it all works because as you point out, people realy do want to make things work the best they can, all you need to do is not have any moral impediments to taking advantage of them…

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