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.


#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


#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.

#8 calfre2020 on 07.26.18 at 1:15 pm

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