Monday, November 16, 2015

The Doctrine of Enough

photo by Koshy Koshy

In our previous blog we described how Don Margolies, a project manager from NASA, applied the 80/20 principle. Now we will describe how Don did not just apply this principle occasionally, but used it systematically through the “doctrine of enough.” This is how the British Philosopher of Management, Charles Handy, explains this doctrine and its impact on his own behavior: “‘Roses need pruning if they are to flower,’ a friend replied when I complained of being overstretched. With great reluctance, because I was enjoying the spread of my activities, although conscious that nothing much was coming out of them all, I resigned from seven different committees and groups on the same day.… It was my first introduction to the doctrine of ‘enough.’”1 
Following is one example where Don explains how he systematically adopted the “doctrine of enough”:   
What I set out to do was to establish a mutual agreement with everyone that “good enough” is good enough. Set your requirements and stick to those requirements. Once you meet the requirements, spend no additional money to make it better.2
Sufficiency and simplicity were strongly recommended by Norman Augustine (who later held the position of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Lockheed Martin) in his book, Augustine’s Laws. First, Augustine explains the serious cost implications of violating the “good enough” concept, followed by a metaphor that vividly illustrates how one can try to stick to the “good enough” concept: “The ‘best is the enemy of the good.’… The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.… The secret, if there is one for controlling the costs which are added by the pursuit of peripheral, albeit impressive, capabilities is actually quite straightforward and can be seen in the workings of a sculpture creating a statue of a hippopotamus. How does one make a statue of a hippopotamus? Very easily; one obtains a large block of granite and chips away every piece that does not look like a hippopotamus.” In other words, your objective is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.3  
To clarify the critical impact of simplicity on reliability, Augustine offers the following example: “…A modern jetliner, for example, has about 4.5 million parts… If a system has one million single-string parts, each with reliability of 99.999 percent for performing some specified mission, the overall probability of the mission failing is over 60 percent.… Thomas Paine summed it up in the 1790s when he counseled, ‘The more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.’”4
The “doctrine of enough” has a second face, a paradoxical one. As Handy explains: “The point about enough is if you don’t know what ‘enough’ is, you don’t know what ‘more than enough’ is, so there is never enough.… Only if you can say what enough is… you are free to do anything else.”5 To paraphrase Handy’s point about knowing what “enough” is, one may use the following saying: “If everything is equally important, then nothing is important.”

1 C. Handy. 1998. The Hungry Spirit. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 106.

2 “Stopping at ‘Good Enough,’” Don Margolies, Goddard Space Flight Center NASA. 2005. In A. Laufer, T. Post, and E.J. Hoffman, Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects, 32-3.  Washington, DC: The NASA History Series.

3 N. Augustine. 1986. Augustine’s Laws. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 101-7. Dan Ward cites a similar concept from Eric Raymond’s book, “The Cathedral and The Bazaar”: “Perfection [in design] is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.” D. Ward. 2007. The Simplicity Cycle., 42.  In his book, Simplicity, de Bono argues that: “Complexity means distracted effort. Simplicity means focused effort…. Simple systems are easier to set up, easier to monitor, and easier to repair.” E. de Bono. 1998. Simplicity. London, UK: Penguin Books, 32-3.

4 N. Augustine. 1986. Augustine’s Laws. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 121-25. Christopher Meyer who wrote a book on the implementation of Fast Cycle Time (FCT) strategy asserts that: “FCT competitors are fast not because they handle complexity better than their competitors, but because they consistently strive to eliminate complexity whenever possible.” C. Meyer. 1993. Fast Cycle Time. New York, NY: The Free Press, 8-9.

5 B. Ettorre. 1996. A conversation with Charles Handy: On the Future of Work and An End to the “Century of the Organization.”  Organizational Dynamics. Summer: 15-26.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The 50/50 Principle vs. the 80/20 Principle

In 1964, Peter Drucker wrote in his classic book, Managing for Results:

"Concentration is the key to economic results. Economic results require that… efforts be concentrated on the few activities that are capable of producing significant results.… A very small number of events at one extreme—the first 10 per cent to 20 per cent at most—account for 90 per cent of all results; no other principle of effectiveness is violated as constantly today as the basic principle of concentration.”1 

Unfortunately, many years after Drucker made his strong case for the adoption of the concentration principle, it has not been widely embraced. In his 2004 book, Changing Minds, Howard Gardner chooses this very principle as an example that still requires a change of mindset: 

 "From early childhood, most of us have operated under the following assumption: When confronted with a task, we should work as hard as we are able and devote approximately equal time to each part of the task. According to this ‘50/50 principle,’…we should spread our effort equally across the various components. …Early in the last century, the Italian economist and sociologist Vilifredo Pareto proposed what has come to be known as the ‘80/20 principle’ or rule. As explained by Richard Koch in a charming book, ‘The 80/20 Principle,’ one can in general accomplish most of what one wants—perhaps up to 80 percent of the target—with only a relatively modest amount of effort—perhaps 20 percent of expected effort." 2

To achieve project success requires prioritization through use of concentration (the 80/20 principle). Don Margolies, who served as project manager for the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) at NASA, understood this principle. Margolies tells the following story about establishing clear priorities for the ACE project which carried a $141 million price tag:

"…At the start of ACE, I had the choice of spreading the money among all the players or focusing on the elements that posed the greatest risks on the project. I responded by putting the bulk of the money into trying to identify the key risks in the development of the science instruments and mitigating these to the best extent that we could at the earliest stage possible. To do this, I had to hold back spacecraft development at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).… In holding APL back by three to six months, I knew I could be shooting myself in the foot if they were not able to recover.… My concerns about APL being able to do the job actually were quite minimal. On the other hand, no one was certain how effectively we could mitigate the risks with those problem instruments.… Once we secured more funding, I told APL to start ramping up on the spacecraft development. As it turned out, they were able to catch up." 3

A large and costly project like ACE was fraught with complexities and uncertainties. The ACE project included nine scientific instruments developed by 20 researchers, based at universities and government labs across the world, including the United States, Switzerland and Germany. Further, several instruments were new, and therefore added to the project’s unknowns. In deciding against “spreading the money among all the players,” and in “focusing on the elements that posed the greatest risks,” Margolies displayed how to forego the 50/50 principle, and practice the 80/20 principle instead.

    1.       P. Drucker. 1964. Managing for Results: Economic Tasks and Risk-taking Decisions. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 9-12.

    2.       H. Gardner. 2004. Changing Minds, The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 7-8.  In his 1998 book, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less, Richard Koch concludes that “the 80/20 principle is still the best-kept business secret.”  R. Koch. 1998.  The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less. New York, NY: Doubleday, 50.

3.       “Judgment Calls,” Don Margolies, Goddard Space Flight Center NASA. 2005. In A. Laufer, T. Post, and E.J. Hoffman, Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects, 28-9. Washington, DC: The NASA History Series.

Friday, September 18, 2015

To Succeed in Today’s Dynamic Environment, You Must Be Willing to Take Risks

 (Gen. George McClellan - image in public domain)

            In their book, Fusion Leadership, Daft and Lengel argue:
“Leadership in a destabilized world means nonconformity. It means breaking tradition, boundaries, and norms. One obvious trait that distinguishes a leader from a manager is a willingness to take risks… Leaders do not play it safe… It takes courage to jump into a new way of doing things… Failure is the first step towards success… Without failure we don’t learn… Leadership is a struggle, both within yourself and within the organization.”[1]

Comparing two leaders from the U.S. Civil War helps us better understand leadership and risk taking as it relates to projects. Major General George McClellan, of the Union Army, was the epitome of a fine military leader. When he took over the Army of the Potomac, it had been demoralized by disastrous defeats. McClellan reorganized the Army and got rid of its inept leaders. He intensively trained and drilled the troops. He improved the living conditions and assured that troops were well fed and supplied. He made himself visible and took prompt action to resolve soldiers' complaints. His pronouncements were eloquent and stirring. He carried himself well and exuded confidence. The troops cheered him everywhere he went. He had Lincoln's total confidence. He was perfect except for one thing: he couldn't win a battle.

Whenever he faced Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan invariably imagined that the worst possible outcome was also the most likely outcome. He was obsessed with "what-ifs.”

  • What if Lee has me outnumbered?
  • What if Lee has outflanked me?
  • What if Lee is behind me and about to attack Washington?
  • What if my troops panic and run?
  • What if Lincoln orders me to do something stupid?
  • What if the newspapers turn against me?

What-ifs paralyzed McClellan. They stripped away any initiative he might have had. Even when he serendipitously obtained a genuine copy of Lee's battle plan before the Battle of Antietam, he was so slow to react and so reluctant to commit his reserves that he lost the enormous advantage he had. His fear of making a mistake and risk aversion cost many lives and ultimately revealed McClellan for what he was: a loser.

Thus, in the National Military Command Center anteroom, the quotation on the wall is by Lee: "I was too weak to defend. So, I attacked."

Terry Little, commonly regarded as one of the best project managers in the U.S. Air Force, presented the above story with the following conclusions:

“Project management is literally teeming with 'McClellans' today--those who seemingly do all the right things, but can never quite escape having every action shaped by negative what-ifs. Like McClellan they view the future with trepidation. To these, any decision is an opportunity for something bad or embarrassing to happen. Not failing is a desirable outcome. Anything bold or new is an anathema. Uncertainty paralyzes them. Any risk is too much risk.

I can't change anyone but myself. I will never be a leader like Lee. But, reflecting on Lee's quote caused me to resolve that I will never be a McClellan either. I will always try to know, and act in a way that shows I know, the difference between winning and not losing.” [2]

We would like to add that business is always a battle — for customers, improvements, and efficiency. To win, a leader must lead much like a general. In today’s world of “doing more with less,” delivering a project is also a battle. In today’s business arena, you can’t succeed by taking safe risks. If you believe in “better safe than sorry” you don’t belong there. If you play the game so as not to lose you will never win.

[1] Daft, R. & Lengel, R. (1998). Fusion Leadership: Unlocking the Subtle Forces that Change People and Organizations (pp. 156-164). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
[2] Little, T. (2000). The Difference between Winning and Not Losing, pp. 8-9, In Laufer, A. and E. J. Hoffman. Project management success stories: lessons of project leaders (pp. 8-9). New York, NY: Wiley.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Act First, Think Later

Making quick decisions is often based on a process of learning by action. The learning-by-action mode is adopted when uncertainty (missing information) is coupled with an increased demand for speed, which in turn brings about a greater degree of scarcity of attention.

The following hedge-clipping metaphor, often cited in the literature, illustrates how several cycles of learning by action are employed to cope satisfactorily with missing information, speed, and scarcity of attention.

“The example we shall take is that of a householder facing the ‘problem’ of an overgrown hedge. The central point of this example is that analytic solutions appear highly complex (and possibly only approximate), while a ‘nibbling’ or incremental solution is available, easy, and satisfactory. That is, we emphasize the fact that the final position of a cut branch is a rather complex function of the physical characteristics of the shrub, of the adjoining shrubs, and of the place at which the cut is made. An analytic solution of the problem of where to cut each branch thus requires both extensive well-developed theory (of the cantilever properties of cut branches and of interactions with adjacent cut branches) and extensive data collection (exact dimensions of each branch). In contrast, a strategy of repeated clipping and inspecting requires no such knowledge and rapidly converges on a solution which may be adjusted to any desired degree of fit to the intended solution -- a neatly clipped hedge. Hedge-clipping, then provides a clear example of a decision problem for which a highly reflective strategy is much less satisfactory than a highly active one.” [1] 

Thus, when speed is of the essence and time constraints are paramount, the continuous “nibbling” approach offers two advantages:

·         No demand either for deep problem understanding or extensive data collection and analysis.
·         Hugely reduced cognitive demands on the decision-maker.

The hedge-clipping strategy suggested is an example of the “act first, think later” approach. In this case, action is an uncertainty-reducing device as well as a solution to the problem.[2] Often, uncertainty can be reduced substantially after a few “nibbles.” Once those few iterations of small actions are carried out, uncertainty is reduced to the point where sufficient feedback is collected, allowing the rest of the task to continue with a “think first, act later” approach (that is, a return to the project plan). 

The hedge-clipper is relying heavily on his intuition. Gary Klein, who studied decision making for many years, opens his 2003 book on Intuition at Work with the following story: "Almost two decades ago, I conducted my first research project on decision making, studying firefighters to see how they could make high-risk decisions in just a few seconds despite all the confusion and uncertainty inherent in their work.  I knew that the firefighters wouldn’t make their decisions by systematically comparing all of the possible ways to put out a fire because there wasn’t enough time. I expected that they would only come up with two leading options and compare these to each other. I was wrong. The firefighters, especially the more experienced ones, some with over twenty years of experience, usually just considered a single option. In fact, to hear them describe it, they didn’t really consider anything; they just acted."[3]   

According to Klein, people can make decisions rapidly without conscious awareness or effort as an outcome of their experience. Thus, intuition can be seen as a natural and direct outgrowth of experience. Klein defines intuition as the way we translate our experience into action, as exemplified by the firefighters: “In our interviews with the firefighters, one of the most common statements my research team and I heard was, ‘We don’t make decisions.’ This amazed us because we watched them routinely making very challenging decisions, many with life-or-death implications—and yet they were unaware they were doing it… Our research led us to the conclusion that we are all intuitive decision makers.” [4]

In his article, How to Think with Your Gut, Thomas Stewart reported that: “Today the [U.S. Marine] Corps’s official doctrine reads, ‘The intuitive approach is more appropriate for the vast majority of…  decisions made in the fluid, rapidly changing conditions of war when time and uncertainty are critical factors, and creativity is a desirable trait.’ Conditions, in other words, not unlike those in which many business decisions are made today.” [5]

Back in 1984, when Daniel Isenberg studied managers and executives to see how they solved problems and made decisions, he concluded that executives do not make formal decisions using analytical methods: “Senior managers use intuition in at least five ways.
-          First, they intuitively sense when a problem exists
-          Second, managers rely on intuition to perform well-learned behavior patterns rapidly
-          The third function of intuition is to synthesize isolated bits of data and experience into an integrated picture
-          Fourth, some mangers use intuition as a check… on the results of more rational analysis
-          Fifth, managers can use intuition to bypass in-depth analysis and move rapidly to come up with a plausible solution

Intuition is not the opposite of rationality, nor is it a random process of guessing. Rather, it is based on extensive experience, both in analysis and problem solving and in implementation, and to the extent that the lessons of experience are logical and well founded, then so is the intuition.”[6]

In order to make quick decisions, to Act with Agility, one must accumulate extensive experience.[7] Klein argues that: “There are ways of building a person’s experience base. Experience can be codified as stories and analogues.” Thus, being exposed to a large variety of stories (for example like those presented in this book) can partially compensate for lack of actual experience.[8]

To lead well requires a leader to synthesize lessons learned from experience, intuitive action, and reflection on stories, such as the ones we share in this blog. In addition to the stories shared on this blog, project leaders may be interested in reading the book, Breaking the Code of Project Management, by A. Laufer (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

[1] This hedge-clipping metaphor is from T. Connolly and G. Wolf.  1981.  Deciding on Decision Strategies: Towards an Enriched Contingency Model. Proceedings of the Academy of Management Annual Meeting. San Diego, CA: 181-85.   

[2]  H. Mintzberg argues that there are times when thought should precede action and guide it. Other times, however, especially during or immediately after a major unexpected shift in the environment, thought must be bound up with action in an interactive and continuous process. Thus, Mintzberg concludes that: “‘learning’ becomes a better label, and concept, for what happens then is ‘formulation-implementation.’” H. Mintzberg. 1990.  The Design School: Reconsidering the Basic Premises of Strategic Management. Strategic Management Journal 11: 171-95. Weick concluded that: “...we should pay more attention to simultaneity of thought and action and less attention to sequence;” K.E. Weick. 1983.  Managerial Thought in the Context of Action. In The Executive Mind, eds. S. Srivastba and Associates, 242.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

[3] G. Klein. 2003. Intuition at Work. New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, xv.

[4] G. Klein. 2003. Intuition at Work. New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, xv-xvi.

[5]  T. Stewart. 2002. How to Think with Your Gut. Business 2.0, (November):  98-104.

[6]  Daniel Isenberg says: “One implication of acting/thinking cycles is that action is often part of defining the problem, not just implementing the solution.”  See D.J. Isenberg. 1984. How Senior Managers Think. Harvard Business Review 62, (November-December): 80-90.

[7] Indeed, the experience level of the ten on-site construction project managers was high—the mean experience accumulated as project managers was 15 years, and the mean overall experience on the construction site was 21 years. Edward de Bono argues that: “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”  E. de Bono. 1998. Simplicity.  London, UK: Viking, 22.

[8]  G. Klein. 1998. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 287. Stories were also recommended as a tool for improving the ad hoc mode of Act with Agility, that is, improvisation. Frank Barrett asks: “What practices and structures can we implement that might emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise?” His first suggestion is: “Boost the processing of information during and after actions are implemented…”  He concludes that diverse stories can improve improvisation capabilities. F.J. Barret. 1998. Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning. Organization Science 9, 5 (September-October): 605-22