Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Improvisations: The Read-Aloud Team and the Official Sniffer



By Alexander Laufer and Jeffrey Russell 
In the previous blog we focused on project planning, demonstrating how a well-known planning tool can be used effectively and ineffectively to maintain project progress. However, at times planning tools have nothing to offer and improvisation is required. Brian Muirhead, who was responsible for the development and launch of NASA’s Mars Pathfinder flight system, argues that, “Everybody understands the need for a plan… But in a world of Faster, Better, Cheaper, improvising should be seen as an inseparable part of planning, the other half of a complete process. In the fast-paced, rapidly changing world in which we now live and do business, the ability to improvise has risen to the top of the priority list of managerial skills.”1
Following are two examples of improvisations introduced in the midst of projects. The first story is told by Kenneth Szalai from NASA, who served as the chief engineer and software manager for the first digital fly-by-wire aircraft:
A systems engineer called and told me that the preflight self-test had failed…. While troubleshooting, I froze and my heart sank. The problem was far worse than some self-test tolerance setting. I discovered that a half-dozen instructions did not match the program listing!… the flight computer had contaminated instructions. We did not have the means to automatically check the computer memory against the accurate printed listing… I laughed to myself and thought: How long would it take to manually check the computer memory dump against the listing? Let’s see, there are 25,000 memory locations, if we had five teams of engineers, and they could read aloud and verify one memory location every 10 seconds, five teams could verify 30 memory locations in a minute. That would take about 14 hours.… We finished by Friday afternoon, and did not find any other errors. I guess sometimes pioneering work needs solutions rather than elegance.… We flew on Wednesday, as Carl had asked." 2
Facing enormous time pressure, Kenneth came up with a spontaneous improvisation that provided a simple, albeit inelegant, solution to the problem.
In the next case, Leslie Shepherd shares a story about a renovation project for the U.S. Federal Government. Because the buildings were occupied, the project manager was required to work around the tenants and the existing site conditions, and to do it quickly. 
The roof of a fully occupied office building was being renovated, which required covering it with roofing tar. The fumes from the tar were being pulled in by the building’s fresh air intakes, making it impossible to work. The building manager could have shut down the air intake system for a few hours at a time, but not for the entire day. After considering his options, the building manager decided to take a non-traditional approach to solving the problem. 
My solution may not have been elegant, but it was effective. We hired someone to stand on the roof next to the air intakes and sniff for tar fumes. The building manager trained the new worker how to turn the air intake fans on and off. He started work the very next day, turning the fans on or off depending on his olfactory reflexes. That was his only job and the additional salary for this “Official Sniffer” was far less than the lost hours resulting from interrupted work that had to be covered by the tenants. The building manager received no more complaints about the tar fumes for the entire duration of the roofing project.3
Leslie, like Kenneth in the first story, was under great time pressure. His improvisation is characterized by spontaneity and creativity, demonstrating that high-tech is neither the only nor always the best way to solve a problem. In today’s dynamic environment, where living order often dominates, organizations and individuals should enhance their willingness to forgo planning in favor of acting in real time.4
Improvisation is a fundamental organizational skill that allows you to work creatively and quickly in today’s ever-changing world. As the noted author Isaac Asimov has noted, “To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.”
        1.      Muirhead, B. and Simon, W. 1999. High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. New York, NY: Harper Business, 193.

2.      Szalai, K. Fly Safe, But Fly, 2004. NASA Ask Magazine 19, (August): 12-15. http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html

3.      Shepherd, L.L. Simple Solutions Surpass Sophistication, 2000. In A. Laufer and E.J. Hoffman, Project Management Success Stories, 82-5. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

4.      Weick, K. E. 1998. Introductory essay—Improvisation as a mindset for organizational analysis. Organization Science, 9(5), 543-555.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

PERT: Micromanagement vs. Engaging Management



By Alexander Laufer and Jeffrey Russell 

In the previous blog entry we learned about a well-known and successful project where PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) served as a key tool, not to manage the project, but rather to manage the external world. In our current blog we present two examples where PERT was used to manage projects, yet in two fundamentally different ways.

Micromanagement: Scheduling the Donuts1

Following is a story from Brian Rutledge who served as the project Financial Manager in the U.S. Air Force. He describes one episode that took place under the first project manager of JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile):

“The project manager demanded that we keep meticulous schedules of our daily activities. He wanted to know what I was doing every day down to the smallest detail. This applied to all of the leads on the program.

I was responsible for putting together the affordability portion of the Request for Proposal, and it was one other person and I working with five companies. To prepare a schedule as it pertained to five companies on a daily basis was a terrible burden. I was spending more time documenting my activities than doing my actual work.

This came to a head one Friday at a 6 P.M. meeting. Someone put up his schedule on the overhead. The next week we were going to have an Industry Day, where the companies would all send representatives to Eglin Air Force Base. The schedule on the overhead included a line that said, ‘Drive to the bakery, pick up donuts.’ The deputy project manager commented that this was exactly what he wanted to see in our schedules.

It may have been because it was a Friday night—the end of a long week—and I was beat; but when I heard him say this I stood up and declared that it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. ‘If you want me to write down when I go to get donuts,’ I said, ‘I’ll never get to the finish line.’

Yes, you need a schedule, but you also need to be reasonable. It was no surprise that the project manager was unable to make meaningful progress and was replaced several months later.”



Engaging Management: Placing the Chart on the Side of a Large Container2

The following story is from Ray Morgan, who was the Vice President of AeroVironment Design Development Center, and the project manager of Pathfinder, a solar-powered airplane.

“From the standpoint of communicating the overall picture of what needs to be done, when and why, to the project team and our customers, the PERT chart is extremely helpful.

We put our chart on the side of a large container right in the hangar, next to the flight test crew and the airplane. When posted, it is a valuable, graphic depiction of the work plan, interdependencies, milestones, and people on the critical path (as well as which ones may need help). It also allows the team to mark it up interactively, adding tasks that come up and checking-off tasks as they are completed. We usually incorporate these changes into a computer model and reprint it once or twice a week during flight tests.

The chart is much more than window dressing, as we often refer back to it in team meetings to help redefine the importance of a current task and to see how it fit into ‘the big picture.’ This becomes a critical tool for the team. Enthusiasm for accomplishing the next goal is reborn each time we view the graphics on our wall.”

In the first example, the PERT was used to micromanage and control the team while in the second example it was used to engage and empower it. These two stories call our attention to the fact that the impact of the same tool may be completely different and will be determined by the purpose and the process of using it.



  1. Laufer, A., Post, T., & Hoffman, E. J. (2005). Shared voyage: Learning and unlearning from remarkable projects, The NASA History Series, Washington, DC, page 87.


  1. Laufer, A., Post, T., & Hoffman, E. J. (2005). Shared voyage: Learning and unlearning from remarkable projects, The NASA History Series, Washington, DC, page 160.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Flawed Foundation of PERT


By Alexander Laufer and Jeffrey Russell 

One of the most well-known building blocks of project management is the PERT (program evaluation and review technique) method.1 In his comprehensive review of the development of project management, Morris reports:  “Polaris developed a management control procedure [in 1957], PERT; this, together with CPM, was the progenitor of the management systems which over the next 20 years were to become (almost too) synonymous with project management.”2

What evidence was provided about the effectiveness of this scheduling methodology to ensure that it would become almost a household word when discussing project management?  This is how Morris describes the publicity of PERT: “Admiral Raborn and the SPO [Special Projects Office of the U.S. Navy] public relations machinery began publicizing PERT, hailing it as ‘the first management tool of the nuclear and computer age.’  So effective was the publicity that when the first Polaris missile was launched in 1960, press coverage of PERT was almost as great as the coverage of the launch itself.  By 1962, the U.S. Government had issued 139 different documents and reports on the technique.  By 1964, the bibliography on PERT comprised nearly 1000 books and articles…. There is, however, considerable evidence that the method was deliberately oversold, with the aim of keeping Congressional and other external critics at arm’s length.  Raborn used PERT as a tool to control his external environment.”3

One of the sources that Morris used for his analysis was a detailed study of the development of the Polaris system conducted by Harvey Sapolsky.  Here are some of the surprising results of this study, as reported by Sapolsky: “In interviews with contractor executives reviewing their experience with the original PERT system, not one of them said he had used the data generated by that system… Instead, many thought it was the SPO technical officers and engineers who actually had used the PERT system data.  The technical officers and engineers, in turn, denied ever using PERT data… they thought it was the program evaluators… who made use of the PERT system… Persons who held positions in Plans and Programs, however,… never used the system; rather they thought that it was… the plant representatives who worked with the PERT reports.  The plant representatives were similar in their response: ‘No, it must have been someone else.’” 4

Sapolsky concludes by “putting the myth in perspective”:  “An alchemous combination of whirling computers, brightly colored charts, and fast talking public relations officers gave the Special Projects Office a truly effective management system.  It mattered not whether the parts of the system functioned or even existed.  It mattered only that certain people for a certain period of time believed that they did…. The Special Projects Office won the battles for funds and priority.  Its program was protected from the bureaucratic interferences of the comptrollers and the auditors.”5 Polaris was a success, but what really stood behind its success?  Davies and Hobday highlight the real practices that contributed to the Polaris’s success: “PERT was not actually used to build the system…. Instead Polaris’s success was the result of inspired leadership, good management and a shared spirit of commitment… PERT… was a deeply flawed management tool…. used primarily to impress visitors… and to build up a myth of management effectiveness. ”6

Stout addresses the wider and long-lasting implications of disseminating the myth, the rational method, while at the same time ignoring the real soft practices that led to Polaris’s success: “What is retained is not an understanding of the actual practices, but the magic and symbolism of ‘the system.’… The assumed effectiveness of PERT was not based on an evaluation of its role in Polaris; rather it was a matter of inference.  The inference took the symbolic form: Polaris was a success; PERT was used; therefore, PERT was at least partially responsible for the success.  Even if the second claim was true, and it is not, the inference is still questionable.  But it is on this that PERT has achieved its popularity.”7

Our questions:

  • To what extent do you think that the quick popularization of PERT can be attributed also to the prevailing assumption that one can (and should) impose “geometric order” even early in the life of the project?
  • Are you sure that the current popular project management methods and tools are supported by better evidence than the ones that were used to support the effectiveness of the PERT method?8



       1.      This blog is an excerpt from: A. Laufer, Breaking the Code of Project Management, New York, NY: Palgrave, 2009, 5-6. 

2.      P.W.G. Morris. 1994. The Management of Projects. London, UK: Thomas Telford Services, 25.  Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) is an event-oriented network analysis technique used to estimate program duration when there is uncertainty in the individual duration estimates. Critical Path Method (CPM) is a network analysis technique used to predict project duration by analyzing which sequence of activities (which path) has the least amount of scheduling flexibility.  

3.      P.W.G. Morris. 1994. The Management of Projects. London, UK: Thomas Telford Services, 30-1.

4.      H.M. Sapolsky. 1972. The Polaris System Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 123-24.

5.      H.M. Sapolsky. 1972. The Polaris System Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 129.

6.      A. Davies and M. Hobday. 2005. The Business of Projects: Managing Innovation in Complex Products and Systems. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 151-52.

7.      R. Stout Jr. 1980. Management or Control?: The Organizational Challenge. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 25-6. 

8.     An article on the same subject, stressing the need for more elaborate case studies like Sapolsky’s research, was published in 2012 by M. Engwall:  PERT, Polaris, and the realities of project execution. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 5.4, 595-616.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Saving Lives: Expecting Problems or Burying Them


By Alexander Laufer and Jeff Russell
In our current blog we will use metaphors from hospital life to highlight two different approaches for dealing with problems. The first is a story told by Terry Little:

Life in the E.R.1

Contrary to what my wife would say, I don't watch much television. I do, however, regularly watch one show on the Learning Channel—the reality series Trauma: Life in the E.R.

While watching the last episode, I recognized parallels between what was going on in the emergency room, with its host of accident and gunshot wound victims, and what goes on in successful project management.

First, there was a sense of urgency, but not haste. As an ambulance or helicopter brought in patients, the physicians, nurses and technicians did some quick planning, anticipating the likely condition and needs of the patient. They moved to get the necessary tools and equipment in place before the patient arrived.

Once the victim appeared, there was no wasted motion. With time as the chief resource, no one did anything that didn't directly address the ultimate objective—saving the victim. The medical team shared a clear set of priorities: deal with life threatening issues first, possible long-term consequences second and ignore everything else.

Each person in the room had an active role. No one was in the emergency room as an observer or overseer. Someone was clearly in charge, but typically no one waited to be told what to do. Interestingly enough, no one ever seemed paralyzed by fear of doing the wrong thing. Through training and experience the entire team operated in harmony. When there wasn't enough information to make a decision about a course of treatment, the staff moved quickly to get more information using x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging and similar diagnostics. People spent little time debating or pondering what to do next. They decided on what to do and got on with it.

Sometimes the unexpected happened and a situation that seemed to be in control suddenly went out-of-control. In those cases, there was no hand wringing or fault finding—just a measured, adapted response to the new situation. Sometimes there were mistakes; mostly they were acts of omission rather than commission. There was concern and open discussion about the mistakes, but learning was the chief consequence.

I also noted that there was a general acceptance that not everything affecting the patient was totally within the control of those in the emergency room. The staff spent their time dealing with what was in their control and not complaining about what wasn't.

The second lifesaving story is an abridged version of a bizarre episode taken from the novel Doctors,2 as it appeared in Breaking the Code of Project Management.3

It was to be a routine removal of a gallbladder. However, some problems were anticipated since the patient, Mr. A, had a somewhat complex medical history and was allergic to almost everything one could imagine.

It was my first week as an intern on Surgery. I was eager and proud to be in the operating room with the chief surgeon, Dr. Aubrey, and the anesthesiologist, Dr. Nagy, who were considered to be the top specialists in their fields.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Dr. Nagy started reporting some problems. From then on, it seems that things deteriorated faster than lightning. One moment the blood pressure was dropping and the next, the ECG was going crazy. In spite of all their emergency procedures, within a few minutes the ECG was flat and Dr. Nagy pronounced the patient dead.

Suddenly there was silence. No one dared speak until Dr. Aubrey decided on a course of action. He ordered Dr. Nagy to continue aerating the lungs. I wondered what was going on. After all, the poor man was dead! Then, with growing disbelief, I watched as Dr. Aubrey took over from his assistant and carefully started suturing and closing the opening. When the last suture was in place, Dr. Aubrey quietly ordered, “Take him to the recovery room. I’ll be there in a few moments.”

I was stunned. Only after I recovered my speech did I dare ask Dr. Aubrey’s assistant why they continued pumping air into the dead man’s lungs. He seemed to think the answer was obvious: “That way, Mr. A will be pronounced dead after the operation by somebody in the recovery room. This explains why no patient of Dr. Aubrey’s ever dies on his operating table….”

The intern in the Doctors story explained that another reason for Dr. Aubrey’s aberrant practice was to avoid the massive paperwork required by the hospital and the insurance companies. Thus, in addition to maintaining his perfect operating record, the surgeon was able to pass a time-consuming bureaucratic job on to the recovery room staff.

The two lifesaving cases were affected by their unique contexts and the operating assumptions of their relevant leaders. In the ER series the assumption was that they operated in a “living order” environment, thus problems were expected and were addressed swiftly which was followed by an effort to learn from them. On the other hand, in Doctors, the environment was assumed to be in “geometric order”: major problems were not expected, and if unfortunately did occur they were quickly buried.
1Life in the E.R. appears in an article that was written by Terry Little and published in the NASA Magazine, Academy Sharing Knowledge, under the title: “Project Management: The Television Show.”  http://appel.nasa.gov/2003/06/01/project-management-the-television-show/
Terry Little served as a project manager in the US Air Force where he was regarded as one of the most successful project managers. He then served as the executive director of the Missile Defense Agency, the senior civilian in an organization of approximately 8,000 employees. Earlier, he was the first director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence. Currently, Terry is a member of a research team at the Consortium for Project Leadership at the University of Wisconsin. 
2E. Segal. 1988. Doctors.  New York, NY: Bantam Books, 303-6.
3A. Laufer. 1999. Breaking the Code of Project Management. New York, NY: Palgrave, 189-190.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Evolution from “Geometric Order” to “Living Order”: Four Metaphors



By Alex Laufer and Jeff Russell

“He (or she) is the light of my life.” While you may have heard this before, you know that the person described is not generating real, physical light. You understand that this is an example of a metaphor; in this case, used to describe someone who is special; valuable; memorable.

Metaphors are used constantly in literature and in everyday conversation. According to the Macmillan Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, a metaphor is “a word or phrase that means one thing and is used for referring to another thing in order to emphasize their similar qualities.

Why use metaphors? Metaphors often provide a compact vision of a phenomenon without the need to spell out all the details. They enable people to designate characteristics that are unnamable and direct attention to a certain interpretation of situations. Metaphors may also help create a new interpretation of experiences by asking the reader to see one thing in terms of something else.  

Following are four metaphors that were developed by Alex and his colleagues from Procter & Gamble (P&G), following a three-year consulting engagement. They used the metaphors to describe the evolution of project management models throughout the years, as the challenges faced by project managers evolved.

Coordination & Scheduling

One can identify four distinct generations of project management models. The first model noted as scheduling (see the table below) can be traced to the birth of the modern notion of project management during the 1950s and early 1960s when CPM and PERT techniques emerged. The model focuses on the coordination of sequential and parallel activities, just as seen with major airlines and flight scheduling problems. The scheduling model became an effective approach for managing simple projects which are devoid of high uncertainty.

Integration & Teamwork

A different approach evolved in the 1970s when organizations were faced with managing complex projects, consisting of many dissimilar, highly interdependent components, and requiring cooperation between individuals from different disciplines. The challenge here was to ensure integration and teamwork between participants. In this project management model, the project manager was expected to orchestrate the manifold, complex operations much like a conductor of a symphony orchestra.

The above two models fit squarely in a world of certainty, and can therefore function well in an environment dominated by “geometric order.”

Decision Making & Reducing Uncertainty

However, by the 1980s it became apparent that most projects suffer from changes and uncertainty throughout their lives. Thus, the third dominant project management model focused on reducing uncertainty and making stable decisions. The main tools employed to achieve this purpose were much like those used when exploring an unknown country. These included searching for as much relevant information as possible before and during the decision process, and selectively building in redundancy to buffer the unforeseen.

Integrating Tasks & People

In the 1990s, however, as time to market became the driving factor, a new project management model emerged, namely simultaneity. Effective project managers appeared to be working disjointedly, in paradoxically opposite directions. In reality their aim was to integrate tasks and people widely separated in space and time, in hierarchy and methods, in orientation and philosophy. Goals and means were not resolved sequentially and separately but rather simultaneously and interactively. Thus the simultaneous manager operated like the director of a three-ring circus, continuously switching acts based on audience response.

The last two models address a world of uncertainty, addressing the needs of an environment dominated by “living order”. 

In our next blog we will present a more up to date metaphor for projects operating in a “living order” environment.

Evolution of Models of Project Management

Central
Concept
Era
of
Model
Dominant
Project
Characteristics
Main
Thrust
Metaphor
Scheduling
1960s
Simple,
Certain
Coordination
Scheduling
regional airline flights
Teamwork
1970s
Complex,
Certain
Cooperation
between
participants
Conducting a
symphony
orchestra
Reducing
Uncertainty
1980s
Complex,
Uncertain
Making
stable
decisions
Exploring
an unknown
country
Simultaneity
1990s
Complex,
Uncertain,
Quick
Orchestrating
contending
demands
Directing a three-ring circus
continuously
switching acts
based on
audience response


Reference
Laufer, A., Denker, G., and Shenhar, A.J., “Simultaneous Management:  The Key to Excellence in Capital Projects,” International Journal of Project Management, 14(4), 1996, 189-199.