Friday, January 15, 2016

Leadership: The Key for Project Learning and Unlearning



(pond at Apalachicola National Forest in Florida)

When we began this blog in early 2014 we explained the name of the blog, “Living Order,” this way:

It was the French Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson who a century ago proposed a concept of order that today may help us better understand project reality. In the 1907 book Creative Evolution, Bergson claimed that there is no such thing as disorder, but rather two sorts of order: geometric order and living order. While in “geometric order” Bergson was relating to the traditional concept of order, in “living order” he referred to phenomena such as the creativity of an individual, a work of art, or the mess in our offices.

All projects aim to reach a perfectly functioning product with geometric order. At the start, they may face great uncertainty—living order—that does not completely disappear over the entire course of the project. 


Gradually, some parts of the project approach geometric order, though in an era of “permanent white water,” the project as a whole does not assume geometric order until very late in its life.

In working with NASA 15 years ago, Alex found that these two types of order were helpful in developing project management knowledge. He used a story as the basis of his first article as editor-in-chief of NASA’s Ask Magazine.* To summarize that story:

Alex was presented with nine elements of project success by Jim Carroll, a respected and highly regarded person in the construction industry. At the time, Jim was leading a Construction Industry Institute task force in creating a handbook for practitioners that explained each of the nine elements. Jim steadfastly stood by these nine elements, and asked Alex to write a handbook chapter on project strategy.

Alex just could not do it. He could not accept the nine elements for project success for two reasons: 1) they were too limiting, and 2) they were stated as the “one best way” to proceed which ignored the rich context in which projects and people interact.

After several hours of heated debate and discussion between Alex and Jim, Alex realized he would not be able to convince Jim of the weakness of the nine elements and was about ready to give up. Lastly, Alex asked Jim to consider whether applying the nine elements could explain the success or failure of seven projects with which Jim was involved during his career. Jim agreed to put the elements to the test.

As it turned out, there was little correlation between project success and the nine elements. This proved a revelation for Jim, and he was willing to reflect on the experience and to learn from it. And, more accurately in our case, he was willing to unlearn from it and admit that the nine elements could not provide the complete answer.

Feeling Comfortable Only in a World of Certainty

There were other problems with the task force. A year later, Alex submitted the research report to the task force: the results, based on an elaborate study in 11 highly successful companies, were quite shocking to task force members. The findings showed that in most capital projects, uncertainty is not resolved early in the life of the project; for example, by the end of the design phase. Even more troubling was the finding that in most capital projects, not only are the “means uncertainty” (how to do it) resolved late in the project life, but so are the “end uncertainty” (what to do).

Most task force members could not accept that capital projects suffer from uncertainty, and definitely not from “end uncertainty,” so they adjusted the presentation of Alex’s findings. Instead of portraying project planning as a gradual process of lessening uncertainty, they portrayed it as a gradual process of increasing certainty.

Task force members felt comfortable in only a certain world of geometric order, and so they denied uncertainty, even in the face of empirical data from within their own organizations. Most members were not interested in learning, even when leading a research activity. They did not formulate research questions, only research answers. It could be that the mix of contractors and clients put everyone into marketing mode. Marketing starts with an answer; research with a question. They hired “researchers” not to find out or understand reality, but to confirm their own beliefs.

Alex’s story demonstrates our ability to learn by reflecting on our own experiences, and our inability to learn by favoring “answering” over “questioning”. Learning starts with a question, a problem to be solved, a dilemma to be resolved and a challenge to be met. Managers who treat questions as annoyances and regard them as signs of ignorance are not learning. Questions force deep thinking and reflection; they are an invitation to open a conversation whereas ready answers are a prelude to shutting it down. Breakthroughs come from fresh questions, not ready answers.

Providing a ready answer ignores the power and potential of “living order.”  As we have tried to demonstrate in our monthly blogs during the last two years, ignoring the central role of “living order” can be damaging for today’s fast-paced, interconnected projects. During the last two years we have attempted to demonstrate that leadership is key for project success. Today, we highlighted that leadership is also the key for project learning and unlearning.

The study that Alex conducted, and especially the way the task force accepted it, demonstrated that many professionals still embrace only the geometric order. After two years of publishing monthly stories we — Jeff and Alex — still have a long way to go with the monthly Living Order blogs.


* “Arrogance: Number One Enemy of Learning”
http://appel.nasa.gov/2000/10/01/arrogance-number-one-enemy-of-learning




Wednesday, December 9, 2015

From "Good Enough" to "More Than Enough"



The “more than enough” components of successful projects are at the heart of Tom Peters’ philosophy of project management. Author of The Project 50, Peters constantly strives to transform every project into a project that matters – a “wow project”: “Life is too short for non-wow projects.… ‘Sameness’ in products and services spouts from companies where most work, most projects end up being ‘mediocre successes.’”1

The project manager of the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) project established priorities and clearly differentiated between a “good enough” treatment, which was applied to the majority of activities (see our recent blog, The Doctrine of Enough), and a “more than enough” treatment, which was reserved for the minority of activities. Following is one example of how the “more than enough” treatment was employed by Don Margolies. At a late stage in the project, after testing was completed, the scientists wanted all instruments to come off for calibration. Don considered it, and despite strong opposition from upper management, he gave it the green light.  

… It was the first time on any NASA project that I know of when all the instruments on an observatory came off for rework or calibration after the full range of environmental tests, and then were reintegrated at the launch center without the benefit of an observatory environmental retest.… My management… didn’t mince words. “Don, you are crazy,” they told me. 
Don decided, however, that because they had religiously adhered to the “good enough” approach, the project was ahead of schedule and under budget, and the team was now in a position to explore a “more than enough” avenue: “We were in a position to ask:  What can we do to make the science better?”

Indeed, the ACE results, as evident from the ACE home page of the California Institute of Technology, were nothing short of a big WOW: “ACE has been at the L1 point for over 14 years, and the spacecraft and instruments are still working very well… As of October 2010, 635 peer reviewed papers have been published by ACE science team members… Over 140 Science News items have been released by the ACE Science Center… On January 21, 1998, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the ACE project opened up the ACE Real Time Solar Wind monitoring capability to the public. The service provides 24-hour coverage of the solar wind parameters and solar energetic particle intensity. ACE’s position a million miles upstream of earth gives as much as an hour’s warning of CMEs (coronal mass ejection) that can cause geomagnetic storms here on earth.”3



Only if one knows what “enough” is, can one be free to do “more than enough,” and only then is one able to produce a “wow project.”  


  1. T. Peters. 1999. The Project 50 (Reinventing Work): Fifty Ways to Transform Every “Task” into a Project That Matters! New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, 97-100.
  2. “Test What You Fly?,” 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, 69-72. Washington, DC: The NASA History Series.
  3. Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). http://www.srl.caltech.edu/ACE/ace_mission.html  Last update: January, 2012, last accessed October 19, 2015.


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. www.lulu.com/RoguePress, 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.