Illusory Measures

You can measure anything, but you can’t forecast everything. There are many project management people that strongly suggest the world of projects can be clearly planned, measured and forecast. I disagree with this commonly held belief and propose that we begin to accept responsibility for unknown scope.  Beliefs like this have only added to the ambiguity and broken promises of late projects and concerns of accountability. It’s time for a project management paradigm shift. Allow me to elaborate.

First let’s discuss measures. Early on in my career, I was introduced to the world of validation. As part of a project team, I had to create validation documentation for “work” being performed. I quickly learned the ‘art’ of measures. We could create some type of measure for anything. Whether or not the measure had any value was a completely different question. Measures can in fact be created for almost anything, and those measures can be constructed in many different ways to suggest many different things.

A second point about measures: they’re always easier to wrap around things that have already occurred and/or already exist. In the world of risk management, we call this hindsight 20/20.  As soon as you ask someone to forecast something that hasn’t happened yet, you are faced with a different challenge.

There are many difficulties to forecasting. Some of the most common challenges are: never been done before, never been proven before, never been applied before or has never been contemplated before. The common thread is the “unknown” element within the scope. This “unknown” element is difficult to measure by definition, since it is unknown. The question is, how do you deal with this “unknown?” This is often where our projects fall apart. How do you express “unknown” with a Gantt chart, with milestones or within a budget. Unfortunately, in response to the average organizational demands to define and control everything, the skilled project manager learns to create a false reality for reporting purposes, and manages their work to fit the constraints of their ill defined, pre-set boundaries. In many cases, although every effort is made to mould work to the pre-set, incomplete picture, we still fall short. The result is the horrific statistics on failed projects that continues to push 60-70% failure rates, depending on the industry that you’re in.

There must be a better way. As a proposed solution, I suggest building a “risk culture.” In a true risk culture it’s acceptable to call “unknowns” “unknown.” In fact, one of the main goals of risk project management is to manage the unknown. However, to do that, we must be willing to accept the unknowns as unknown and admit when projects cannot be measured completely, controlled, or forecast properly. Unknown is unknown. The sooner we learn to accept this and manage our projects with open communication and collaborative effort, the better off we’ll be. In my next blog I’ll propose the type of environment we should establish if we need to manage the “unknown.”

Larry T. Barnard

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