What Every IT Project Manager Should Know
For many years I’ve been associated with IT projects that range in scale from the smallest to the largest—most of us have—and I’ve noticed that they all seem to take longer than we first thought and they all seem to end up with more bells and whistles than we first imagined. I’m sure your experience is the pretty much the same.
I’m reading a book that explains what’s happening and why this sort of thing is always going to happen. The book is called “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” written by the Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman. The book explains that we have two ways of thinking, a quick way that we use all the time, and a slower, more reflective way that we’re often too lazy to use!
Kahneman suggests that our fast brain likes to see the world as a well-ordered place. He suggests the halo effect to explain how our fast brain will attribute attributes to someone just because they exhibit other attributes. For example, just because we think a baseball pitcher is handsome and athletic, we will rate him as being better at throwing a ball. Think about how that might apply to people on your team at work! The suggestion is that your brain builds a coherent narrative about people and events from very limited information. We think we understand past events and that the outcomes were never in doubt—and therefore, we should be able to predict what will happen in the future. Kahneman calls this the illusion of understanding.
The second illusion that Kahneman describes is the illusion of validity. He describes how he and a small group of others looked at recruits and decided who would make the best officers. They were confident that they were right, based on their observations. And even when evidence from future training of the soldiers showed that their decisions were wrong, they continued to make them. And he goes on to show that the same can be said of stockbrokers picking stocks. So why does the illusion continue? The answer seems to be that powerful professional cultures maintain the illusion. In fact, most research shows that experts are no better at predicting the future than anyone else would be. It seems that in an unpredictable environment, no one can predict the future. Remember that, the next time a consultant’s PowerPoint explains the future of your industry—they only have a random chance of being correct.
But you know there are times when you just have a feeling that something is right or that it will work. You just know what’s going to happen and what your project needs to do to accommodate that. Kahneman has a chapter on intuition and formulas. His example is the future price of wine. Experts make a guess about the quality of Bordeaux wine and predict how much it will sell for. The accuracy was tested against an algorithm using weather features—average temperature during the summer growing season, the amount of rain at harvest time, and the total rainfall during the previous winter. And the algorithm was a better predictor of wine prices. Similarly, the Apgar test (an algorithm) is applied to newborn children to ensure they are not in distress. We learn that when choosing people for a project team, we need to choose up to six characteristics that are important. Ask questions and score for each trait. That way you’ll get the best team. Don’t select people just because you like them.
There are times when you can accept expert judgments, and that seems to be when a system is fairly predictable and when circumstances are similar to previous events. Effectively, this is when the expert remembers a similar event and uses that to base decisions on. This shows the value of feedback and practice.
Another point that Kahneman makes is that people don’t look at external evidence when making a decision. He highlights a time when he was leading a project team and asked everyone to write down how long they thought it would take for the project to conclude. The answers were around the two-year mark. He then asked an expert on the team how long similar projects had taken. The answer was seven to 10 years. In fact, his project took eight years. So, next time you embark on a project, think about how long similar projects took when deciding time scales for your new project.
Kahneman states that when we make a decision, we focus on what we know and neglect what we don’t know, which makes us overly confident in our beliefs. We can probably all remember a time in the early stages of a project when we’ve felt like that.
It’s a wonderful book, full of real-life examples, and makes you think about how you think!