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December 28, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 52
 
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Nine Project Management Fallacies:
Part III

by

Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.

Peter loved his chocolate chip cookies, but he liked this conversation with Trish and Nan even more. Holding his hands over the side of his chair to brush the cookie crumbs off them onto the ground, he added "And his discussion of wishful thinking was really insightful."

Chocolate chip cookies

In 1997, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a bill proposed by the third grade class of a school in Somerset, and thereby designated the chocolate chip cookie as the official state cookie of Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Lara Schneider.

Nan broke off a tiny chunk of her cookie, ate it, and sipped her coffee. "Mmmm, I thought so too," she said. "Knowing that we fall into these fallacy traps because of our humanness made me more accepting of it, less guilty."

Trish was puzzled. "Yeah, but how does that help the project?"

"That's just it," said Nan. "Knowing that the fallacies are part of being human makes it easier to acknowledge these errors when we make them."

Peter finished Nan's thought. "And that way we can own up to them faster, maybe even before they do any damage."

Fallacies aren't just false. Because they have a deep connection to what we are as human beings, they'll never go away. Here's Part III of a little catalog of the fallacies of project management. For Part II, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part II," Point Lookout for December 14, 2005, and for Part IV, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part IV," Point Lookout for January 11, 2006.

The Fungibility Fallacy
The Fungibility Fallacy holds that each person produces one hour of output in one hour, and that we can substitute people for one another. Terms that suggest this fallacy are man-month, headcount, and FTE.
Often, only a few people can perform certain tasks. Using the project management tools that distinguish the skills of large numbers of unique individuals takes time and effort, and even then they produce somewhat fictitious results.
And running "lean and mean" makes the problem worse. If you count the cost of delays and lost market windows due to overloading key people, running a little "fatter and kinder" might actually be more profitable.
The Linearity Fallacy
Fallacies have
a deep connection
to what we are
as human beings
This fallacy holds that the human effort required to execute a project scales in proportion to project attributes such as project size or total budget.
Not only do operating costs per unit of output grow rapidly with project size, but the converse is also true: costs decline unexpectedly slowly as we scale the project down in size. This happens because we have difficulty abandoning control processes as we move down in size. We lose in both directions.
Project management is an inherently nonlinear activity. The complexity of an effort grows not in proportion to the effort, but combinatorially with the size of the effort, following the growth in the number of possible person-to-person interactions with increasing team size.

These two fallacies both arise because of our hopes and wishes. We long for a world where we can substitute any person for any other; for a world where doubling resources halves the schedule. But longing doesn't make it so. In the next and final installment of this series we'll look at fallacies that arise from failures of critical thinking. First in this series Next in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: The Uses of Empathy  Next Issue
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Related articles
More articles on Project Management:
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When projects founder, we're often shocked — we thought everything was moving along smoothly. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we had — or could have had — enough information to determine that trouble was ahead. Somehow it was obscured by fog. How can we get better at seeing through the fog?

Finger PuzzlesFinger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.

Capitol Hill at nightNepotism, Patronage, Vendettas, and Workplace Espionage
Normally, you terminate or reassign team members who actually inhibit progress. Here are some helpful insights and tactics to use when termination or reassignment is impossible.

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle (<i>Lepidochelys kempi</i>), ashore, probably to lay eggsSeven Ways to Get Nowhere
Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?

Turbulence in the wake of a low-flying aircraftGuidelines for Sharing "Resources"
Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking for more related articles.

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The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
For mCognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Makingost of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

  • Bedford, Massachusetts: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
     
The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
ThereThe Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Where There's Smoke There's EmailTroubled by email flame wars? Or a blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates? Read Where There's Smoke There's Email. Check it out!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
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