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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for May 2009

On the emotions evoked by project management artefacts

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The day-to-day practice of project management involves the use of several artefacts: from the ubiquitous Gantt chart to the less commonly used trend chart. It is of interest to understand the practical utility of these artefacts; consequently there is a fair bit of published work devoted to answering questions such as “What percentage of project managers use this artefact?”, “How and why do they use it?” etc. (see this paper review, for example).  Such questions address the cognitive aspects of these artefacts – the logic, reasoning and thought processes behind their use.  There is a less well understood side to the use of the artefacts: the affective or emotional one; the yin to the yang of the cognitive or logical side. A paper by Jon Whitty entitled, Project management artefacts and the affective emotions they evoke, (to appear in the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business in 2010) looks into the emotional affects (on practitioners) caused by (the use of) project management artefacts (see the note in the following paragraph for more on the term affect). This post presents an annotated summary of the paper.

[Note on the difference between affect and emotion. As I understand it, the term affect refers to automatic emotional responses which may amount to no more than a quick feeling of something being good or bad. This is in contrast to a full-blown emotion in which feelings are more intense. Unlike emotions, affective responses occur within a fraction of a second and may dissipate just as quickly. Furthermore,  affect lacks the range and variety of conscious emotions.]

Like some of Whitty’s previous work, the paper presents an unusual – dare I say, challenging – perspective on the reasons why project managers use artefacts. I use the word “challenging” here in the sense of “questioning the rationale behind their use”, not in the sense of “difficulty.” To put the work in a wider context, it builds on the evolutionary view of project management advanced by Whitty and Schulz in an earlier paper.  The evolutionary view holds that project management practices and principles give organisations (and hence individual project managers) certain survival advantages. The current paper studies how project management artefacts – through the emotions they evoke in project managers – “create” behaviours that “cause” project managers to sustain and propagate the practice of project management within their organisations.

Study Objectives

Whitty begins by framing two hypotheses which serve to outline the objectives of his study. They are:

  1. Project managers obtain an emotional affect from aspects of the project management experiences.
  2. Project managers use the emotional affects of project management artefacts to increase their competitive advantage.

The first examines whether project managers’  behaviours are driven by the experience of managing projects; the second examines whether project managers – through their use of artefacts – manipulate their environment to their advantage.  The paper “tests” these hypotheses empirically (the reason for the enclosing quotes will become clearer later), and  also examines some implications of the results.


The paper contains an extensive review of the literature on the evolutionary view of project management and emotions / affect. I found the review very useful; not only did it help me appreciate the context of the research, it also gave me some new insights into professional practice. I summarise the review below, so you can judge for yourself.

In their paper entitled, The PM_BOK Code, Whitty and Schulz argue that, in order to survive in an organisational environment, project managers are driven to put on a performance – much like stage actors – of managing projects. They recite lines (use project management terminology, deliver status reports) and use props (project management artefacts) before an audience of stakeholders ranging from senior sponsors to team members.

Subscribing to, and practising the ideals of, project management enables practitioners to gain a competitive advantage in the organisational jungle.  One aim of the paper is to clarify the role of artefacts in the evolutionary framework: specifically, how does the use of artefacts confer survival benefits, and what affects evoked in practitioners (who are using artefacts) cause the artefacts themselves to be passed on (i.e. survive).

As far as emotion or affect is concerned, Whitty mentions that much of the work done to date focuses on the management of positive and negative emotions (felt by both the project manager and the team) so as to achieve a successful project outcome. And although there is a significant body of work on the effectiveness of project management artefacts, there is virtually nothing on the emotional affect of artefacts as they are being used. Nevertheless, research in other areas suggests a strong connection between the creation/ use of artefacts, emotions evoked and the consequences thereof. An example is the affective response evoked by building architecture in a person and the consequent effect on the person’s mood. Changes in mood in turn might predispose the person to certain ideals and values. Although the emotional response caused by artefacts has been studied in other organisational contexts, it has not been done heretofore in project management. For this reason alone, this paper merits attention from project management practitioners.


Unlike research into the utility of artefacts – where an objective definition of utility is possible – any questions relating to the emotions evoked by artefacts can only be answered subjectively: I can tell you how I feel when I do something,  you may even be able to tell how I feel by observing me,  but you can never feel what I feel.  Hence the only possible approach to answering such questions is a phenomenological one – i.e. attempting to understand reality as seen by others through their perceptions and subjective experience.  Whitty uses an approach based on empirical phenomenology – a research methodology that aims to produce accurate descriptions of human experience through observation of behaviour.

[Note on phenomenological approaches to management research: There are two phenomenological research methods in management: hermeneutic and empirical. The empirical approach follows fairly strict data collection and analytical methods whereas the hermeneutic approach is less prescriptive about techniques used .  Another difference between the two is that the hermeneutic approach uses a range of sources including literary texts (since these are considered to reflect human experience) whereas empirical phenomenology is based on the analysis of factual data only. In essence the latter is closer to being a scientific/analytical approach to studying human experience than the former. See the very interesting paper – Revisiting Phenomenology: its potential for management research – by Lisa Ehrich for more.]

For his study, Whitty selected a group of about 50 project managers drawn from the ranks of professional bodies. The participants were asked to answer questions regarding what project management tools they enjoyed using, the emotions elicited by these tools and how they would feel if they weren’t allowed to use them.  Additionally, they were also asked to imagine their ideal project management tool / process.  Based on the answers provided, Whitty selected a small number of subjects for detailed, face-to-face interviews. The interviews probed for details on the responses provided in the survey. Audio and videotapes of the interviews were analysed to understand what the use of each artefact meant to the user, what emotions were evoked during its use and common gestures used while working with these tools – with the aim of understanding the essence of the experience of using a particular tool or process.

Whitty acknowledges some limitations of his approach, most of which are common to organisational studies.  Some of these include: problems with self-reported data, limited (and potentially non-representative) sample size. I have discussed some of these limitations in my posts on the role of social desirability bias and the abuse of statistics in project management research.


From his analysis, Whitty found that eleven artefacts came up more often than others. These could be divided into conceptual and tangible artefacts.  The former includes the following:

  • Project
  • Deadline
  • Team
  • Professional persona of a project manager

The latter includes:

  • Gantt Chart
  • WBS
  • Iron Triangle
  • S-Curve
  • Project management post-nominals (certifications, degrees, titles)
  • PMBOK Guide  & Project management methodologies
  • Professional bodies

The paper contains detailed descriptions of the results, including interesting comments by the participants.  I can do no better than refer the reader to the original paper for these. Here, in the interests of space, I’ll present only a selection of the artefacts analysed, relying heavily on quotations from the paper. My choice is based entirely on the items and interpretations that I found particularly striking.


From the responses received, Whitty concludes that:

Projects appear to be emotionally perceived as though they are composed of two opposing forces or elements which were not as dichotomistic as good and bad. Rather, these forces are more complementary or completing aspects of the one phenomenon such as in the concept of Yin – Yang, though this term was only mentioned by one participants. All of the participants described the most difficult parts of their roles as “challenges”, and felt they gained a sense of achievement and learning from their projects.

Participants described the experience of managing a project in terms of a duality between thrill and excitement, even fear and personal satisfaction…Furthermore, many believed in some sort of karmic effect where the benefits of a good work ethic today would be paid back in future project success.


When asked about the concept of a team, most of the respondents felt that there was a sense of mutual commitment between the project manager and team, but not necessarily one of mutual responsibility. One project manager said, “If they (the team) shine I shine, but if it all goes wrong I take the heat.”

On the other hand, most respondents seemed to be appreciative of their teams. Many used the gesture of a circle (tracing out a circle with a finger, for example) when talking about their teams. Whitty writes,

…As an expression of emotion the circle gesture has a limitless or boundless aspect with no beginning, no end, and no division. It symbolises wholeness and completeness, and it is possibly used by project managers to express their feelings of mutual commitment and fidelity to the team and the project.

Despite the general feeling that the project manager takes the blame if things go wrong, most respondents thought that there was a strong mutual committment between the team and project manager.

Project Manager Persona

This one is very interesting. When asked to describe what a successful project manager would look like, some responses were, “mid 20s to mid 40s”, “businesslike”, “must wear a business suit”, “confident and assertive”. Some commented on how they personally and actively used the persona. On the other hand, Whitty states,

There appears to be a tension or anxiety when creating and maintaining the façade of control…

He also suggests a metaphor for the persona:

…that beneath the external impression of the graceful swan are furiously paddling legs…

I think  that’s an absolutely marvellous characterisation of  a project manager under stress.

Gantt Chart

The Gantt Chart is perhaps the most well-known (and over-exposed) tangible project management artefact. For this reason alone, it is interesting to look into the emotional responses evoked by it. To quote from the paper,

It seems that project managers cannot talk about PM without mentioning the Gantt chart. Project managers appear to be compelled to make them to create and maintain their professional persona.

On the other hand,

Though the Gantt chart is closely associated with PM, many participants regarded this association as a burden…Even though project managers feel frustration that they are expected, even forced to use Gantt charts, they also manipulate this situation to their advantage and use Gantt charts to placate senior management and clients.

Stress and hopefulness appear to be two emotions linked with Gantt Charts (duality again!). One participant said “the Gantt charts you’re showing me don’t mean anything to me I feel pretty neutral about them. But my Gantt charts can really stress me out.” And another, “When I look at it (the Gantt chart) all finished, (heavy sigh) I suppose I’m hoping that’s how it will all turn out…”

As I see it, the Gantt chart – much like the PERT chart – is used more to manage management than to manage projects, and hence the mixed emotions evoked by its use.

Work Breakdown Structure

Whitty mentions that over two-thirds of the participants said they used WBS in one form or another. He states,

All participants view work in packets or as bounded objects. As one put it, “I like to break the work down into nice crisp chunks, and then connect them all up together again.” This behaviour support Gestalt theories that in order to interpret what we receive through our senses we attempt to organize information into certain groups which include: similarity, proximity, continuity, and closure….

Through his  reference to Gestalt theories, Whitty suggests that breaking the project up  into chunks of work and then putting it  back together again helps the project manager grok the project  – i.e. understand the interconnections between project elements and the totality of the project in a  deep way. A little later he states,

Many experience satisfaction, contentment, even a sense of control from the WBS process.

I can’t help but wonder – does the popularity of the tool stem, at least in part,  from its ability to evoke positive affect?

PMBOK Guide and Methodologies

Based on the responses received, Whitty mentions,

It is apparent that some PM methodologies are PM artefacts in themselves and are used as currency to gain a competitive advantage.”

Yet the profession appears to be divided about the utility of methodologies,

All the participants were aware of the PMBOK® Guide, and all of them utilised a PM methodology of some sort, whether it were an off-the-shelf brand or a company-grown product. Participants appeared to be either for or against PM methodologies, some even crossed over the dividing line mid-sentence (!)

Another theme that arose is that methodologies are “something to hide behind” should things go wrong: “Don’t blame me, I did things by the Book.” Methodologies thus offer two side benefits (apart from the man one of improving chances of project success!): they help “certify” to a project manager’s competence and act as a buffer if things go wrong.


Whitty concludes that the data supports his hypothesis that project managers obtain an emotional affect from aspects of project management experience. In his words:

This study has shown that project managers are drawn to project work. The participants in this study forage for projects because they can obtain or experience an emotional affect or more informally stated a favourable emotional fix from the challenge they present…. they are stimulated by the challenges the construct of a project has to offer. Furthermore, they appear to be fairly sure they can handle these challenges with their existing skill and abilities…

The data also suggests that despite the dominant deterministic approach to project management, project managers also,

…operate under the cognitive logic of yin-yang. They conceptualise the emotional experience of managing a project in terms of two possible states or statuses of events that ebb and flow; one state gradually transforming into the other state along a time dimension. What is also interesting is that these project managers find it necessary to conceal this behaviour for survival reasons.

The data also supports the second hypothesis: that project managers use the emotional affects of the project management experience to increase their competitive advantage. This is clear, for example, from the discussions of the Project Manager Persona, Gantt Chart and methodologies.

Concluding remarks

This is an important study because it has implications for how project management is taught, practised and researched. For example, most project management courses teach tools and techniques – such as Gantt Charts – with the implicit assumption that using them will improve chances of project success.  However, from this research it is clear, and I quote

…some practitioners create Gantt charts because they enjoy the Gantt charting process, and some create them to placate others and/or to be viewed favourably by others. It is simply not clear how Gantt charts or the scheduling process in general contributes to the overall performance of a project…

Using this as an example, Whitty makes a plea for an objective justification of project management practices. It’s just not good enough to say we must use something because so-and-so methodology says so (see my piece entitled, A PERT myth, for another example of a tool that, though well entrenched, has questionable utility). The research also indicates that a project manager’s behaviours are influenced by the physical and cultural environment in which he or she operates: some practices are followed because they give the project manager a sense of control; others because they help gain a competitive advantage. Whitty suggests that senior managers would get more out of their project managers if they understood how project managers are affected by their environment. Further, he recommends that project managers should be encouraged to adopt only those techniques, practices and norms that are demonstrably useful. Those that aren’t should be abandoned.

So what are the implications for profession? In a nutshell: it is to think critically about the way we manage projects. Practices recommended by a particular methodology or authority are sometimes followed without critical analysis or introspection. So the next time you invoke a tool, technique or practice – stop for a minute and reflect on what you’re doing and why. An honest answer may hold some surprises.

Written by K

May 29, 2009 at 5:38 am

A visual addendum to “Why visual representations of reasoning are more effective than prose”

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It’s always an honour to be referenced positively  on  other project management blogs, and  it’s  even better when the author provides helpful feedback.  In a recent postAndreas Heilwagen  suggests that the arguments presented in my article entitled Why visual representations of reasoning are more effective than prose  might be better made through visual representation.  I reckon he is absolutely right. So here it is,  an IBIS map summarising the main points of the post:

Figure 1: Why visual representations of reasoning are better than prose

Figure 1: Why visual representations of reasoning are better than prose

Thanks Andreas, the title of the post demands that a visual representation accompany it. Further, the map serves to illustrate one of the main points made therein:  the map it is but one interpretation of the post;  there are many others, depending on how a reader might interpret or choose to emphasise what’s written.  Prose is laden with ambiguity.

Postscript: I realise I may have  misinterpreted Andreas’ post;   my German is very rudimentary and Google translations are not the best. Even so, I think the article is better served by a map. .

Written by K

May 26, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Why visual representations of reasoning are more effective than prose

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At work I’m often saddled with tasks that involve writing business documents such as project proposals, business cases, technology evaluations etc. Typically these are aimed at conveying positions or ideas to a specific audience. For example, a business case might detail the rationale behind (and hence the justification for) a project to executive management. The hardest part of composing these documents is the flow: how ideas are introduced, explained and transitioned one after the other.  (Incidentally, writing business documents is composition – like music or art – let no one tell you otherwise.) The organisation of a document has to be carefully thought through because it is hard to convey complex, interconnected ideas in writing. Anyone who has laboured through a piece of reasoning in prose form is familiar with this problem.  In an earlier post I discussed, via example, the utility of issue mapping – a visual representation of reasoning – in clarifying complex issues that are presented in writing. In this post I explore reasons why issue maps – or other visual representations of reasoning – are superior to prose when it comes to conveying ideas.  Towards the end, I also highlight some potential uses of visual representations in project management.

The basic problem with prose is that the relationships between ideas are not immediately evident. In a paper entitled Enhancing Deliberation Through Computer Supported Argument Mapping Tim van Gelder states,

Extracting the structure of evidential relationships from reasoning as typically presented in prose is very difficult and most of the time we do it badly. This can be easily illustrated, in a kind of exercise we have done informally many times in workshops. Take any group of people sufficiently trained in reasoning and argument mapping that they are quite able to create argument maps to make explicit whatever reasoning they have in mind. Now give them a sample of good argumentative prose, such as a well-argued opinion piece from the newspaper. Ask them to figure out what the reasoning is, and to re-present it in an argument map. This usually takes about 20-30 minutes, during which time you can enjoy watching the participants strike various Rodinesque postures of intense concentration, wipe their sweaty palms, etc.. Then compare the resulting argument maps. You’ll find that you have as many different argument maps as there are people doing the exercise; in many cases the maps will be wildly different…

Although the paper is talks about argument mapping, the discussion applies just as well to issue mapping. He goes on to say,

Take any group of people sufficiently trained to be able to be read argument maps. (This training usually takes not more than a few minutes.) Present them with an argument map, and ask them to identify the reasoning presented in the map, and represent it in whatever form they like (map, prose, point-form etc.). This is a very simple task and usually takes almost no time; indeed, it is so trivial that the hard part is getting the participants to go through the motions when no intellectual challenge is involved. Ask them questions designed to elicit the extent to which they have correctly identified the structure of the reasoning presented by the map (e.g., how many distinct reasons are presented for the main conclusion?). You’ll find that they all understand exactly what the reasoning is, and ipso facto all have the same sense of the reasoning…

The point is simple: visual representations of reasoning are designed to present reasoning; prose isn’t.

Van Gelder then asks the question: why are visual representations better than prose? In answer, he makes the following points:

1. Prose has to be interpreted: As prose is not expressly designed to represent reasoning, readers have to decode relationships and connections between ideas. The choices they make will depend on individual interpretations of the meaning of words used and the grammatical structure of the piece. These interpretations will in turn depend on facility with the language, vocabulary etc. In contrast, visual notations such as IBIS (used in issue mapping) have few elements and very simple grammars. Simplicity slays ambiguity.

2. Prose neglects representational resources: Prose is a stream of words – it does not use other visual elements such as colour, shape, position or any graphical structures (trees, nodes, connectors). The brain processes comprehends such elements – and the visually apparent relationships between them – much faster than it can interpret prose. Hence the structured use of these can lead to faster comprehension. Van Gelder also adds that in the case of prose:

…Helpful authors (of prose) will assist readers in the difficult process of interpretation by providing verbal cues (for example, logical indicators such as “therefore”), although it is quite astonishing how frugal most authors are in providing such cues….

This is true, and I’d add that writers – particularly those who write analytical pieces – tend to be frugal because they are taught to be so.

3. Prose is sequential, arguments aren’t: Reasoning presented in written form flows linearly – i.e. concepts and ideas appear in sequence. A point that’s made on one page may be related to something that comes up five pages later, but the connections will not be immediately apparent unless the author specifically draws attention to it. Jeff Conklin makes the same point about conversations in this presentation: conversations are linear, one comment follows the other; however the issues that come up in a conversation are typically related in a non-linear way. Visual maps of reasoning expose these non-linear connections between issues in a very apparent and easy-to-follow way. See this map of a prose piece or this map of a conversation, for example.

4. Metaphors cannot be visually displayed in prose: According to the linguist / philosopher George Lakoff, metaphors are central to human understanding. Further, metaphors are grounded in our physical experience because our brains take input from the rest of our bodies (see this interview with Lakoff for more). For this reason, most of the metaphors we use to express reasoning relate to physical experience and sensation: strength or weakness of an argument, support for a position, weight of an idea, external pressure etc. Van Gelder claims that visual representations can depict these metaphors in a more natural way: for instance, in IBIS maps, cons are coloured red (Stop) whilst pros are green (Go).

The above points are taken from van Gelder’s paper, but I can think of a few more:

5. Visual representations have less ambiguity: All visual representations of reasoning that I’ve come across –  mind maps, issue maps, argument maps etc – excel at displaying relationships between ideas in an unambiguous manner.  One reason for this is that visual representations generally have a limited syntax and grammar,  as a consequence of which a given relationship can be expressed in only a small number of ways (usually one!).  Hence there is  little or no ambiguity in depicting or interpreting relationships in a visual representation. This is not the case with prose, where much depends on the skill and vocabulary of the writer and reader.

6. Visual representations can present reasoning “at a glance”: A complex argument which takes up several pages of prose can often be captured in a single page using visual notations. Such visual representations -if properly constructed – are also more intuitive than the corresponding prose representation. See my post entitled, Beyond words: visualising arguments using issue maps for an example.

7. Visual representations can augment organisational memory A well structured archive of knowledge maps is so much more comprehensible than reams of documentation. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. Maps, unlike written documents, can capture the essence of a discussion minus all the conversational chaff.
  2. Maps can be structured to show the logical relationships or interconnections between multiple documents: i.e. as maps of organisational knowledge. Much like geographical maps, these can help knowledge workers navigate their way through vast tracts of organisational knowledge

See my post on knowledge capture using issue maps for much more on this.

8. Visual representations can catalyse knowledge creation: Visual representations, when used collaboratively, can catalyse the creation of knowledge. This is the basis of the technique of dialogue mapping – see this post for a simple example of dialogue mapping using IBIS. A visual representation serves as a focal point that captures a group’s collective reasoning and understanding of an issue as it evolves. Even more, the use of such representations in design discussions can foster creativity in much the same way as in art. In fact,  Al Selvin refers to Compendium – the tool and methodology used in dialogue mapping –  as an enabler of  Knowledge Art.  I’m currently reading some of Selvin’s writings on this, and will soon write a post summarising some of his ideas. Stay tuned.

If  you’re a project manager and have read this far, perhaps you’re wondering how this stuff might be relevant to your day-to-day work.  Well, in a couple of ways at least:

  1. Visual representations can serve as a succinct project memory.  A practical way to start is by using issue mapping to capture meeting minutes.  One can also use it to summarise meetings after they have taken place, but doing it in real-time is better because one can seek clarifications on the spot. Better still – project the map on to a screen and become a dialogue mapper. 
  2. Maps can be used in real-time to  to facilitate collaborative design – or create knowledge art –  as discussed in point 8 above.

To summarise, then: visual representations of reasoning are more effective than prose because they are better at capturing the nonlinear structure of arguments; easier to interpret; leverage visual metaphors; depict relationships effectively and present arguments in a succinct yet intuitively appealing way. Above all, visual representations can facilitate collaborative creativity – something that prose simply cannot do.

A quick test of organisational culture

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Organisational culture is defined by the values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organisation. These values and norms, in turn, influence how  people interact with each other and with outsiders. That’s well and good, but how does one determine an an organisation’s culture?  In my opinion, this is best evaluated by looking at how people react in typical work situations.  What follows is a quick quiz to test an organisation’s culture based on this principle.

Note that the test can also be applied to projects – as projects are temporary organisations. Typically project and team cultures simply reflect those of the organisations in which they exist. However, there can be differences: a good project or team leader can (to an extent) shield his or her team from the effects of a toxic organisational culture. But that’s fodder for another post.  For now, let’s get on with the quiz.

A tip before starting: don’t over-think your answers; your initial response is probably the most accurate one.

Ready? Right, here we go…the sixty-second quiz on your workplace culture:

a)  You make a mistake that no one notices. What do you do:

  1. Keep quiet about it and hopes it remains unnoticed.
  2. Own up because it is OK to make mistakes around here.
  3. Dream up a scheme to pin it someone else, preferably a rival for a promotion.

b)  You have an idea that might lead to a new product. You

  1. Use workmates and manager as a sounding board for whether it is any good.
  2. Start to work it through yourself to see if it is any good.
  3. Forget about it

c) You have an idea which involves collaborating with someone from another department. You

  1. Approach the person directly.
  2. Go through the proper channels – approach your manager who approaches their manager and so on.
  3. Forget about it: inter-departmental politics would get in the way.

d) People at an organisation-wide event (company day or a project team day out, for example):

  1. Stick with folks from their departments.
  2. Mingle, and look like they’re enjoying it.
  3. Look like they want to be elsewhere. In fact many of them are – they’ve called in sick.

e) A project has gone horribly wrong. Do people

  1. Look for a scapegoat.
  2.  Say, “I had nothing to do with it.”
  3. Work together to fix it.

f)  Someone from another department approaches you for assistance relating to your area of expertise. Do you

  1. Help them right away, or as soon as you can.
  2. Ask them to speak to your manager first.
  3. Fob them off – you’re way too overworked and don’t really feel like doing a whit of work more than you absolutely have to.

g)  What do people in your organisation do when they are annoyed by some aspect of their job? (Note: see this post for more on this question)

  1. They complain about it.
  2. They ignore it.
  3. They fix it.

h) The atmosphere in cross-departmental meetings in your organisation is generally:

  1.  Cordial.
  2. Tense
  3. Neutral

i) An impossible deadline looms. In order to meet it you

  1. Work overtime because you have to.
  2. Work overtime because you want to.
  3. This question is inapplicable – you never have impossible deadlines.

j)  You’ve done something brilliant that saves the organisation a packet. Your manager:

  1. Acknowledges your efforts publicly.
  2. Acknowledges your efforts privately.
  3. Grabs the glory.

k) You’ve worked overtime on a project and its all come good. You get

  1. A pat on the back.
  2. A pat on the back and something tangible (a bonus, a meal or at least a movie voucher)
  3.  Nothing (We pay you a salary, don’t we?)

l)  You’re feeling under the weather, but are not really sick (Put it this way: no doctor would give you a certificate). However, you honestly don’t think you can make it through the work day.  What do you do?

  1. Thank God and take the day off.
  2. Go to work because you want to.
  3. Go to work because you have to.


The score for each response is the number  in brackets against the choice you made.

a. 1 (5)  2(10)  3(0)
b. 1(10) 2(5) 3(0)
c. 1(10) 2(5) 3(0)
d. 1(5) 2(10) 3(0)
e. 1(0) 2(5) 3(10)
f.  1(10) 2(5) 3(0)
g. 1(0) 2(5) 3(10)
h. 1(10) 2(0) 3(5)
i.  1(0) 2(5) 3(10)
j.  1(10) 2(5) 3(0)
k. 1(5) 2(10) 3(0)
l.  1(0) 2(10) 3(5)

What does your score mean?

> 100 :  Does your organisation have any vacancies for a PM/dev manager?

80-95 :  I bet you enjoy working here.

60-75: Still on the right side of the divide, but things do get unpleasant occasionally

40 -55: Things could be a lot worse – but, they could also be better.

20-35: Things are a lot worse

< 20: Workplace hell?

A good organisational culture is one which encourages and enables people to do the right thing  without coercion or fear of consequences.  What’s right?  Most people just know what is right and what’s not, without having to be told.   I can think of no better way to end this post than by quoting from the start of Robert Pirsig’s classic,  Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

And what is good, Phædrus,
And what is not good…
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things

Written by K

May 15, 2009 at 6:53 am

The role of cognitive biases in project failure

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There are two distinct views of project management practice: the rational view which focuses on management tools and techniques such as those espoused by frameworks and methodologies, and the social/behavioural view which looks at the social aspect of projects – i.e. how people behave and interact in the context of a project and the wider organisation. The difference between the two is significant: one looks at how projects should be managed,  it prescribes tools, techniques and practices;  the other at what actually happens on projects, how people interact and how managers make decisions.  The gap between the two can sometimes  spell the difference between project success and failure. In many failed projects, the failure can be traced back to poor decisions, and the decisions themselves to cognitive biases: i.e.  errors in judgement based on perceptions. A paper entitled, Systematic Biases and Culture in Project Failure, by Barry Shore looks at the role played by selected cognitive biases in the failure of some high profile projects. The paper also draws some general conclusions on the relationship between organisational culture and cognitive bias. This post presents a summary and review of the paper.

The paper begins with a brief discussion of the difference in the rational and social/behavioural view of project management.  The rational view is prescriptive  – it describes management procedures and techniques which claim to increase the chances of success if followed. Further, it emphasises causal effects (if you follow X procedure then Y happens).  The social/behavioural view is less well developed because it looks at human behaviour which is hard to study in controlled conditions,  let alone in projects. Yet, developments in behavioural economics – mostly based on the pioneering work of Kahnemann and Tversky – can be directly applied to project management (see my post on biases in project estimation, for instance).  In the paper, Shore looks at eight case studies of failed projects  and attempts to attribute their failure to selected cognitive biases. He  also looks into the relationship between (project and organisational) culture and the prevalence of the selected biases. Following Hofstede, he defines organisational culture as shared perceptions of organisational work practices and, analogously, project culture as shared perceptions of project work practices. Since projects take place within organisations, project culture is obviously influenced by the organisational culture.

Scope and Methodology

In this section I present a brief discussion of the biases that the paper focuses on and the study methodology.

There are a large number of cognitive biases in the literature. The author selects the following for his study:

Available data:  Restricting oneself to using data that is readily or conveniently available. Note that “Available data” is a non-standard term: it is normally referred to as a sampling bias, which in turn is a type of selection bias.

Conservatism (Semmelweis reflex): Failing to consider new information or negative feedback.

Escalation of commitment:  Allocating additional resources to a project that is unlikely to succeed.

Groupthink: Members of a project group under pressure to think alike, ignoring evidence that may threaten their views.

Illusion of control: Management believing they have more control over a situation than an objective evaluation would suggest.

Overconfidence:  Having a level of confidence that is unsupported by evidence or performance.

Recency (serial position effect): Undue emphasis being placed on most recent data (ignoring older data)

Selective perception: Viewing a situation subjectively; perceiving only certain (convenient) aspects of a situation.

Sunk cost: Not accepting  that costs already incurred cannot be recovered and should not be considered as criteria for future decisions. This bias is closely related to loss aversion.

The author acknowledges that there is a significant overlap between some of these effects: for example, illusion of control has much in common with overconfidence. This implies a certain degree of subjectivity in assigning these as causes for project failures.

The failed projects studied in the paper are high profile efforts that failed in one or more ways.  The author obtained data for the projects from public and government sources. He then presented the data and case studies to five independent groups of business professionals (constituted from a class he was teaching) and asked them to reach a consensus on which biases could have played a role in causing the failures. The groups presented their results to the entire class, then through discussions, reached agreement on which of the  biases may have lead to the failures.

The case studies

This section describes the failed project studied and the biases that the group identified as being relevant.

Airbus 380: Airbus was founded as a consortium of independent aerospace companies. The A380 project which was started in 2000 – was aimed at creating the A380 superjumbo jet with a capacity of 800 passengers. The project involved coordination between many sites.  Six years into the project, when the aircraft was being assembled in Toulouse, it was found that a wiring harness produced in Hamburg failed to fit the airframe.

The group identified the following biases as being relevant to the failure of the Airbus project:

Selective perception: Managers acted to guard their own interests and constituencies.

Groupthink:  Each participating organisation  worked in isolation from the others, creating an environment in which groupthink would thrive.

Illusion of control:  Corporate management assumed they had control over participating organisations.

Availability bias: Management in each of the facilities did not have access to data in other facilities, and thus made decisions based on limited data.

Coast Guard Maritime Domain Awareness Project: This project, initated in 2001, was aimed at creating the maritime equivalent of an air traffic control system. It was to use a range of technologies, and involved coordination between many US government agencies. The goal of the first phase of the project was to  create a surveillance system that would be able to track boats as small as jet skis. The surveillance data was to be run through a software system that would flag potential threats.  In 2006  – during the testing phase – the surveillance system failed to meet quality criteria. Further, the analysis software was not ready for testing.

The group identified the following biases as being relevant to the failure of the  Maritime Awareness project:

Illusion of control: Coordinating several federal agencies is a complex task. This suggests that project managers may have thought they had more control than they actually did.

Selective perception: Separate agencies worked only on their portions of the project,  failing to see the larger picture. This suggests that project groups may have unwittingly been victims of selective perception.

Columbia Shuttle: The Columbia Shuttle disaster was caused by a piece of foam insulation breaking off the propellant tank and damaging the wing. The problem with the foam sections was known, but management had assumed that it posed no risk.

In their analysis, the group found the following biases to be relevant to the failure of this project:

Conservatism: Management failed to take into account negative data.

Overconfidence:  Management was confident there were no safety issues.

Recency:  Although foam insulation had broken off on previous flights, it had not caused any problems.

Denver Airport Baggage Handling System: The Denver airport project, which was scheduled for completion in 1993, was to feature a completely automated baggage handling system. The technical challenges were enormous because the proposed system was an order of magnitude more complex than those that existed at the time. The system was completed in 1995, but was riddled with problems. After almost a decade of struggling to fix the problems, not to mention being billions over-budget, the project was abandoned in 2005.

The group identified the following biases as playing a role in the failure of this project:

Overconfidence: Although the project was technically very ambitious, the contractor (BAE systems) assumed that all technical obstacles could be overcome within the project timeframes.

Sunk cost: The customers (United Airlines) did not pull out of the project even when other customers pulled out, suggesting that they were reluctant to write off already incurred costs.

Illusion of control: Despite evidence to the contrary, management assumed that problems could be solved and that the project remained  under control.

Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander: Telemetry signals from the Mars climate orbiter ceased when the spacecraft approached its destination. The root cause of the problem was found to be a failure to convert between metric and British units: apparently the contractor, Lockheed, had used British units in the engine design but NASA scientists who were responsible for operations and flight assumed the data was in metric units. A few months after the climate orbiter disaster, another spacecraft, the Mars polar lander fell silent just short of landing on the surface of Mars. The failure was attributed to a software problem that caused the engines to shutdown prematurely, thereby causing the spacecraft to crash.

The group attributed the above project failures to the following biases:

Conservatism: Project engineers failed to take action when they noticed that the spacecraft was off-trajectory early in the flight.

Sunk cost: Managers were under pressure to launch the spacecraft on time – waiting until the next launch window would have entailed a wait of many months thus “wasting” the effort up to that point. (Note: In my opinion this is an incorrect interpretation of sunk cost)

Selective perception: The spacecraft modules  were constructed by several different teams. It is very likely that teams worked with a very limited view of the project (one which was relevant to their module).

Merck Vioxx: Vioxx was a very successful anti-inflammatory medication developed and marketed by Merck. An article published in 2000 suggested that Merck misrepresented clinical trial data, and another paper published in 2001 suggested that those who took Vioxx were subject to a significantly increased risk of assorted cardiac events. Under pressure, Merck put a warning label on the product in 2002. Finally, the drug was withdrawn from the market in 2004 after over 80 million people had taken it.

The group found the following biases to be relevant to the failure of this project:

Conservatism:  The company ignored early warning signs about the toxicity of the drug.

Sunk cost: By the time concerns were raised, the company had already spent a large amount of money in developing the drug. It is therefore likely that there was a reluctance to write off the costs incurred to that point.

Microsoft Xbox 360: The Microsoft Xbox console was released to market in 2005, a year before comparable offerings from its competitors. The product was plagued with problems from the start; some of them include: internet connectivity issues, damage caused to game disks, faulty power cords and assorted operational issues. The volume of problems and complaints prompted Microsoft to extend the product warranty from one to three years at an expected cost of $1 billion.

The group thought that the following biases were significant in this case:

Conservatism: Despite the early negative feedback (complaints and product returns), the development group seemed to acknowledge that there were problems with the product.

Groupthink:  It is possible that the project team ignored data that threatened their views on the product. The group reached this conclusion because Microsoft seemed reluctant to comment publicly on the causes of problems.

Sunk cost: By the time problems were identified, Microsoft had invested a considerable sum of money on product development. This suggests that the sunk cost trap may have played a role in this project failure.

NYC Police Communications System: (Note: I couldn’t find any pertinent links to this project). In brief: the project was aimed at developing a communications system that would enable officers working in the subway system to communicate with those on the streets. The project was initiated in 1999 and scheduled for completion in 2004 with a budgeted cost of $115 million. A potential interference problem was identified in 2001 but the contractors ignored it. The project was completed in 2007, but during trials it became apparent that interference was indeed a problem. Fixing the issue was expected to increase the cost by $95 million.

The group thought that the following biases may have contributed to the failure of this project:

Conservatism: Project managers failed to take early data on intereference account.

Illusion of control: The project team believed – until very late in the project – that the interference issue could be fixed.

Overconfidence:  Project managers believed that the design was sound, despite evidence to the contrary.

Analysis and discussion

The following four biases appeared more often than others: Conservatism, illusion of control, selective perception and sunk cost.

The following biases appeared less often: groupthink and overconfidence.

Recency and availability were mentioned only once.

Based on the small data sample and the somewhat informal means of analysis, the author concludes that the first four biases may be dominant in project management. In my opinion this conclusion is shaky because the study has a few shortcomings, which I list below:

  • The sample size is small
  • The sample covers a range of domains.
  • No checks were done to verify the  group members’ understanding of  all the biases.
  • The data on which the conclusions are based is incomplete – based only on publicly available data. (perhaps is this an example of the available data bias at work?)
  • A limited set of biases is used – there could be other biases at work.
  • The conclusions themselves are subject to group-level biases such as groupthink. This is a particular concern because the group was specifically instructed to look at the case studies through the lens of the selected cognitive biases.
  • The analysis is far from exhaustive or objective; it  was done as a part of classroom exercise.

For the above reasons, the analysis is at best suggestive:  it indicates that biases may play a role in the decisions  that lead to project failures.

The author also draws a link between organisational culture and environments in which biases might thrive. To do this, he maps the biases on to the competing values framework of organisational culture, which views organisations along two dimensions:

  • The focus of the organisation – internal or external.
  • The level of management control in the organisation  – controlling (stable) or discretionary (flexible).

According to the author, all nine biases are more likely in a stability (or control) focused environment than a flexible one, and all barring sunk cost are more likely to thrive in a internal focused organisation than an externally focused one. This conclusion makes sense: project teams are more likely to avoid biases when empowered to make decisions,  free from management and organisational pressures. Furthermore, biases are also less likely to play a role when external input – such as customer feedback –  is taken seriously.

That said, the negative effects of internally focused, high control organisations can be countered. The author quotes two examples:

  1. When designing the 777 aircraft, Boeing introduced a new approach to project management wherein teams were required to include representatives from all groups of stakeholders. The team was encouraged to air differences in opinion and to deal with these in an open manner. This approach has been partly credit for the success of the 777 project.
  2. Since the Vioxx debacle, Merck rewards research scientists who terminate projects that do not look promising.


Despite my misgivings about the research sample and methodology, the study does suggest that standard project management practices could benefit by incorporating insights from behavioural studies.  Further, the analysis indicates that cognitive biases may have indeed played a role in the failure of some high profile projects.  My biggest concern here, as stated earlier,  is that the groups were required to associate the decisions with specific biases – i.e. there was an assumption that one or more of the biases from the (arbitrarily chosen) list was responsible for the failure. In reality, however,  there may have been other more important  factors at work.

The connections with organisational culture are interesting too, but hardly surprising: people are more likely to do the right thing when management  empowers them with responsibility and authority.

In closing: I found the paper interesting because it deals with an area that isn’t very well represented in the project management literature. Further, I  believe these biases play a significant role in project decision making, especially in internally focussed / controlled organisations (project managers are human, and hence not immune…).  However, although the paper supports this view, it doesn’t make a wholly convincing case for it.

Further Reading

For more on cognitive biases in organisations, see Chapter 2 of my book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.

Written by K

May 8, 2009 at 5:47 am

Beyond words: visualising arguments using issue maps

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Anyone who has struggled to follow a complex argument in a book or article knows from experience that reasoning in written form can be hard to understand. Perhaps this is why many people prefer to learn by attending a class or viewing a lecture rather than by reading. The cliché about a picture being worth more than a large number of words has a good deal of truth to it: visual representations can be helpful in clarifying complex arguments. In a recent post,  I presented a quick introduction to a visual issue mapping technique called IBIS (Issue Based Information System),  discussing how it could be used on complex projects. Now I follow up by demonstrating its utility in visualising complex arguments  such as those presented in research papers. I do so by example: I  map out a well known opinion piece written over two decades ago –  Fred Brooks’ classic article, No Silver Bullet, (abbreviated as NSB in the remainder of this article).

[Note: those not familiar with IBIS may want to read one of the  introductions listed here before proceeding]

Why use NSB as an example for argument mapping? Well, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It deals with issues that most software developers have grappled with at one time or another.
  2. The piece has been widely misunderstood (by Brooks’ own admission – see his essay entitled No Silver Bullet Refired, published in the anniversary edition of The Mythical Man Month).

First, very briefly, for those who haven’t read the article: NSB presents reasons why software development is intrinsically hard and consequently conjectures that “silver bullet” solutions are impossible, even in principle. Brooks defines a silver bullet solution for software engineering as any tool or technology that facilitates a tenfold improvement in productivity in software development.

To set the context for the discussion and to see the angle from which Brooks viewed the notion of a silver bullet for software engineering, I can do no better than quote the first two paragraphs of NSB:

Of all the monsters that fill the nightmares of our folklore, none terrify more than werewolves, because they transform unexpectedly from the familiar into horrors. For these, one seeks bullets of silver that can magically lay them to rest.

The familiar software project, at least as seen by the non-technical manager, has something of this character; it is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and flawed products. So we hear desperate cries for a silver bullet—something to make software costs drop as rapidly as computer hardware costs do.

The first step in mapping out an argument is to find the basic issue that it addresses. That’s easy for NSB; the issue, or question, is: why is there no silver bullet for software development?

Brooks attempts to answer the question via two strands:

  1. By examining the nature of the essential (intrinsic or inherent) difficulties in developing software.
  2. By examining the silver bullet solutions proposed so far.

That gives us enough for us to begin our IBIS map …

Issue Map - Stage 1

Issue Map – Stage 1

The root node of the map – as in all IBIS maps – is a question node. Responding to the question, we have an idea node (Essential difficulties) and another question node (What about silver bullet solutions proposed to date). We also have a note node which clarifies  what is meant by a silver bullet solution.

The point regarding essential difficulties needs elaboration, so we ask the question– What are essential difficulties?

According to Brooks, essential difficulties are those that relate to conceptualisation – i..e. design. In contrast, accidental (or non-essential) difficulties are those pertaining to implementation. Brooks examines the nature of essential difficulties – i.e. the things that make software design hard. He argues that the following four properties of software systems are the root of the problem:

Complexity: Beyond the basic syntax of a language, no two parts of a software system are alike – this contrasts with other products (such as cars or buildings) where repeated elements are common. Furthermore, software has a large number of states, multiplied many-fold by interactions with other systems. No person can fully comprehend all the consequences of this complexity. Furthermore, no silver bullet solution can conquer this problem because each program is complex in unique ways.

Conformity: Software is required to conform to arbitrary business rules. Unlike in the natural sciences, these rules may not (often do not!) have any logic to them. Further, being the newest kid on the block, software often has to interface with disparate legacy systems as well. Conformity-related issues are external to the software and hence cannot be addressed by silver bullet solutions.

Changeability: Software is subject to more frequent change than any other part of a system or even most other manufactured products. Brooks speculates that this is because most software embodies system functionality (i.e. the way people use the system), and functionality is subject to frequent change. Another reason is that software is intangible (made of “thought stuff”) and perceived as being easy to change.

Invisibility: Notwithstanding simple tools such as flowcharts and modelling languages, Brooks argues that software is inherently unvisualisable. The basic reason for this is that software – unlike most products (cars, buildings, silicon chips, computers) – has no spatial form.

These essential properties are easily captured in summary form in our evolving argument map:

Issue Map - Stage 2

Issue Map – Stage 2

Brooks’ contention is that software design is hard because every software project has to deal with unique manifestations of these properties.

Brooks then looks at silver bullet solutions proposed up to 1987  (when the article was written)  and those on the horizon at the time. He finds most of these address accidental (or non-intrinsic) issues – those that relate to implementation rather than design. They enhance programmer productivity – but not by the ten-fold magnitude required for them to be deemed silver bullets. Brooks reckons this is no surprise: the intrinsic difficulties associated with design are by far the biggest obstacles in any software development effort.

In the map I club all these proposed solutions under “silver bullet solutions proposed to date.”

Incorporating the above, the map now looks like:

Issue Map - Stage 3

Issue Map – Stage 3

[For completeness here’s a glossary of abbreviations: OOP – Object-oriented programming; IDE – Integrated development environment; AI – Artificial intelligence]

The proposed silver bullets lead to incremental improvements in productivity, but they do not address the essential problem of design. Further, some of the solutions have restricted applicability. These points are captured as pros and a cons in the map (click on the map to view a larger image):

Issue Map - Stage 4

Issue Map – Stage 4

It is interesting to note that in his 1997 article, No Silver Bullet Refired , which revisited the questions raised in NSB, Brooks found that the same conclusions held true. Furthermore, at a twentieth year retrospective panel discussion that took place during the 22nd International Conference on Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications, panellists again concluded that there’s no silver bullet – and none likely.

Having made his case that no silver bullet exists, and that none are likely, Brooks finishes up by outlining a few promising approaches to tackling the design problem. The first one, Buy don’t build, is particularly prescient in view of the growth of the shrink-wrapped software market in the two decades since the first publication of NSB. The second one – rapid prototyping and iterative/incremental development – is vindicated by the widespread adoption and mainstreaming of agile methodologies. The last one, nurture talent, perhaps remains relatively ignored. It should be noted that Brooks considers these approaches promising, but not silver bullets;  he maintains that none of these by themselves can lead to a tenfold increase in productivity.

So we come to the end of NSB and our map, which now looks like (click on the map to view a larger image):

Final Map

Final Map

The map captures the essence of the argument in NSB – a reader can see, at a glance, the chain of reasoning and the main points made in the article.  One could  embellish the map and improve readability by:

  • Adding in details via note nodes, as I have done in my note explaining what is meant by a silver bullet.
  • Breaking up the argument into sub-maps – the areas highlighted in yellow in each of the figures could be hived off into their own maps.

But these are details;  the  essence of the argument in NSB is  captured adequately in the final map above.

In this post I have attempted to illustrate, via example, the utility of IBIS in constructing maps of complicated arguments. I hope I’ve convinced you that issue maps offer a simple way to capture the essence of a written argument in an easy-to-understand way.

Perhaps the cliche should be revised: a picture may be worth a thousand words, but an issue map is worth considerably more.

IBIS References on the Web

For a quick introduction, I recommend Jeff Conklin’s introduction to IBIS on the Cognexus site (and the links therein) or  my piece on the use of IBIS in projects. If you have  some  time,  I  highly recommend Paul Culmsee’s excellent series of posts: the one best practice to rule them all.

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