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To think, to be, to act

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It would have been sometime in late 2013. I was in the midst of exploring the possibility of setting up an analytics development centre for a large, somewhat conservative organization. The location of the centre had yet to be determined, but it was clear it would be a continent and a world away from headquarters.

A senior IT executive from headquarters was visiting our subsidiary. I knew him quite well and we had a good working relationship. He frowned as he caught sight of me across our big open plan area and gestured that he wanted to talk.

Uh oh.

I nodded and walked over to a vacant meeting room on my side.  He followed shortly and closed the door behind him.

Brief pleasantries done, he got to the point. “What’s this I hear about a development centre? What the hell are you up to?”


Despite out best-laid plans, the lives of our projects and the projects of our lives tend to hinge on minor events that we have little control over. Robert Chia stresses this point in his book Strategy without Design:

“Ambitious strategic plans, the ‘big picture’ approach that seeks a lasting solution or competitive advantage through large-scale transformations, often end up undermining their own potential effectiveness because they overlook the fine details of everyday happenings at ‘ground zero’ level.

At one level we know this, yet we act out a large part of our personal and work lives as though this were not so.


In business (and life!) we are exhorted to think before doing. My boss tells me I need to think about my team’s workplan for next year; my wife tells me I need to think about the future. Thinking is at the center of our strategies, blueprints, plans – the things that supposedly propel our lives into an imagined future.  

In brief, we are exhorted to make detailed plans of what we are going to do; we are encouraged not to act without thinking.

As Descartes famously wrote, cogito ergo sum, our thinking establishes our being.

But is that really so?


Gregory Bateson noted the following in his book, Angels Fear:

There is a discrepancy of logical type between “think” and “be”. Descartes is trying to jump from the frying pan of thought, ideas, images, opinions, arguments etc., into the fire of existence and action. But that jump itself is unmapped. Between two such contrasting universes there can be no “ergo” – no totally self-evident link. There is no looking before leaping from “cogito” to “sum”.

The gap between our plans and reality is analogous to the gap between thought and action. There is ample advice on how to think but very little on how to act in difficult situations.

As Bateson wrote elsewhere:

What is lacking is a theory of action within large complex systems, where the active agent is himself a part and a product of the system.

He then goes on to say that Kant’s categorical imperative – “act so to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means – might provide a starting point for such a theory.”

So far, so unsurprising.

But in the very next line, Bateson says something truly intriguing:

It seems also that great teachers and therapists avoid all direct attempts to influence the action of others and, instead, try to provide the settings or contexts in which some (usually imperfectly specified) change may occur.

This line resonated deeply when I read it first because it spelt out something that I had learnt through experience but had not found the words to articulate.


In contentious discussions, it is difficult to change minds using facts and figures alone. Indeed, the current reluctance to be vaccinated against Covid is a case in point (see this article, for example).What one needs in such situations is to reframe the terms of the discussion. In the Covid case that might be to focus on relative risks in terms that people can understand rather than absolute numbers of people who have suffered serious side-effects of the vaccine.

In general, reframing is about changing the way in which people perceive the problematic issue.  The best way to describe how it works is via an example. Here’s one from Paul Watzlawick’s classic book on change

A police officer with a special ability for resolving sticky situations in unusual ways, often involving a disarming use of humour, was in the process of issuing a citation for a minor traffic violation when a hostile crowd began to gather around him. By the time he had given the offender his ticket, the mood of the crowd was ugly and the sergeant was not certain that he would be able to get back to the relative safety of his patrol car. It then occurred to him to announce in a loud voice: “You have just witnessed the issuance of a traffic ticket by a member of your Oakland Police Department” And while the bystanders were busy trying to fathom the deeper meaning of this all too obvious communique, he got into his cruiser and drove off.

The specifics of what one might do depends on the situation, but the general idea is to appreciate the situation from the viewpoint of the other party and act in a way that helps shift that perspective in an indirect or oblique manner.

This is one of the key principles of emergent design – and more about that in a forthcoming piece.


Back to the story I started with:

I realized instinctively that much hinged on what I said and – more importantly – how I said. My interlocutor was clearly upset, and I had to ensure that my words did not infuriate him further. He had the power to stop my fledgling project in its tracks with a word or two in the right ears.

“There is no plan to set up a development centre,” I said, looking him in the eye. “All we have done is hire a couple of people here to help with the workload at headquarters.”

“Who has requested help?”

I told him who. He knew that person well and thought highly of him.

“Where do you plan to go from here?” he demanded.

“Like I said, there is no plan. This is just a pilot to see if we can help improve productivity. The idea is to free people in headquarters so that they can focus on the strategic stuff.”

“Just make sure it doesn’t turn into something bigger.”

“Absolutely,” I responded, mustering what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

“OK,” he nodded and walked out. 

I breathed easier; he seemed to be OK with it for now. But even if not, the conversation was still open. More importantly, I had bought myself some time to pay greater attention to the politics of the project over the coming weeks.


It was only in retrospect that I realized that the interaction described here was pivotal to the success of the project. How so is a story to be told later. For now, the point I wish to make is that the projects of our lives can be planned down to great detail, but their outcomes are often determined by the unplanned micro-actions we take while doing them.


(no identity – courtesy HaPe Gera https://www.flickr.com/photos/hape_gera/2929195528)

Written by K

June 1, 2021 at 6:51 am

3 or 7, truth or trust

with one comment

“It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Over the last few years I’ve been teaching and refining a series of lecture-workshops on Decision Making Under Uncertainty. Audiences include data scientists and mid-level managers working in corporates and public service agencies. The course is based on the distinction between uncertainties in which the variables are known and can be quantified versus those in which the variables are not known upfront and/or are hard to quantify.

Before going any further, it is worth explaining the distinction via a couple of examples:

An example of the first type of uncertainty is project estimation. A project has an associated time and cost, and although we don’t know what their values are upfront, we can estimate them if we have the right data.  The point to note is this: because such problems can be quantified, the human brain tends to deal with them in a logical manner.

In contrast, business strategy is an example of the second kind of uncertainty. Here we do not know what the key variables are upfront. Indeed we cannot, because different stakeholders will perceive different aspects of a strategy to be paramount depending on their interests – consider, for example, the perspective of a CFO versus that of a CMO. Because of these differences, one cannot make progress on such problems until agreement has been reached on what is important to the group as a whole.  The point to note here is that since such problems involve contentious issues, our reactions to them  tend to be emotional rather than logical.

The difference between the two types of uncertainty is best conveyed experientially, so I have a few in-class activities aimed at doing just that. One of them is an exercise I call “3 or 7“, in which I give students a sheet with the following printed on it:

Circle either the number 3 or 7 below depending on whether you want 3 marks or 7 marks added to your Assignment 2 final mark. Yes, this offer is for real, but there a catch: if more than 10% of the class select 7, no one gets anything.

Write your student ID on the paper so that Kailash can award you the marks. Needless to say, your choice will remain confidential, no one (but Kailash) will know what you have selected.

3              7

Prior to handing out the sheet, I tell them that they:

  • should sit far enough apart so that they can’t see what their neighbours choose,
  • are not allowed to communicate their choices to others until the entire class has turned their sheets.

Before reading any further you may want to think about what typically happens.


Many readers would have recognized this exercise as a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and, indeed, many students in my classes recognize this too.   Even so, there are always enough of “win at the cost of others” types in the room who ensure that I don’t have to award any extra marks. I’ve run the exercise about 10 times, often with groups comprised of highly collaborative individuals who work well together. Despite that,15-20% of the class ends up opting for 7.

It never fails to surprise me that, even in relatively close-knit groups, there are invariably a number of individuals who, if given a chance to gain at the expense of their colleagues, will not hesitate to do so providing their anonymity is ensured.


Conventional management thinking deems that any organisational activity involving several people has to be closely supervised. Underlying this view is the assumption that individuals involved in the activity will, if left unsupervised, make decisions based on self-interest rather than the common good (as happens in the prisoner’s dilemma game). This assumption finds justification in rational choice theory, which predicts that individuals will act in ways that maximise their personal benefit without any regard to the common good. This view is exemplified in 3 or 7 and, at a societal level, in the so-called Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals who have access to a common resource over-exploit it,  thus depleting the resource entirely.

Fortunately, such a scenario need not come to pass: the work of Elinor Ostrom, one of the 2009 Nobel prize winners for Economics, shows that, given the right conditions, groups can work towards the common good even if it means forgoing personal gains.

Classical economics assumes that individuals’ actions are driven by rational self-interest – i.e. the well-known “what’s in it for me” factor. Clearly, the group will achieve much better results as a whole if it were to exploit the resource in a cooperative way. There are several real-world examples where such cooperative behaviour has been successful in achieving outcomes for the common good (this paper touches on some). However, according to classical economic theory, such cooperative behaviour is simply not possible.

So the question is: what’s wrong with rational choice theory?  A couple of things, at least:

Firstly, implicit in rational choice theory is the assumption that individuals can figure out the best choice in any given situation.  This is obviously incorrect. As Ostrom has stated in one of her papers:

Because individuals are boundedly rational, they do not calculate a complete set of strategies for every situation they face. Few situations in life generate information about all potential actions that one can take, all outcomes that can be obtained, and all strategies that others can take.

Instead, they use heuristics (experienced-based methods), norms (value-based techniques) and rules (mutually agreed regulations) to arrive at “good enough” decisions.  Note that Ostrom makes a distinction between norms and rules, the former being implicit (unstated) rules, which are determined by the cultural attitudes and values)

Secondly, rational choice theory assumes that humans behave as self-centred, short-term maximisers. Such theories work in competitive situations such as the stock-market but not in situations in which collective action is called for, such as the prisoners dilemma.

Ostrom’s work essentially addresses the limitations of rational choice theory by outlining how individuals can work together to overcome self-interest.


In a paper entitled, A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action, published in 1998, Ostrom states that:

…much of our current public policy analysis is based on an assumption that rational individuals are helplessly trapped in social dilemmas from which they cannot extract themselves without inducement or sanctions applied from the outside. Many policies based on this assumption have been subject to major failure and have exacerbated the very problems they were intended to ameliorate. Policies based on the assumptions that individuals can learn how to devise well-tailored rules and cooperate conditionally when they participate in the design of institutions affecting them are more successful in the field…[Note:  see this book by Baland and Platteau, for example]

Since rational choice theory aims to maximise individual gain,  it does not work in situations that demand collective action – and Ostrom presents some very general evidence to back this claim.  More interesting than the refutation of rational choice theory, though, is Ostrom’s discussion of the ways in which individuals “trapped” in social dilemmas end up making the right choices. In particular she singles out two empirically grounded ways in which individuals work towards outcomes that are much better than those offered by rational choice theory. These are:

Communication: In the rational view, communication makes no difference to the outcome.  That is, even if individuals make promises and commitments to each other (through communication), they will invariably break these for the sake of personal gain …or so the theory goes. In real life, however, it has been found that opportunities for communication significantly raise the cooperation rate in collective efforts (see this paper abstract or this one, for example). Moreover, research shows that face-to-face is far superior to any other form of communication, and that the main benefit achieved through communication is exchanging mutual commitment (“I promise to do this if you’ll promise to do that”) and increasing trust between individuals. It is interesting that the main role of communication is to enhance or reinforce the relationship between individuals rather than to transfer information.  This is in line with the interactional theory of communication.

Innovative Governance:  Communication by itself may not be enough; there must be consequences for those who break promises and commitments. Accordingly, cooperation can be encouraged by implementing mutually accepted rules for individual conduct, and imposing sanctions on those who violate them. This effectively amounts to designing and implementing novel governance structures for the activity. Note that this must be done by the group; rules thrust upon the group by an external authority are unlikely to work.

Of course, these factors do not come into play in artificially constrained and time-bound scenarios like 3 or 7.  In such situations, there is no opportunity or time to communicate or set up governance structures. What is clear, even from the simple 3 or 7 exercise,  is that these are required even for groups that appear to be close-knit.

Ostrom also identifies three core relationships that promote cooperation. These are:

Reciprocity: this refers to a family of strategies that are based on the expectation that people will respond to each other in kind – i.e. that they will do unto others as others do unto them.  In group situations, reciprocity can be a very effective means to promote and sustain cooperative behaviour.

Reputation: This refers to the general view of others towards a person. As such, reputation is a part of how others perceive a person, so it forms a part of the identity of the person in question. In situations demanding collective action, people might make judgements on a person’s reliability and trustworthiness based on his or her reputation.’

Trust: Trust refers to expectations regarding others’ responses in situations where one has to act before others. And if you think about it, everything else in Ostrom’s framework is ultimately aimed at engendering or – if that doesn’t work – enforcing trust.


In an article on ethics and second-order cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster tells the following story:

I have a dear friend who grew up in Marrakech. The house of his family stood on the street that divide the Jewish and the Arabic quarter. As a boy he played with all the others, listened to what they thought and said, and learned of their fundamentally different views. When I asked him once, “Who was right?” he said, “They are both right.”

“But this cannot be,” I argued from an Aristotelian platform, “Only one of them can have the truth!”

“The problem is not truth,” he answered, “The problem is trust.”

For me, that last line summarises the lesson implicit in the admittedly artificial scenario of 3 or 7. In our search for facts and decision-making frameworks we forget the simple truth that in many real-life dilemmas they matter less than we think. Facts and  frameworks cannot help us decide on ambiguous matters in which the outcome depends on what other people do.  In such cases the problem is not truth; the problem is trust.  From your own experience it should be evident it is impossible convince others of your trustworthiness by assertion, the only way to do so is by behaving in a trustworthy way. That is, by behaving ethically rather than talking about it, a point that is squarely missed by so-called business ethics classes.

Yes,  it is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.


  1. Portions of this article are lightly edited sections from a 2009 article that I wrote on Ostrom’s work and its relevance to project management.
  2.  Finally, an unrelated but important matter for which I seek your support for a common good: I’m taking on the 7 Bridges Walk to help those affected by cancer. Please donate via my 7 Bridges fundraising page if you can . Every dollar counts; all funds raised will help Cancer Council work towards the vision of a cancer free future.

Written by K

September 18, 2019 at 8:28 pm

Seven Bridges revisited – further reflections on the map and the territory

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The  Seven Bridges Walk is an annual fitness and fund-raising event organised by the Cancer Council of New South Wales. The picturesque 28 km circuit weaves its way through a number of waterfront suburbs around Sydney Harbour and takes in some spectacular views along the way.  My friend John and I did the walk for the first time in 2017. Apart from thoroughly enjoying the experience, there was  another, somewhat unexpected payoff: the walk evoked some thoughts on project management and the map-territory relationship which I subsequently wrote up in a post on this blog.

Figure 1:The map, the plan

We enjoyed the walk so much that we decided to do it again in 2018. Now, it is a truism that one cannot travel exactly the same road twice. However, much is made of the repeatability of certain kinds of experiences. For example, the discipline of project management is largely predicated on the assumption that projects are repeatable.  I thought it would be interesting to see how this plays out in the case of a walk along a well-defined route, not the least because it is in many ways akin to a repeatable project.

To begin with, it is easy enough to compare the weather conditions on the two days: 29 Oct 2017 and 28 Oct 2018. A quick browse of this site gave me the data as I was after (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Weather on 29 Oct 2017 and 28 Oct 2018

The data supports our subjective experience of the two walks. The conditions in 2017 were less than ideal for walking: clear and uncomfortably warm with a hot breeze from the north.  2018 was considerably better: cool and overcast with a gusty south wind – in other words, perfect walking weather. Indeed, one of the things we commented on the second time around was how much more pleasant it was.

But although weather conditions matter, they tell but a part of the story.

On the first walk, I took a number of photographs at various points along the way. I thought it would be interesting to take photographs at the same spots, at roughly the same time as I did the last time around, and compare how things looked a year on. In the next few paragraphs I show a few of these side by side (2017 left, 2018 right) along with some comments.

We started from Hunters Hill at about 7:45 am as we did on our first foray, and took our first photographs at Fig Tree Bridge, about a kilometre from the starting point.

Figure 3: Lane Cove River from Fig Tree Bridge (2017 Left, 2018 Right)

The purple Jacaranda that captivated us in 2017 looks considerably less attractive the second time around (Figure 3): the tree is yet to flower and what little there is there does not show well in the cloud-diffused light. Moreover, the scaffolding and roof covers on the building make for a much less attractive picture. Indeed, had the scene looked so the first time around, it is unlikely we would have considered it worthy of a photograph.

The next shot (Figure 4), taken not more than a  hundred metres from the previous one, also looks considerably different:  rougher waters and no kayakers in the foreground. Too cold and windy, perhaps?  The weather and wind data in Fig 2 would seem to support that conclusion.

Figure 4: Morning kayakers on the river (2017 Left, 2018 Right)

The photographs in Figure 5 were taken at Pyrmont Bridge  about four hours into the walk. We already know from Figure 4 that it was considerably windier in 2018. A comparison of the flags in the two shots in Figure 5 reveal an additional detail: the wind was from opposite directions in the two years. This is confirmed by the weather information in Figure 2, which also tells us that the wind was from the north in 2017 and the south the following year (which explains the cooler conditions).  We can even get an  approximate temperature: the photographs were taken around 11:30 am both years, and a quick look at Figure 2 reveals that the temperature at noon was about 30 C in 2017 and 18 C in 2018.

Figure 5: Pyrmont Bridge (2017 Left, 2018 Right)

The point about the wind direction and cloud conditions is also confirmed by comparing the photographs in Figure 6, taken at Anzac Bridge, a few kilometres further along the way (see the direction of the flag atop the pylon).

Figure 6: View looking up Anzac Bridge (2017 L, 2018 R)

Skipping over to the final section of the walk, here are a couple of shots I took towards the end: Figure 7 shows a view from Gladesville Bridge and Figure 8 shows one from Tarban Creek Bridge.  Taken together the two confirm some of the things we’ve already noted regarding the weather and conditions for photography.

Figure 7: View from Gladesville Bridge (2017 L, 2018 R)

Further, if you look closely at Figures 7 and 8, you will also see the differences in the flowering stage of the Jacaranda.

Figure 8: View from Tarban Creek Bridge (2017 L, 2018 R)

A detail that I did not notice until John pointed it out is that the the boat at the bottom edge of  both photographs in Fig. 8 is the same one (note the colour of the furled sail)! This was surprising to us, but it should not have been so.  It turns out that boat owners have to apply for private mooring licenses and are allocated positions at which they install a suitable mooring apparatus. Although this is common knowledge for boat owners, it likely isn’t so for others.

The photographs are a visual record of some of the things we encountered  along the way. However, the details in recorded in them have more to do with aesthetics rather the experience – in photography of this kind, one tends to preference what looks good over what happened. Sure, some of the photographs offer hints about the experience but much of this is incidental and indirect. For example,  when taking the photographs in Figures 5 and 6, it was certainly not my intention to record the wind direction. Indeed, that would have been a highly convoluted way to convey information that is directly and more accurately described by the data in Figure 2 . That said, even data has limitations: it can help fill in details such as the wind direction and temperature but it does not evoke any sense of what it was like to be there, to experience the experience, so to speak.

Neither data nor photographs are the stuff memories are made of. For that one must look elsewhere.


As Heraclitus famously said, one can never step into the same river twice. So it is with walks.  Every experience of a walk is unique; although map remains the same the territory is invariably different on each traverse, even if only subtly so. Indeed, one could say that the territory is defined through one’s experience of it. That experience is not reproducible, there are always differences in the details.

As John Salvatier points out, reality has a surprising amount of detail, much of which we miss because we look but do not see. Seeing entails a deliberate focus on minutiae such as the play of morning light on the river or tree; the cool damp from last night’s rain; changes in the built environment, some obvious, others less so.  Walks are made memorable by precisely such details, but paradoxically  these can be hard to record in a meaningful way.  Factual (aka data-driven) descriptions end up being laundry lists that inevitably miss the things that make the experience memorable.

Poets do a better job. Consider, for instance, Tennyson‘s take on a brook:

“…I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow.

I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever….”

One can almost see and hear a brook. Not Tennyson’s, but one’s own version of it.

Evocative descriptions aren’t the preserve of poets alone. Consider the following description of Sydney Harbour, taken from DH Lawrence‘s Kangaroo:

“…He took himself off to the gardens to eat his custard apple-a pudding inside a knobbly green skin-and to relax into the magic ease of the afternoon. The warm sun, the big, blue harbour with its hidden bays, the palm trees, the ferry steamers sliding flatly, the perky birds, the inevitable shabby-looking, loafing sort of men strolling across the green slopes, past the red poinsettia bush, under the big flame-tree, under the blue, blue sky-Australian Sydney with a magic like sleep, like sweet, soft sleep-a vast, endless, sun-hot, afternoon sleep with the world a mirage. He could taste it all in the soft, sweet, creamy custard apple. A wonderful sweet place to drift in….”

Written in 1923, it remains a brilliant evocation of the Harbour even today.

Tennyson’s brook and Lawrence’s Sydney do a better job than photographs or factual description, even though the latter are considered more accurate and objective. Why?  It is because their words are more than mere description: they are stories that convey a sense of what it is like to be there.


The two editions of the walk covered exactly the same route, but our experiences of the territory on the two instances were very different. The differences were in details that ultimately added up to the uniqueness of each experience.  These details cannot  be captured by maps and visual or written records, even in principle. So although one may gain familiarity with certain aspects of a territory through repetition, each lived experience of it will be unique. Moreover, no two individuals will experience the territory in exactly the same way.

When bidding for projects, consultancies make much of their prior experience of doing similar projects elsewhere. The truth, however, is that although two projects may look identical on paper they will invariably be different in practice.  The map,  as Korzybski famously said, is not the territory.  Even more, every encounter with the territory is different.

All this is not to say that maps (or plans or data) are useless, one needs them as orienting devices. However, one must accept that they offer limited guidance on how to deal with the day-to-day events and occurrences on a project. These tend to be unique because they are highly context dependent. The lived experience of a project is therefore necessarily different from the planned one. How can one gain insight into the former? Tennyson and Lawrence offer a hint: look to the stories told by people who have traversed the territory, rather than the maps, plans and data-driven reports they produce.

Written by K

February 15, 2019 at 8:24 am

Posted in Project Management

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