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We Drink The Cool-Aid Because That's All That's Being Served

An excellent story about project management.

We Drink The Cool-Aid Because That's All That's Being Served

Tony Rizzo, President
Product Development Institute

Imagine that we're in a social setting. I serve you an attractive red beverage, and as I hand your glass to you I also tell you that the pitcher from which I poured the refreshing beverage contains arsenic. There isn't enough arsenic to kill you, in one glassful of the liquid. But it may make you sick and may kill you once you've drunk enough glassfuls. Still, the beverage is delicious. Would you drink?

Now imagine that we're in a meeting. We're discussing the status of the projects of your enterprise. All your project managers have completed recent updates of the projects, and I've just completed building the plan for your latest project, which is to be started soon. As I present the plan to you, I tell you that the expected duration of the project, nine months, is a gross underestimate; it comes with a confidence level of less than five percent. Would you accept my plan?

Very possibly, you would accept the plan, even after being made aware of the gross underestimate of the project's likely duration. But, in all actuality, I would never come right out and say that my estimate of nine months corresponded to only a five percent probability of success, because I wouldn't know that it did. Instead I would say that we would go all out, to make your new project succeed. We would "put our noses to the grindstones on this one," I might say. In other words, the nine- month glassful would be sweetened with every imaginable clich�, so that you might drink the lie. And drink you would, just as you had drunk heartily of all the earlier, gross underestimates served up by your other project managers. Chin-Chin!

The irony is that I would not be lying to you deliberately, when serving you the nine-month estimate of project duration. Nor would all the other project managers have been lying to you deliberately. With the greatest degree of sincerity, I would be serving you the sweetest of project plans, laced with the most perfumed of poisons. Inadvertently, in complete ignorance, and with the best of intentions, I and all your other project managers would be misleading you at every step, and you would be imbibing our advice most willingly. We and you would continue to propagate the grand lie.

Of what grand lie do I speak? I speak of the many estimates of project duration, of course. These are created daily throughout the world, by project managers whose tools force them to create grossly misleading mathematical models of projects, models that then are used to make predictions and subsequent commitments to decision-makers like you and even to customers.

"Wait!" you say. "Which project management tool would provide such erroneous output?"

Unfortunately, they all do, because they all fail to take into account the effects of variation. Except for few very minor players in the world of project management software tools, all the project management tools in wide use today are entirely incapable of estimating and modeling the very significant effects of variation.

W. Edwards Deming would have walked into his own grave, had he been aware of the degree to which variation hindered performance in the world of projects. After decades of effort to improve product quality, today variation in manufacturing is much improved, and at times nearly imperceptible. Not so in the world of product development! Variation in task duration is at least two to three orders of magnitude greater than the magnitude of variation that we encounter in manufacturing. Variation in project duration is even greater, due to the nature of our project plans. Yet, the tools available to project managers, for modeling and managing variation, are, well, missing in action. With respect to modeling and managing the effects of variation in project duration, project management software tools are to their manufacturing and quality counterparts as a stone ax is to a cruise missile.

But that's not the worst of it. Those who use today's stone-age tools of project management aren't even aware of the shortcomings. Thus, project managers continue to pour their sweet lies from the pitchers laced with arsenic, and we all continue to drink heartily.

(L) CopyLeft, Product Development Institute, 2004.
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