Collaboration Across Time: All in All, Just Some New Bricks in PM Innovation

I recently engaged in an email discussion with a friend and colleague on the topic of innovation and new ideas in project management. My friend pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that there can be very few worthwhile techniques in project management that someone hasn’t thought of and used in the past. I think there is much truth to this. Ancient Egyptians surely must have been using some version of CPM, and even resource leveling, for the pyramids – after all, such methods are largely common sense even if a computer is not available.

I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators, which I enthusiastically recommend to all. One of his themes is that “collaboration” is often over different periods of time, and new ideas are almost always tweaks of previous ideas: enhancements or creation of new contexts.

Filippo Brunelleschi was not the first person to discover the principles of linear perspective – the ancient Greeks knew all about it. But it was Brunelleschi whose rediscovery underpinned the Renaissance and led directly to the great works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and the rest of the Turtles. Perhaps there are PM ideas that the pharaohs used that are waiting to be rediscovered…

Sometimes an idea just appears before the appropriate context for it is ready. Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance thinkers designed the parachute, but it would be centuries before the internal combustion engine and the Wright brothers would lead the way to make it a practical and life-saving (not to mention military) contraption. This was truly a “temporal” collaboration, stretching across the centuries.

Project management’s traditional techniques and metrics like WBS, critical path analysis, resource leveling and earned value are not going to go away and be replaced by something else. Rather, they will be improved, enhanced, and perhaps narrowed to specific areas where their applicability is best fitted.

Many people ask me about my book Managing Projects as Investments: “Is it just another project management book with the same techniques as in all the others?”

I never know quite how to answer. Because no, I do not think any reader will have read the new concepts and techniques elsewhere (unless it’s in a different article or book by me). Yet these ideas all either sit atop the edifice of standard and venerable project management techniques, or are concepts that are so obvious that they must have been used by others previously, perhaps dating back as far as the pharaohs. (One of my corporate seminar attendees once said: “Steve, you have an amazing grasp of the glaringly obvious!” But I’m not unique in that.)

The concepts in my book are quite different from standard PM fare, as the title should indicate. They lay out a different overall approach, with enhanced techniques and metrics that aren’t found in books by other authors. So I do feel that, as a coherent methodology which includes these specific technical and metrical innovations, my approach is new. But in no way do I believe that each is not the product of a temporal collaboration, with my ideas being bricks that add to the work of those true giants who developed the WBS and CPM and resource leveling and earned value.

I feel sure that most of my specific techniques have been thought of and applied on specific projects before – how could something as obvious and valuable as critical path drag not have been previously calculated by schedulers, not just once but many times? It’s just that the concept and the method for doing the calculations have not made it into PM software or the various PM standards of the different national and international organizations.

To list some of these specific concepts:

  • Projects are investments. Of course they are! Every project sponsor/customer in history has known this, whether or not they have stated it or incorporated metrics for tracking investment value. The fact that today this approach seems “different” is due to:
  1. The failure to include the word “investment” in that definition of “project” which the 1996 PMBOK® Guide encoded and that now every PMP Prep class teaches by rote, and
  2. The omission of ROI-based user input fields in PM software that would allow planning, tracking and optimizing of a project’s investment value.
  • The creation of a method for measuring and indexing, in integration, the three sides of the Iron Triangle of scope, cost and schedule. This is what the DIPP and the DIPP Progress Index (DPI) do. But again, the knowledge that the project investment is impacted by scope, cost and schedule has been well known for decades, if not centuries. The DIPP metric simply extends earned value metrics and analysis to a project’s investment value.
  • The idea that project time must be measured in monetary units goes back at least to the year 1748 and Advice to a Young Tradesman, by an Old One: “Time is a whole bunch of Benjamins!”
  • The value breakdown structure (VBS) is simply an extension of the work breakdown structure that can be used to itemize scope’s value, set priorities, and ensure that the value-added of work is greater than its true cost.
  • Critical path drag is just an extension of critical path theory; drag cost just combines it with the value of project time; and true cost (TC) just combines drag cost and budgetary cost.
  • The cost of leveling with unresolved bottlenecks (the CLUB) for a specific resource is simply a way of combining the reduced investment value due to a delay with the specific resource causing that delay, on a single project, across a multiproject portfolio, and across an entire organization. But it rests on old techniques such as critical path analysis and resource leveling.
  • The doubled resource estimated duration (the DRED) is simply a technique for measuring something every project manager understands and tries to deal with subjectively, but has not previously had a quantified way of estimating and managing: the varying resource elasticity of different activities in terms of the sensitivity of their durations to increased resource availability.

Other topics in the book point out how some of the inadequate metrics and techniques that we use are distorting our analysis of projects and introducing potential for the gaming of metrics and moral hazard, and how they could be improved to eliminate these problems:

  • Deadline-based contracts that suffer from both the principal-agent problem and Parkinson’s Law;
  • The schedule performance index (SPI) that ignores the all-important critical path and provides incentives for doing non-critical but large-budget work and even out-of-sequence work items;
  • The measuring and incentivizing of functional manager performance on the basis of departmental utilization rate metrics which encourage functional managers to use counter-productive techniques like understaffing and multitasking to maximize “billable time.”

I believe that all of the new concepts in my book are valuable, or I wouldn’t have written a book about them. But they are merely enhancements to the core techniques of which others conceived and then “worked out the bugs”.

I know that I will never forget my reaction the first time (in 1987) I learned of critical path analysis (albeit without drag): “It’s so obvious – yet I’d never in a million years have thought of this!”

Fraternally in project management,

Steve the Bajan

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