The Inevitability of Randomness

A common question I hear asked is “where can I find out more about project management?”

Often the person asking is not going to be an avid reader of blogs, much lees keen to spend their journey to work dipping into a book.  So happily I can refer them to my favourite piece of project management learning, Channel 4’s “Grand Designs”.  Without a doubt, this is the best source of project management on British TV and I hope it is available in other countries.

Grand Designs Abroad

If you have not seen it, each show follows one person or family constructing a new home, often from nothing.  They combine a host of great subjects:

  • Project management
  • Architecture
  • Design
  • Fabrication methods and materials
  • Human interest (of course!)

If there isn’t a current series running when you read this blog, then there will almost certainly be a repeated series running on More4 if you have Freeview.  If you aren’t in the UK, you’ll have to do your own research.

28 Weeks

What makes it so watchable is presenter Kevin McCloud’s combination of enthusiasm and knowingness.  There was a lovely episode where, unlike many of the people featured, the woman managing the project had a clear plan – in the form of a rather neat Gantt Chart.  Confidently, she told McCloud that the build would take 28 weeks.

“Really?” he responded, letting his eyebrow tell us what he thought of this assertion.  Apparently so – it was all in the plan.  Needless to say, shift happened.

It turned out that the British weather was a primary confounding factor in her case – what we might call a known unknown.

Chaotic Uncertainty

Where some countries are blessed with a climate, here in Britain, we just have weather, which nobody can predict.  The Meteorological Office used to have a stab at long range forecasts but announced in 2010 they would revert to medium range only after predicting a “barbeque summer” for 2009 and a mild winter for 2009/10.

We are in a time of changing global conditions; meaning that, more than ever, there is little apparent pattern to the weather.  The only thing that is predictable is its uncertainty.  The weather is an example of one type of uncertainty: a chaotic system.  The weather is the result of millions of subtle factors interacting according to a small set of simple physical laws.  What makes it impossible to anticipate accurately is the complexity of the interactions.

True Randomness

Gather enough detail and restrict your predictions to a narrow enough time and geographical range, and you can predict weather.  Forecasters do it every day and, on a day-to-day basis, their predictions mostly get close enough to “correct” to be useful.

Some things, however, can not be predicted at all.  You know that on your technology integration project that there will be hold-ups, integration challenges, personality clashes, technology glitches, supply chain challenges and a hundred other tests of your project stoicism.

Risk management tries to anticipate and plan for these.  And over time, we try to learn from the problems that we have faced and apply that learning to minimise and control risk next time.  But here is the caution.

Humans are pattern-forming creatures.  We are so good at spotting patterns that we are wont to see them where they don’t exist.  Derren Brown did a TV programme a few years ago in which he repeated a famous experiment by BF Skinner, in his own, entertaining way.

A miscellaneous bunch of minor celebrities had to score points but they had no idea what they had to do to score their points.  What they were shown was a counter which told them when they had scored a point.  They needed to figure out what to.  So as soon as a point went on, they each made a hypothesis and repeated the action that they thought had caused the increment.

Magical thinking

If, for example, one of them kicked a toy and the counter clicked, they would assume causality.  They would do it again.  An lo; the counter clicked.  Maybe it didn’t work every time, so they invented new, subsidiary rules, like the need to look up before kicking (I don’t recall the actual details).  Before long, most succumbed to “magical thinking”: a set of beliefs for which there was no evidence, except and increasingly long set of rituals that they were prepared to adapt leading, usually, to a hoped-for result.

In fact the clicking of the counter was random (actually, it was controlled by an operator who incremented the points when one of two goldfish crossed a line on its tank wall – not truly random, but certainly wholly unconnected to what the celebrities were doing).

The “so what?”

Set aside the obvious points about alternative medicine, superstition and religious beliefs.  What decisions are you making on your project that are led by nothing more than tradition, faith and the stories of an elderly spouse?

Some things truly are random to us – yes, there are causes, like the weather, so they are not truly “unknown unknowns”.  But at the time of observation, we don’t have sufficient data to uncover the cause; and in the pragmatic world of project management, we may not have the time to.  Yet that is not an excuse for superstition.

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