Monday, August 26, 2013

Managing Cognitive biases

I picked up Rolf Dobelli's book called "The art of thinking clearly" recently at a book store.  After reading several chapters, I liked it very much, as  I can relate each chapter to my life own experiences. As an example, consider Reciprocity bias, which plays out usually in our lives. In one example,  people are triggered  to  donate to Charities when they receive a small  free gift. I have been a donor to few charities. But the sight of a free gift mostly weighed my action.  I was able to break out of this bias, when I became aware of this bias,  and was able to stick to my  specific objectives related to my donations.

Rolf's book  lists 99 biases, though it does not aim to be comprehensive. The main point from his book is that we are wired to be intutive and it takes lot more energy to think well for making a decision. He advises us to use the intutive decision making for  the circle of competence and use the checklist  of cognitive biases for any decision with major consequences. Of course, we need to be aware of the  feature positive effect (which is one more bias), when using checklists, as we give more weight to what is on the checklist than to what is not.

How can we use this to be better at  our professional roles.  For each decision making  situation it is advisable to look for one potential bias from the book and then use the first level cross references listed at the end of the chapter for other biases. So when we are submitting a project proposal, we know that we may be over confident in our estimates. So look up over confidence in the index. which leads us to  Overconfidence Effect and then to Illusion of skill, Forecast illusion, Strategic misrepresentation, Incentive Super response Tendency and Self Serving biases cross referenced from that chapter. By reviewing these, we may be able to make a better decision.

In an organization with mature processes, the decision making step would be preceded by various information gathering and analysis steps, involving more number of people, which could act to counter the cognitive biases to a large extent.

Monday, August 19, 2013

How visual is your Schedule?

Recently I attended the annual Wikipedian gathering called Wikimania in Hongkong. One session I particularly liked was called Imagine Wikipedia in 2022. The lead presenter shared the forecast  that  Wikipedia will become personal, linked up and Visual by 2022. We are increasingly living in digital world and visual content is becoming more common in  our social media circles.  That set me thinking about the nature of use of visuals in Project Management.

When I was the program manager several years back, I remember making a huge schedule. Even after printing on A0 size plotter, it was too detailed  and relating the gantt chart to the task text is  difficult, as connecting lines spread across vertically or horizontally. I reverted to  use of digital  schedule and emailing the same to project team, with occasional display of printed schedule for major meetings. The closest way to make a presentable schedule was to show the summary tasks along with their status. Later I switched to  detailed schedule till the  upcoming milestone and a gross schedule for subsequent tasks, which helped bring down the complexity.

Edward Tufte, who is notable for his  thoughts on Information Design and data visualisation, has a page on  Visualisation of Schedule on his website   which is worth reviewing. He recommended  presenting the big picture and then showing the detailed view of the relevant segment.  Microsoft Project  never implemented it as an off the shelf graphic feature. Some software add-ons or independent software were realized  to support this requirement.

With the availability of Smartphones, the problem severity increases because of the small screen. The availability of touch screen can help in  providing the necessary detail for the selected part of the schedule.

The agile camp side stepped the problem by introducing short time boxed sprints which has small number of tasks. The task status is sometimes represented  visually using Kanban cards. 

How do you handle complex schedules? Share your views.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Improving the effectiveness of Project Health Check

Project Managers  are critical resources in any project driven organization. Usual career development plans  focusing on training programs are not sufficient for project managers.
Mashup from commons images
Photo: Mashup of Images from Commons

Improvement opportunities for Project management arise from different stake holders such as customers, manager, team and also from activities such as  quality audits/ retrospectives.  These improvements are identified at a surface level rather than from a detailed in depth understanding of practices. Usual management review process tends to focus more on project rather than the project manager as an Individual.

Project health check is a practice, where an experienced project specialist  works with Project manager and uses an  assessment methodology to assess the project performance.  This also identifies opportunities for improvement. Where the improvements relate to the competencies of Project manager, mentoring by the specialist will be of great help. While the specialist can be drawn from with in organisation, an external specialist will be more effective as such an individual can work without any bias and constraints on time. For mentoring to be effective, both  the management and project manager need to have faith in the mentoring process and the external specialist.

As organizations are forced to  move from time and material business models to fixed price/outcome based models, due to the business dynamics,  the expectation on PMs are increasing. Institutionalization of  Project health checks and mentoring will be a worthwhile investment.

What has been your experience with mentoring of project managers?

Monday, August 05, 2013

The importance of estimation procedure for traditional projects

One of the major causes for Project delays in Engineering/IT projects is usually poor estimates.  A careful examination of estimation practices is required  to assess whether estimation is the real cause. If the estimate is single point  and only done at the proposal stage of a long duration project,  the estimation will necessarily be poor. 

Steve McConnel's Software estimation book presents 118 tips for improving the estimation after exploring both the art and science of estimation. If I have to pick one best tip, it will be Tip#77, Develop a standardized estimation procedure at the organization level; use it at the project level.

Estimation procedure makes it practical to implement  the cone of uncertainty, which is nothing but how the accuracy of estimate is improved by appropriate selection of  estimation methods and their inputs. Considering NASA SEL estimation procedure example, the project at the end of requirement analysis uses the number of subsystems as input and thumb rules for size and effort estimation along with uncertainity range of  -43% to 75%.  The rule for estimation at end of implementation is to use the current size, effort expended and schedule expended to derive new estimates for size, effort and schedule with an uncertainty range of -9% to +10%. Determining the procedure is difficult, as the  historical data of projects need to be analyzed  and transformed into thumb rules.  In my career, I  did this for few projects I managed to improve the thumb rules  of estimation, spending considerable time to collect the relevant metrics.  By being diligent about updating this year after year, organizations can improve estimation accuracy.

How are you improving the estimation baselines in your organization? Do you have detailed estimation procedure which uses updated baselines? Share your thoughts.