Into the future we charge

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Predicting the future is probably the most intensely inaccurate thing that anyone can do. I am making this statement after over-hearing a conversation between 2 project managers. They were complaining about the research out of Oxford University that essentially found that project managers are inadequate at estimating cost, benefit and time for the organisations they are employed by. These gents were seriously unhappy with the article.


Do I think Professor Bent Flyvbjerg is right?

I don’t know; my gut feeling is that he is probably right and here is why.

Arthur C Clarke writes that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This statement by itself is thought provoking.  It is not that magic is false or driven by technology (maybe it is – who knows?) but rather that the lack of understanding on the part of people who have no comprehension of what is before them makes the technology seem like magic. Think about it like this, look at your choices in life and what you think you are an expert at and possibly really good at.  Then think about what you really know nothing about.  When you think about stuff you really know it is easy to comprehend and understand and things which are similar to it may make sense.  You may recognise patterns or have a way of seeing things.  The opposite applies to things you have little or no understanding of.  A simple example – I am fascinated by the idea that a large aeroplane, like an Airbus or Boeing can fly and stay up in the sky.  I have a rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics but I cannot comprehend how these large machines are engineered or the complexity in the safety procedures.  All I know is that when I fly I have blind faith that the people who built it, tested it and said it can do what it does, are right.  Every time.  It is wizardry to me.  I have the same fascination with many things in the world every day.  The boundaries of my knowledge or not unlimited but are rather limited by my personal understanding.  Worse still is that I am happy to hazard a guess as to why it happens.  I am sure that often my guess is as valuable as saying something like, “the fairies keep the jet up” because it is probably that inaccurate.

The key is recognising this inadequacy and trying to plan for it.  The US military refers to the idea that there is information and knowledge that they cannot plan for in their scenarios. They call it the unknown unknowns.  It is a brilliant idea.  We know we don’t know everything and we know that things and ideas will emerge that are not yet thought of, but let’s be open to them and plan to include them when they happen.  Our scenarios can get better and maybe our adaptability to new technology will ensure we stay on the forefront of technology advances.

Essentially I am saying that project managers cannot predict the future as they just don’t know what the future holds. Of course I have set out an argument here without empirical evidence to support it.  I am rather relying on personal experience.  So let me make it more practical.  Predicting the future becomes more inaccurate the longer the time line for the prediction.  The further into the distance the less accurate you will be.  A quick mind game will highlight this.

Think about what you have planned for the next 3 meals.  You will probably think, dinner at home, going out with friends, a sandwich for lunch, canteen, whatever.  Now go into your calendar and go forward 7 days and do the same plan and then go forward a year and do the same plan.  So you now have 9 meals set-out.  Put a confidence mark next to each one in terms of how certain you are that this will be the meal you will have.  High equals very certain, medium equals maybe and low, no certainty at all.  I am willing to bet that the meal plan you have set-out to happen in exactly 12 months will have a low next to it.  This is not true for everyone but for me it most certainly is.  I cannot think that I will be in the same place in 12 months, that the food I am in the mood for will be the same, that my health will be the same, that my circumstances will be the same (I may change jobs, be travelling, have meetings that prevent me from having that meal), and the reasons go on and on.  Eating is essential to our survival and the complexity in making this simple prediction is enormous.  You can do it with many different things, your transport, your clothes you will wear, your job and so forth.  Each one on its own has complexity that is not particularly complex (these are not passenger jets after all) but you can understand them as they are personal attributes you have a strong affinity with.  You can make the scenario even more complex; now try to predict all the things in 12 months’ time at once.  If you had to assign a confidence level to this super-prediction, you will probably be looking for something less than low as an option.  You may argue that some are fungible and change a lot. Take clothes; forget about if you buy new clothes or not, just assume you replace your whole wardrobe but to simplify it assume you will wear pants in a years’ time.  What colour will they be?  What colour will your shirt be? Will it be raining? Snowing? Heat wave maybe?

So now take someone who is not intimate with the subject matter of a project and inject technology into it.  Technology that for all intents may as well be run by fairies as this the understanding that the project manager has.  Ask them to do a costing, a benefits plan and how long it will take, and I am willing to bet that in 12 months, they may as well have made a paper aeroplane out of the proposal and flown it out the window.

Of course this may turn out to be false and the better the project manager and their understanding of the complexity of the technology and realising that there are unknown unknowns and having a plan to deal with them may make the forecasting better.  Getting the right people can turn the technology from being a piece of magic into something understandable. But is this then not an acknowledgment that maybe you don’t need a project manager?

So what I think is this.  I would be a terrible project manager to engineer a new passenger plane – I mean where do you get fairies from anyway?  I also think that technology is growing every day in ways we cannot comprehend and if you are prepared to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you are willing to deal with the unknowns, you have a shot at making it success.  Ultimately it is about getting the right people who can maybe just see things a bit differently and just maybe Professor Flyvberg will be seen to be wrong.

Today though, it is often about politics and who you know, not what you know.  But this is also just my opinion. I did after all say this is only my gut feeling.