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Project management tool threatens “central planners”

In the rebellion of the business users, in which top-down gets tipped over, even stodgy old project management is coming alive.

“Most of the decisions made in project management,” says Liquid Planner CEO Charles Seybold, “happen under the surface.” He’s now trying to win over the people who work on projects but haven’t run many of them. He’s using transparency and collaboration.

Liquid Planner, the cloud-based insurgent — “a Wikipedia for projects” — has its roots in Seybold’s experience organizing Expedia’s first project management office. Every time the 40 or so projects under his watch got rolled up, he says, there was “a new distortion of reality.” He had become frustrated with the usual tools. Finally, he and his team decided they had to start over.

Today, Liquid Planner discards a lot of project management fixtures, such as fixed start and finish dates. In their place, it uses ranges and “probabilistic scheduling.” That’s actually how people think, isn’t it? Other old habits are “percent complete” and “earned value,” both of which I’ve found laughable.

The tool also doesn’t allow overloading, by which team members are booked for more than 100 percent of their time. And the tool forces decisions on priority, making just one thing a first priority and not several.

Liquid Planner fights cynicism and standoffs with transparency. In a typical project, team members provide data — such as estimates, actual hours worked, re-estimates, and risk assessments — to a project manager, who a week or two later issues a schedule that can’t be traced back to the raw data. Hidden within that opaque but official schedule are broad assumptions about risk and uncertainty.

Team members have lost control but are still held responsible. So they respond however they can, he says, typically with covert adjustments within each one’s area. Team members and project managers then get locked in a hostile negotiation in which neither side can safely share information.

Seybold often hears from project managers who really don’t think team members should have a say. “Way too many [project managers] act like keeping team members in the dark is the right thing,” he says. “We hear this when people ask us to obscure and lock down information that, as far as we can tell, can only benefit team members.”

He’s busy now working on an iPad app, which he wants to make as functional as the cloud-based application. He’d like to see project managers be “100 percent mobile.”

Self-tracking: “If man were meant to fly” and other objections

Self tracking for performance has a place on the map now thanks to the May 2 New York Times Magazine article by Gary Wolf. But along with praise and interest, “The Data-Driven Life” also drew harsh, skeptical reactions.

Many of the objections were of the “if man were meant to fly, he’d have wings” variety. But many others were valid.

The practice will run over a few bumps before it joins mainstream performance management and business intelligence. Unlike the impersonal data we know and love, keeping data about oneself can be uncomfortable, difficult, and downright weird.

One of the articulate skeptics called it “robot envy.” In his weblog, Marginal Utility, Rob Horning summed up his objections in the final paragraph.

Numbers can provide only one sort of “truth” about ourselves, and to pursue it we must surrender or compromise other kinds of truth—for example, the intuitive faith we have in our qualitative assessments of our dasein. […] In other words, we give up our soul for a spreadsheet.

I’d like to meet the spreadsheet that steals souls. Until then, I’ll cling to my belief that no spreadsheet, not even Excel, has any more power to do that than a blood pressure cuff or a bathroom scale.

A more credible response came on the New York Times site from “Matt” in California.

Self-tracking will undoubtedly be used to oppress. It will wend its way into mainstream culture, eventually becoming something that employers expect of you as a matter of course. The temporal “productivity gaps” which we use to daydream, think about politics or other non-work related ideas, or simply consolidate memories, will be targeted and eliminated. Also, it is almost inconceivable that self-tracking data will avoid eventually going public.

Wolf gave his own response to some of the criticism (apparently a few minutes before Matt gave his).

I think many of the critical reactions make sense. What are we doing to ourselves? But I suspect that even the people who say something like “turn off the computer and go outside” are more deeply involved in the culture of self-tracking than they realize, and would benefit from going beyond initial revulsion. We _are_ in the process of changing. Our new selves will have new capacities as well as new vulnerabilities. Literacy itself was once a threat to our humanity: it interfered with memory, and substituted external representation for interior experience. It replaced living dialog with marks on a page. But we found a new sort of humanity in this world of letters.

The easy answer is that self tracking has to be done in moderation. Assuming it catches on, we’ll see public-service posters on buses and trains warning against overtracking and out-of-control “self love.” But every good thing is overdone and always will be. — and the solution has never been to ban it, deny it, or belittle it. It’s here, it’s coming, and we might as well use it.

See the article here, the 59 reader-recommended responses here, and all 138 online responses here. See the 7 letters here.

Self tracking is business intelligence

Back when secretaries were common, you could have had yours track your day in 15-minute increments. In his book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker suggested this as a way to find out what you really did all day. The results were usually, let’s say, a starting point for improvement.

Tracking your time then and now is personal, it’s messy, and it’s the essence of business intelligence: collecting data and reading it for guidance in business activities that matter. Is there anything that matters more to an organization than productivity of its people? For a small office or home-based business, this might be the best BI there is.

This gets no recognition in the BI industry that I can find, at least not in the conservative world of TDWI. At least not yet.

PI — for “private intelligence” — has different issues, starting with data collection. In BI, data comes from transactions, all recorded routinely. In PI, most of it has to come from a “secretary” or from our own, tedious notation.

I dabbled in it once. The insights were good, if painful, but mostly it was tedious. A few years ago, a confluence of personal events let me do something I’d always wanted to try: hole up for a few months in a Sicilian village I knew slightly. The food was good, I had relatives nearby, and the nearby church bells rang all day and all night, four times an hour. At the same time, I had a book to edit. To stay productive, I made a game out of the work, tracking my time to the minute in Filemaker.

I liked the local food and started to hate the book, an office manual that inadvertently revealed a con game. Even so, I threw myself at it every day. But no matter how hard I tried, no full day ever resulted in more than about two hours of actual, productive work. My “quick breaks” for walks and coffee with a friend actually took up more time.

I made a Filemaker database because I could find no off-the-shelf product that would do anything close. Each period, no matter how short, had a starting and ending times I entered with buttons, and a calculation field figured the duration. A drop-down menu offered my usual activites. I could make a report for any period.

I thought some product would do that better, but I could find nothing. Then the May 2 issue of the New York Times Magazine ran an article by Gary Wolf about this, “The Data Driven Life.” My Filemaker invention wasn’t too far from what others have used, and now new devices are coming along that could make all that seem so old hat. Some people are even sharing their data on the cloud.

But as in traditional BI, the technology just gets you in the door. The show has just begun.

Most people Wolf writes about do it for personal reasons. One wanted to know how his coffee consumption helped him focus, another tried to cure his sleep apnea, and still another noticed that flax seed oil, or just lots of butter, improved his cognitive performance.

As in good BI, the experiments often raised new questions. And sometimes the new questions are unexpected, as in Wolf’s own experience.

Often, pioneering trackers struggle with feelings of being both aided and tormented by the very systems they have built. I know what this is like. I used to track my work hours, and it was a miserable process. With my spreadsheet, I inadvertently transformed myself into the mean-spirited, small-minded boss I imagined I was escaping through self- employment. Taking advantage of the explosion of self-tracking services available on the Web, I started analyzing my workday at a finer level. Every time I moved to a new activity — picked up the phone, opened a Web browser, answered e-mail — I made a couple of clicks with my mouse, which recorded the change. After a few weeks I looked at the data and marveled. My day was a patchwork of distraction, interspersed with valuable, but too rare, periods of focus. In total, the amount of uninterrupted close attention I was able to muster in a given workday was less than three hours. After I got over the humiliation, I came to see how valuable this knowledge was. The efficiency lesson was that I could gain significant benefit by extending my day at my desk by only a few minutes, as long as these minutes were well spent. But a greater lesson was that by tracking hours at my desk I was making an unnecessary concession to a worthless stereotype. Does anybody really believe that long hours at a desk are a vocational ideal? I got nothing from my tracking system until I used it as a source of critical perspective, not on my performance but on my assumptions about what was important to track.

I wish Drucker were around to respond. Wolf’s insight sounds like important stuff for everyday knowledge workers, especially those who work alone. What’s more important to a knowledge worker than time?

These experiments are often haphazard and highly personal.

Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever.

Yes, just as analytics gives companies a tremendous advantage over those who make less effort.

Let the BI traditionalists pooh-pooh self-tracking. The very same people might have dismissed such things as visual analysis, agile development, and at one time even business intelligence itself. Sometimes it take a few pioneers and geeks, perhaps even a secretary, to prove a concept.

“Efficiency” can cost too much

See Henrik Mårtensson’s “The Cost of Queues” on how an extreme focus on “cost effectiveness” can damage an organization. (Thanks to Jack Vinson for the referral on his blog “Knowledge Jolt with Jack.”)

If you try to become more cost effective by reducing capacity, and thereby capacity cost, all will be well at first, from an economic point of view. (The people who are let go are usually of a different opinion.) The catch is that this will increase the queues in the system. This increases lead times. Consequently, cost associated with lead time will also increase. (In manufacturing there is also a considerable storage cost due to increased inventory, but we will ignore that for the purposes of this blog post.)

Buytendijk, from the outside

You could say that Frank Buytendijk, the Dutch performance expert, thinks outside the box. Consider last week’s advice to BI metrics makers. What you probably didn’t realize is that he was born with a name to suit: Buytendijk (pron. BAW-ten-dek) means “outside the dike.”