Extreme Risk Taking is Genetic……

A recent 2014 scientific study, Going to Extremes – The Darwin Awards: sex differences in idiotic behaviour highlights the need for gender diversity.  The class of risk studied in this report is the idiotic risk, one that is defined as senseless risks, where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final. The results suggest that having an ‘all male’ or male dominated decision making group may be a source of risk in itself.

Darwin1Sex differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency hospital admissions, and mortality are well documented and confirm that males are more at risk than females. Whilst some of these differences may be attributable to cultural and socioeconomic factors (eg, males may be more likely to engage in contact and high risk sports, and are more likely to be employed in higher risk occupations), sex differences in risk seeking behaviour have been reported from an early age, raising questions about the extent to which these behaviours can be attributed purely to social and cultural differences. This study extends on these studies to look at ‘male idiot theory’ (MIT) based on the archives of the ‘Darwin Awards’. Its hypothesis derived from Women are from Venus, men are idiots (Andrews McMeel, 2011) is that many of the differences in risk seeking behaviour may be explained by the observation that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things…… but little is known about sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour.

Darwin2The Darwin Awards are named in honour of Charles Darwin, and commemorate those who have improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in an idiotic way (note the photographs are both of unsuccessful attempts to win an award).  Whilst usually awarded posthumously, (the idiot normally has to kill themselves) the 2014 The Thing Ring award shows there are other options.  Based on this invaluable record of idiotic human behaviour, the study considered the gender of the award recipients over a 20 year period (1995-2014) and found a marked sex difference in Darwin Award winners: males are significantly more likely to receive the award than females.

Darwin3Of the 413 Darwin Award nominations in the study period, 332 were independently verified and confirmed by the Darwin Awards Committee. Of these, 14 were shared by male and female nominees (usually overly adventurous couples in compromising positions – see: La Petite Mort) leaving 318 valid cases for statistical testing. Of these 318 cases, 282 Darwin Awards were awarded to males and just 36 awards given to females. Meaning 88.7% of the idiots accepted as Darwin Award winners were male!

Gender diversity on decision making bodies may help to reduce this potential risk factor in two ways.  First, by reducing the percentage of people potentially susceptible to MIT. Second, by modifying the social and cultural environment within decision making body, reducing the body’s tendency to take ‘extreme risk decisions’.

One well documented example is the current Federal Government. Given the extremely limited representation of women in the make-up of the current Abbott government, and some of the self-destructive decisions they have made, I’m wondering if there is a correlation. A softer, less aggressive, lower risk approach to implementing many of the policies they have failed to enact may have resulted in a very different outcome for the government.

Are Sponsors over worked and under effective?

Sleepy-Sponsor1The Institute of Project Management (Ireland) has published a  survey is based on self-reported information from their courses based on nine major position descriptions/levels comparing the expected number of hours to be worked based on the terms of employment and the actual number of hours typically worked by the attendees. The averaged data from senior management positions is worrying:

  • Director of PMO; expected: 39.0 Hrs, actual: 60.0 Hrs
  • Portfolio Manager; expected: 37.0 Hrs, actual: 50.0 Hrs
  • Project Manager (Senior); expected: 37.9 Hrs, actual: 50.3 Hrs.

Combine these findings with data from PMI on the hours worked by Sponsors (download the PMI report on‘Executive Sponsor Engagement’ ) with many reporting working weeks of 50 to 60 hours on their ‘day job’ before taking on the additional responsibilities of sponsoring a project or a program; and, that effective sponsors report that typically they are working on three projects at a time, spending an average of 13 hours per week on each, the problem of over extension of key executives becomes obvious.

Combine these findings with the demonstrated correlation between effective sponsorship and achieving project success, the overextension of senior managers has serious consequences:

  • Sponsors have inadequate time to understand the project’s requirements and support the project manager leading to an increased probability of failure;
  • Tired managers make poor decisions, and tiredness affects ethical standards (see: Tired workers lose their ethics);
  • There is frequently not enough time to train the sponsor in his/her role further reducing their effectiveness; and
  • These pressures often lead to a lack of continuity in the sponsorship role, which is another identified source of project failure.

The evidence is clear, organisations that fail to effectively sponsor their projects and programs are making an overt commitment to wasting the organisation’s time, money and resources – there is an 80% greater probability of failure and no amount of effort at the ‘project management’ level can overcome executive management failures.

Sleepy-Sponsor2One simple way to stop the waste is for an organisation to defer any project where it is unable to find a committed, trained sponsor, with adequate time, energy and skills to properly fulfil their role. No sponsor – no project! (See more on the role of a sponsor)  This may sound extreme, but if the executive management team do not see the project as being sufficiently important to the organisation they manage, to reorganise the disposition of executive resources to properly support the work, then the project is probably not that important anyway. The organisation will be better off not spending the money and wasting its resources.

The governance challenge is creating a management culture that on one hand, actively encourages the deferment of projects that are inadequately supported (eg, don’t have a sponsor); and on the other actively encourages the development of the organisation’s capability to excel at the ‘the management of projects’ (see more on the strategic management of projects).

Sleepy-Sponsor3Creating this culture is a critical governance issue (see more on the governance of project management).  If an organisation cannot implement projects and programs efficiently, it cannot adapt and change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world which will inevitably lead to the organisation becoming obsolete. However, achieving the necessary changes won’t happen if the executive team are already overextended – the situation highlighted in both of the reports referenced in this post! Building the organisational capability to efficiently its projects and programs is itself a major change initiative that needs resourcing and sponsoring at the highest levels.

Lessons from manufacturing

In much of the developed world, and particularly Australia, small to medium sized manufacturing businesses are in decline.  However, the manufacturing landscape is not all ‘doom and gloom’ there are always a few organisations that are developing and performing well above the trend. This blog will suggest the ‘high performance work practices’ used in many of these high performance manufacturing businesses are directly transferrable to project teams.

Research has shown a correlation between High Performance Work Practices (HPWPs) and ways high performing manufacturing SMEs tend to operate.  HPWPs are a set of management tools and practices that help get the best out of an organisation and its employees, creating business success. The practices are divided into three broad areas, developing and encouraging:

  • Knowledge, skills and abilities;
  • Motivation and effort; and
  • Opportunities to contribute.

HPWPs manifest in five interlinked organisational outcomes:

  1. Self-managed work teams.
  2. Employee involvement, participation and empowerment.
  3. Total quality management.
  4. Integrated production technologies.
  5. The learning organisation.

Whilst some of the specific tools are unlikely to be directly translatable to many project teams, the key practices are.  High performance organisations are focused on motivating their team members (employees), building their knowledge and giving them opportunities to contribute to the success of the organisation.  If your team is happy, safe and efficient, you maximise the opportunity for success (see more on team motivation).

HPWPs are not ‘rocket science’; most of the individual concepts are well established in management theory, what’s new is a clear demonstration of the advantages gained by integrating the elements in a coordinated and planned way to drive high performance. (See more on HPWPs).

Achieving this is partially governance, partially organisational management, ensuring the team has the tools and skills to succeed, and that the work environment allows then to work efficiently.  The rest is attitudinal, ensuring the team are happy and feel valued, and employing team members that have a positive, collaborative and supportive attitude; leadership is the key, but so is ensuring you have ‘the right people on the bus’ (see more on leadership). It is much easier to teach a person new skills than it is to change their attitude.

Achieving a ‘high performance’ culture is a journey that needs planning; successful manufactures built their HPWP structure incrementally starting small and adding to the practices over time, ensuring all of the elements work together; a similar approach should work for project teams.

The trigger for this post was a recent survey by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership that has clearly demonstrated the value of HPWPs in SME manufacturing sector (see: http://www.workplaceleadership.com.au/projects/high-performance-manufacturing-workplaces-study/ ), and as the title suggests, we believe translating these concepts into practical project team management should drive similar successes.

New Articles posted to the Web #18

BeaverWe have been busy beavers updating the PM Knowledge Index on our website with White Papers and Articles.   Some of the more interesting uploaded during the last couple of weeks include:

And we continue to tweet a free PMI style of exam question every day for PMP, CAPM and PMI-SP candidates: See today’s question and then click through for the answer and the Q&As from last week.

You are welcome to download and use the information under our Creative Commons licence

Technology and management

As many readers of this blog know, I am interested in history focused on understanding how the professional discipline of project management has evolved over the years. But digging into the history of project management inevitable involves the history of management and the evolution of technology.  And one immutable fact is that every new technology and every new idea creates winners and losers. The new ‘thing’ is implemented using project management processes and overall society benefits. The current collection of ‘history papers’ are freely available for downloading at: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PM-History.html

One of the key papers is The Origins of modern PM, this paper takes a brief look (page 8 on) at the evolution of management theories .compared to the waves of innovation that drove the ‘industrial revolution’ and advancements in society through to the modern times.


Fighting advances in technology is pointless, as the Luddites discovered.  The origin of the name Luddite is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. What is certain is the Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-replacing machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. What actually happened was the rise of the UK Midlands into an industrial powerhouse. There were winners, losers, and exploitation but overall the changes in society were to the general good.

What is not realised in the current debate around global warming and coal is that electricity produced in coal fires powers stations is a straightforward extension of steam power that came to dominance in the 1840s and is as inefficient as any other steam powered engines. What the electrical distribution system does is allow the energy derived from burning the coal to be transferred to remote locations ‘away from the fire’ for use as needed. It is convenient and electricity fuelled the next wave of innovation, but is also inefficient.

The typical thermal efficiency for utility-scale electrical generators is around 33% for coal fired plants, 66% of the energy in the coal is wasted Then an additional 30% to 40% of the power is then lost in the transmission from the power station to the consumers (mostly in local distribution, the main grid only loses between 5% and 8% of the power).  The net result only about 25% of the thermal value of the coal is available in your home or business!

This gross inefficiency is only affordable because the industry does not have to pay to clean up its pollution; most of the waste is simply discharged to the atmosphere. The raw material is not particularly safe either; around 5000 people per year are killed mining coal.

Much of the innovation driving the sustainability curve focuses on a changed paradigm. Generating energy close to where its needed using renewable energy sources. Solar hot water units generate hot water on your roof – no transmission losses. Solar voltaic cells do the same for electricity – managed properly its cost effective, for 6 months of the year we hardly need any power from the grid, winter is a different story……

Other innovations include various wind, and other generation processes that create power close to where its needed as well as renewable base load capabilities; all that is needed is the critical mass to make the technology cost effective (ie, cheap) and leadership for government to manage the changes and help the industries and people on the ‘losing’ side of the equation and plot a path into an exciting future, particularly for skilled project professionals.  As the Luddites discovered, fighting to defend a losing technology is a guaranteed way to ensure you lose.

Unfortunately, I’m still wondering when the Luddites in Canberra are going to realise the burning of coal to create pressurised steam is an invention of the 18th century, which largely replaced water power as the energy source of choice. And, that after 300 years the world is moving forward but Tony Abbot and a range of other backward looking ‘conservatives’ want to keep dragging us back into the past.

Australia needs leaders in Canberra and our State capitals, not Luddites – fighting to preserve 18th century power source in the 21st century is guaranteed to fail eventually. And what is going to be lost focusing on the past is the opportunities to gain from the emerging technologies, a lose-lose outcome.

A well planned and executed change paradigm exploits the strengths of existing capabilities, encourages the development of new innovations and manages the transition to the future whilst minimising the losses. This transition is good for project management but cannot happen without effective leadership.

Governance -v- Management

In 2012 I contributed to a scholarly article discussing The management of project management: A conceptual framework for project governance, with Eric Too from the University of Southern Queensland as lead author.

After an extended wait, the International Journal of Project Management has at last published the paper in its current November edition, along with nine other papers discussing governance.  I will post some commentary on the overall theme of governance as framed by the ten papers shortly.

In the meantime, the focus of our paper is, for an organization to create optimal value from its investment in projects there must be a clear link between the outputs created by the projects and the requirements of the organization’s business strategy. This means that organizations that have a structure in place for aligning the project deliverables with their organizational goals will be better placed to realize their investment in projects, and achieve the value defined by their business strategies. This paper examines existing research, ideas and concepts of project governance and enterprise project management, and offers a framework to build on current theory development and practice. Synthesizing existing literature of project/programme management, governance and portfolio management, this paper proposes four key elements to improve the performance of projects and hence create value for organizations. These four elements are:

Project Governance Structure

  1. Portfolio management: focused on selecting the right projects and programmes to support the organization’s strategy, and terminating ones that no longer contribute to the business success of the organization;
  2. Project sponsorship: providing the direct link between the executive and the project or programme manager, focused on the whole project lifecycle;
  3. Project Management Office (PMO): providing oversight and strategic reporting capabilities;
  4. Projects and programme support: the effective support and management of projects and programmes is the measure of an effective governance system.

The purpose of the framework described in the paper is to provide guidance to organizations in the development of effective project governance to optimize the management of projects.

An augmented version of the paper can be downloaded from: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P162_The_Management_of_Project_Management_IJPM.pdf

Or the official published version from, International Journal of Project Management (2014) Volume 32, Issue 8, November 2014, Pages 1382–1394.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S026378631300094X

Although written nearly 2 years ago, this paper is consistent with two recent White Papers on:
The Functions of Management,  and
The Functions of Governance.  

PMI’s Voices on Project Management Blog has moved

PMI Voices BlogI’ve been a regular contributor to PMI’s Voices on Project Management blog for many years.  Its old home was hidden in the depths of www.pmi.org.  Following PMI’s purchase of www.projectmanagement.com (the old ‘Gantt Head’), the ‘voices’ have moved to join a number of other themed blogs on the site.

The site is open to everyone, you need to register to post comments and download, but reading is free and unrestricted.

My first post in this new location is Influence Without Authority. You can read the post at http://www.projectmanagement.com/blog/Voices-on-Project-Management/11149/pmi  and then explore the rest of the site.