The Siren Call of Certainty

In Greek mythology, the sirens were three bird-women who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. The term siren call, from which this derives, is described in the Free Dictionary, as “the enticing appeal of something alluring but potentially dangerous”. In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, it is the siren call of certainty that is luring many organizations into failures akin to shipwrecks, particularly, although not limited to their increasingly significant investments in IT-enabled change. More accurately, it is their failing to recognize, accept and manage uncertainty, that leads to these wrecks.

Yet again here, what we have is a failure of governance, and of management – a failure that starts with how strategic decisions are made. In a recent McKinsey paper, How CFOs can keep strategic decisions on track, the authors make the point that “When executives contemplate strategic decisions, they often succumb to the same cognitive biases we all have as human beings, such as overconfidence, the confirmation bias, or excessive risk avoidance.” My discussion here covers the first two (excessive risk avoidance essentially being the opposite of these, and equally dangerous). Executives are often so certain about  (overconfident in) what they want to do that others are unwilling to question their certainty or, if they do, they are dismissed as “naysayers” (and quickly learn not to question again) or the executive only chooses to hear those parts of what they say that confirm their certainty (confirmation bias). I must admit that I have probably been guilty of this myself, in language if, hopefully, not intent, when I have told my teams, “I don’t want to hear why we can’t do this, I want to hear how we can do it.” What I really should have added explicitly was “…and then tell me under what conditions it might not work”.

To resist the lure of the siren call, we require an approach to strategic decision-making  that is open to challenge – one in which multiple lenses are brought to bear on the decision, where uncertainties, and points of view contradictory to those of the person making the final decision, be that the CEO or whoever, are discussed, and where individual biases weigh less in the final decision than facts.

I am not suggesting here that uncertainties should prevent investments being approved, if they did we would never do anything. I am saying that they should not be buried or ignored – they must be surfaced, recognized, mitigated where possible, and then monitored and managed throughout the life-cycle of the investment. This means acknowledging that both the expected outcomes of an investment, and the way those outcomes are realized will likely change during the investment life-cycle. It means managing a changing journey to a changing destination. Unfortunately, once again the siren call of certainty also gets in the way of this.

When investments are approved they are usually executed and managed as projects, all too often seen as technology projects (I use the term broadly here). In a 2010 California Management Review article, “Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty”, authors Sylvain Lenfle and Christoph Loch, discuss the history of Project Management, and suggest that the current approach to Project Management promises, albeit rarely delivers, greater cost and schedule control, but assumes that uncertainty can be limited at the outset.”

The origins of “modern” project management (PM) can be traced to the Manhattan Project, and the techniques developed during the ballistic missile projects. The article states that “the Manhattan and the first ballistic missile projects…did not even remotely correspond to the ‘standard practice’ associated with PM today…they applied a combination of trial-and-error and parallel trials in order to [deal with uncertainty and unforeseen circumstances] and achieve outcomes considered impossible at the outset”. This approach started to change in the early ’60s when the focus gradually changed from ‘performance at all costs’ to one of optimizing the cost/performance ratio. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but along came Robert McNamara who reorganized the planning process in the Department of Defense (DoD) to consolidate two previously separate processes – planning and budgeting. This integration was supported by the Program Planning and Budgeting System (PBS), which emphasized up-front analysis, planning and control of projects. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that, but the system resulted in an emphasis on the complete definition of the system before its development in order to limit uncertainty, and a strict insistence on a phased “waterfall” approach. The assumptions underlying this approach are i) as decisions taken by top management are not up for discussion, the PM focus is on delivery, and ii) rigorous up-front analysis can eliminate and control uncertainty – these underlying assumptions are still very much part of Project Management “culture” today.

Again, I am not saying here that there is no need for sound analysis up-front – quite the contrary, I believe that we need to do much more comprehensive and rigorous up-front analysis. What I am saying is that, no matter how good the up-front analysis is, things will change as you move forward, and there will be unexpected, and sometime unpredictable surprises. We cannot move blindly ahead to the pre-defined solution, not being open to any questioning of the outcome (destination) or approach (journey), and focusing solely on controlling cost and schedule. The history of large projects is littered with wrecks because, yes, there was inadequate diligence up-front, but equally, or even more so, because we failed to understand and manage uncertainty – forging relentlessly on until at some stage, the project was cancelled, or, more often, success was re-defined and victory declared.

The article suggests that “Project Management has confined itself in an ‘order taker niche’ of carrying out tasks given from above…cutting itself off from strategy making…and innovation”. Many organizations, particularly those embracing agile development approaches, do apply a combination of trial-and-error and parallel trials in order to deal with uncertainty and unforeseen circumstances, and to achieve outcomes either considered impossible at the outset, or different from those initially expected. But, as the authors say, “these actions happen outside the discipline of project management…they apply [these approaches] despite their professional PM training.”

The tragedy here, with both strategic decision making, and execution is that we know how to do much better, and resources exist to help us do so. Strategic decision making can be significantly improved by employing Benefits Mapping techniques to ensure clarity of the desired outcomes, define the full scope of effort to achieve those outcomes, surface assumption, risks and uncertainties around their achievement, and provide a road-map for execution, supporting decision making with an effective business case process, and by applying the discipline of Portfolio Management to both proposed and approved investments. The successful execution of investments in the portfolio can be increased by moving beyond the traditional Project Management approach by taking a Program Management view, incorporating all the delivery projects that are both necessary and sufficient to achieve the desired outcomes in comprehensive programs of change. Many of the elements of such an approach were initially discussed in The Information Paradox, and subsequently codified in the Val IT™ 2.0 Framework.

We know the problem, we have the tools to deal with it – what is still missing is the appetite and commitment to do so.

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