Life is like a box of chocolates...

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By the time you read this I will (hopefully!) have successfully completed my first half marathon.  I have only given myself about 5 weeks to prepare for this ‘unique, transient endeavour’  but I’m on track to meet my targets.  

The preparation for this event has found me thinking about whether it is possible that Project Management can ever reach a point where all projects succeed? 

The nature of human behaviour to take on challenges and push boundaries leads directly to ambitious projects being undertaken; however we are also faced with an increasing amount of complex variables that can affect performance, and the interaction of too many variables can force excessive amounts of ‘dynamic programming’ or learning on the job [Pith, Loch & De Mayer: ‘On Uncertainty, Ambiguity & Complexity in Project Mgmt’ ] which may prevent or undermine success. 

Take something simple like going out for a run after work – sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s great – but even here there are so many variables that it can be unpredictable. You can prepare, but you never know for sure until it happens.  Despite the numerous similarities of last week’s training runs (preparation, distance, and time of day) they were remarkably different; one was a miserable and painful experience, the other was positive and a massive confidence boost.

Patrick Weaver has suggested that recognising the uncertainty and complexity in every project is “the greatest challenge facing project management in the 21st century” [Weaver: ‘A Simple View of Complexity in Project Mgmt’], and there is a danger in assuming that a project controls system can override the ‘uncontrollable’ variables.

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld (former US Secretary of Defence) “There are things we know we know [known knowns].  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns  – the ones we don't know we don't know”. 

Project management will continue to improve our ability to plan, execute and deliver, but it’s unlikely that anything beyond the simplest of projects can be sure of certain success. Or as Forrest Gump surmised, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”; so I guess for now I’ll just keep running…

 

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Posted by Alastair Smart on 15th Sep 2011

About the Author
I'm a full member of the APM and was previously a People SIG committee member. I am also a PMI member and certified PMP, and a Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) Practitioner. I have supported MoD Project Teams within the Submarine and Land Equipment Operating Centres, including work to improve project management culture as part of a major change management project; and am currently working in Ottawa supporting the Canadian DND (Maritime Equipment Program Management) organisation.

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