Is it always right to be demanding a committed decision in the interest of cost certainty?
A brief introduction to some old friends
This is an extract from the cutting-room floor of the dissertation from my first MSc, which I would have been preparing to present this time last year. You will find the full details of citations within the dissertation, available to download or review on-line from my homepage.
When I wrote these notes in early 2020, I was retracing the earliest academic PM arguments addressing how much to plan vs how much to adapt. The Public Private Partnership model of project delivery I was researching is up-front time and focus intensive. Whilst it is not immune to change, any change is administratively cumbersome because of the interacting contracts and hierarchy of approvals required. Post the Pathfinder or Vanguard projects therefore, optimisation (or at least certainty of cost, time, and scope), is characteristically fitting for PPP. This is very different to some of the research and development type project environments, post WWII, that reflects where much of the “fragmented adhocracy” of project management theory today begins. These particular notes, primarily the contemporary revisits of the work of Klein and Meckling from 1958, plus the original paper itself, offered an interesting comparison of these motivations.
Extracts of my unsubmitted summary notes as follows:-
In describing project management theory as a set of models and techniques for planning and control, Packendoff (1995) pp319 observes three shortcomings of preceding research and theorising. The notion that a general theory and field exists in its own right; a lack of empirical rigour; and treating projects as tools. He invites future research to consider expectations, actions and learning in project settings. Referencing a diversity of theoretical perspective, with more focus on middle-range rather than extremes in different types of project.
A second key question to answer will be how to determine whether early optimisation is the correct priority. The counter view is one of retained flexibility and agility. This has been a central debate from the earliest days of modern project management thinking from the 1950s. Brady et al (2012) reflected on the importance of pioneering thinking in mainstream project management in the early Cold War years of California’s Research and Development think tank RAND. The work of Klein et al (1958 pp 361) sought to better manage project environments typified with high levels of uncertainty at project start. Brady et al argue that initial flexibility in project management approach from this early time was quickly (by the 1960s) replaced by a focus on control (Brady 2012 pp719). Klein et al caricatured Mr Optimiser and Mr Sceptic and compared the approaches to project planning in R&D situations (where it was argued the greatest levels of uncertainty exist).
Mr Optimiser (UK spelling) makes key decisions early, plans thoroughly, and creates a clear and highly integrated path to conclude. Mr Sceptic (UK spelling) adopts a strategy of deliberate flexibility in the early stages, opting to take advantage of project learning, making later decisions on key elements and narrowing a range of alternatives as information is acquired to ultimately arrive at a single construction method.
Klein argues Mr Optimiser is cost certain at an earlier point, and will happen upon the optimum unique choices on occasion. Mr Sceptic will be making more informed decisions but incur more cost and waste on average, as a result of allowing several options to be explored deeper into a project. Mr Optimiser is however committed to these early decisions. If sub-optimal decisions are made, Mr Optimiser is either incurring additional time and cost to change, or accepts the sub-optimal outcome (Klein 1958, pp 355).
This comparison is still relevant today. Government procurement is permanently under pressure to show value for money. It is therefore counter-intuitive to expect a Mr Sceptic approach to project procurement. The early commitment to a project programme is a standard expectation of tendering response in traditional or privately funded government new build programmes therefore. In challenging 20th thinking on theory of the firm, Nightingale returns to Mr Optimiser and Mr Sceptic. Mr Optimiser representing determinism and reductionism, internally driven causations, rationally driving towards maximum utility (Nightingale 2008 pp539). Mr Sceptic’s view of the firm being driven by managerial decision making and Boardroom mediation of the external requirements of shareholders and stakeholders. (Nightingale 2008 pp544).
Turner et al (2014 pp44) and Brady et al (2012), return to Klein’s Optimiser and Sceptic analogy in considering the knowledge problem. Brady et al conclude “Mr Sceptics programme is designed in part to produce information…to be able to make more informed decisions” (pp 723). Brady et al pp719 refers to Shenhar and Dvir (2007) who point out project management is based on “predictable, relatively simple, and rational models”. Brady argued that “the role of uncertainty, learning and informal processes are underplayed in traditional models of project management, in favour of simplistic, rule-based models” pp720. Brady et al further refer to Lenfle and Loch (2010) who call for a reconsideration of the concepts of Klein and Meckling, arguing that “project management has come to emphasise control over flexibility and novelty, and that this has prevented the project management discipline from occupying a central position in organisations efforts to implement strategic change and innovation” pp728.
The notion of project management being an operational undertaking, and success being defined in the context of time, cost, and quality, is further challenged by Dvir et al 2011 pp21. They offer alternative key factors (pp20) with utilisation of existing knowledge and integrated project teams with fast problem-solving capability and the ability to adapt being two key elements. Muller (2012) highlights Dvir and Lechler who both examine relationships between three planning variables and project success (2004). Planning variables being planning quality, goal changes, and plan-changes. Planning is significantly a positive contributor to customer satisfaction and efficiency; goal changes having the highest negative direct effect on customer satisfaction (pp 10) and the combination of goal and plan changes were a stronger factor than quality of planning…pp29
Mr Optimiser vs Mr Sceptical had military research and development ideals in mind. 1958 had the cold war as its backdrop. The Sputnik shock was in 1957. The Polaris programme and PERT, military research and RAND and universities, ties to contractor becoming more project orientated. The history of PM sits deeply embedded here. What this paper specifically reflects is an innovation centric project motivation vs optimisation of cost. These two character analogies present a useful modern day sentiment when considering if cost or novelty is most desired.
These are perspectives I will be returning to as I introduce other contemporary subjects of the present day. This underlying need to clarify primary motivation, seemingly pertinent in any contemporary setting.
Essays and detailed notes these blogs are building toward include:
- My views of the 2020 HM Government Construction Playbook. (status: available on request and forming a blog subject soon)
- High Reliability Organisations (HROs) as a guide to contingent planning and training. (status: an essay plan from MSc exam preparations is being reviewed to share as a blog).
- Accountability vs Responsibility – the confused position and a fix. (status: first draft completed but still under review).
In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.