Uncertain relations

My visibility | behaviour | trust in you

My thanks to Chris Bragg for a line of questioning that prompting these prose; Jason Hier for promoting the dialogue from which I repeat my part in here; and Dinah Turner who generated the original visual prompt. All of which started {here}, a discussion on LinkedIn. My thanks also to Bill Sherman. Another LinkedIn thread {here}, one with a challenge I accepted yesterday, and answer at the end of this blog.

Visibility of what? v | b | t in context

Visibility for my project purposes i.e., Visibility | b | t , is addressing transparency between parties. Directed towards what is known and what remains uncertain. In our projects, how much visibility are we sharing one party (project actor) to the next?

This is how visibility relates behaviour i.e., v | behaviour | t , as transparency by one party to the next. This transparency reveals or hides certain behaviour. That could be our intentions, motivations, or actions. Derived perhaps from something as simple as our hubris or belief that we are surely right. Or something more self-interested or malevolent. From these two variables we can ask if we are affording the right level of trust i.e., v | b | trust , to the exchange. Assessing all three presents an indication of collaborative nature, as it relates to all parties supporting the intended change, as project truth.

How are we safeguarding a project from what we do not know?

This sketch, from Dinah Turner, prompted the wider discussion I refer to above. If the dot was the minimal amount of necessary information, Jason Hier teased us with asking what if it was as little as 1%, then let’s respond with the question as a percentage of what? We need to have more awareness to the reality that somethings are not knowable – but that our processes need to have the adaptability to manage these later realisations.

Image used with permission from Dinah Turner

As a graphic to reflect our limited availability of information, what was prompted here was a discussion around making best use of the little information we have. From my perspective (as related to project knowledge), the diagram also presented a third area of interest. (1) the spot of what is known; (2) the assumed everything there is; (3) a challenge to the assumption we can ever bound everything there is to know – beyond the circle. This is what Gigerenzer (2014) would reflect upon when comparing risk vs. uncertainty. It is the difference between working within a closed system vs one that interrelates to more. Or Engwall‘s “no project is an island” from which we can remove ourselves from closed system thinking in any project situation. Combining these two principles, we always have some uncertainty. I suggest the circle in the above graphic houses “the question we asked”. But outside the circle is “the question we wish we knew to pose”. From here we can hope to critically appraise the manner of any decisions being made, for what purpose, and from an information perspective we can ask “based upon what?“.

Being able to seek clarity on what the 1% represents enables better questions. Anyone who knows me, will know that my most likely answer to a question, is another question. This is because a question directs our attention to a set of assumptions and constraints. Are these parameters intended to facilitate an open dialogue, or are they intended to funnel and dissuade a wider perspective? Is this reflecting behaviour of the person posing the question, that we trust to have this right?

It is at these earliest of moments – in defining both problem and constraints – that we can begin to become unstuck. And why we should all therefore be first challenging the question, to see what visibility, behaviour, and trust, is represented. See other blogs on these areas individually, including for example sensemaking and wider problem solving perspectives.

Projects as time bound intended change

This is a dynamic position, and therefore change. In the modelling idea I have in mind, this is where my attempt to define everything by a project definition comes into play: as time bound intended change. And that any change, even one of enquiry, can be captured by this project definition.

Projects within projects

This also challenges us to consider if our collaborative practices are ever actually aimed at the same project. Or are two project actors working on their own projects and attempting to direct outcomes to their own intended outcome – even if that is at the expense of the other. I have in mind here game theory models that represent zero sum outcomes (winner:loser); or those where lesser outcomes emerge because of failures to cooperate (see prisoner’s dilemma, or tragedy of the commons, as examples).

Other factors are then able to be introduced:

  • direction of influence. Interests directed into the one project, or away from the project and directed instead toward the party with most momentary influence.
  • manner of project control to support the retained inward influence of both the one project aim and protection of all project actors.

These are factors that relate to potential outcomes. The one shared outcome, if we are claiming to be in the one same project. Each factor (visibility, behaviour, trust, influence, and control) the aggregation of contributing factors. So, if a question is asked with a hidden or misguided agenda in mind, the project of enquiry is immediately more likely to fail. Failure because it fails at least one participant, and probably the project overall. Or if the intent was misdirection, there was never a single project with the two parties in mind.

At bigger scale, this is why the inevitable uncertainty that exists is eroding this collaborative endeavour if it is simply defined and offloaded in contract. This is not the same as project outcome control. It is more simply a financial risk transfer with increased likelihood of dispute. Arguably a later revelation that project truth never existed. Only the roughly aligned interests of the two separate projects and outcomes each party was interested in, influencing, and operating with suboptimal visibility, behaviour, and trust.

I would argue this is the default position in construction. As one example where hidden agenda is almost always assumed, even if not shown. Low visibility as data is filtered between commercial boundaries. Malevolent behaviours. No trust. Contracts attempting to replace trust, but therein failing to regain control.

If this observation is accepted, then it offers an rough guide to likelihood of project success. If we see a project with inadequate control of its truth (the totality of visibility, behaviour, and trust) it is a riskier project than it needs to be. It is representing a project at risk of unseen influences, permitting malevolent interests, and abuses of empowerment bestowed. Therein is the prospect of increased potential for dispute, plus missed opportunity to intervene.

Are we one project? My ongoing hypothetical

I am yet to be convinced we can ever truly be one project. It is why this entire blogsite is called Projects | Within Projects. But I do think we can seek to ensure our own projects are more closely aligned. As well as all the other project assessments we undertake, I am suggesting this v | b | t assessment of the many influences, directed at the appropriateness of controls containing them, can be one of those higher level quick indications of the human made threats to success.

This affords a simple question, “why say yes to this project?“. Why as a potential project actor agree to enter this enterprise if the divergent interests are not a central focus of control? Why insure it? Why invest in it? Why be party to it? Why approve it? If one can heuristically identify this increased chance of failure, the questions you ask can all be directed this way.

This is visibility | behaviour | trust as a rule of thumb. A heuristic tool, directed at the overall collaborative interest at a project’s core. A work in progress. One that keeps me returning to first principles, new discourse, and regular revisits to this hypothesis as I go.

Agreed or not agreed – is that my question?

And finally…to the challenge I am responding to.

Can you distil your best ideas down into a simple question?

asks Bill Sherman via LinkedIn

Bill Sherman – a writer of thought leadership, and taking ideas to scale. His post yesterday was quite different. He compared NASA mission statements to those we each set ourselves. He offered contemporary examples of the questions NASA set to define their missions. Each a single question – pithy and capturing the imagination of any five year old or older still living with a sense of wonder. His challenge, which I agreed, is to set my idea into a single question. What is the essence of what this big idea is trying to do?

Bills advises us to be guided by the following:-

What’s your big idea that you’re pursuing?

How are you staying connected to your sense of wonder?

Are you able to explain that wonder to others?

Here’s a quick way to check:

1. Write your big idea in one sentence that evokes joy/wonder.
2. Then, test it out. Ask people what they think.
3. Keep going until people say “wow.”

I will confess to writing this entire blog with this question in mind. So here goes, attempt number one.

Can our modelling of projects be linked, to better guide all scales of intended change?

Version one

Can success or failure be gauged by a simple assessment of external influences and resulting appropriateness of project controls?

Version two

Projects are jeopardised if rogue influence gains control: can we avoid the invitations to fail?

Version three

The tipping point

The Tipping Point : how little things can make a big difference

Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

This blog is a brief overview of another modern day classic. It is my link to the concepts of power and influence, as central factors in time-bound intended change I have yet to formally introduce.

Three factors of extreme influence to change

Gladwell outlines three factors that can become a moment or aggregation that trigger the shift of an equilibrium, or a “Tipping Point” (TPs) of change. Namely: Law of the few; Stickiness Factor; Power of Context (pp19). The relative significance of the points, he argues, are more profound than the weighted impacts that economics may refer to in generalities, such as the 80:20 rule of relative impact (80%) by a smaller proportion of a set (20%). He advises that this is more extreme with TPs.

Each of these three factors become the individual or combined factors that describe complex and hidden determinants of epidemic change. The remainder of the book (ff pp29) introduces particular examples and what characteristics or traits come to reflect each of the three factors in turn.

Connectors, Mavens, and Persuaders

“in a given process or system some people matter more than others”, he advises. He presents examples of particular habits and traits in people that make their contribution to a change more profound.


He outlines the small world problem “six degrees of separation” (pp34) as described by Stanley Milgram. But he points to even smaller numbers of key people through whom the many are linked via a special few he terms “connectors”. These are the transient few with skills in retaining contact to many. Page 54 he references Mark Granovetter, “the strength of weak ties”. Gladwell characterises Connectors. They are word of mouth. Socially gregarious. The centre of events. Collectors of people.


pp60, unlike the collectors, our “Mavens” are collectors of information. From the Yiddish meaning accumulation of knowledge. They are traders or brokers or powerful databases of facts (page 69). But active in conveying it too, and for no reason other than to help. Less connected than connectors. But their word is more effective, because it is acutely informed. Nor are they persuaders.


pp70 our Persuaders are sales people,

“in a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks, they provide the message. Connectors are the social glue: they spread it. But there are a select group of people – Salesmen – with skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping point of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.”

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) “the Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference” pp70

The characteristics of these persuaders are offered in some detail. I was struck by how nuanced some of them were. Terms like high energy, enthusiasm, passion, and preparedness for the counter-argument seemed intuitively correct. But others (pages 78-79) such as facial cues of the seller, the associated head movements and behavioural cues of the buyer – all reinforcing the influence of message – much less obvious.

To this end, Gladwell’s brief examination of William Condon’s “interactional synchrony” (page 83) from 1966, can be reconsidered twenty years since Gladwell outlined the Tipping Point impacts. This is contemporary research and reflects current areas of enquiry in psychology. If further reading is of interest, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2021, 1–4, Interpersonal Synchrony Special Issue, from February 2021 is presenting a significant body of 21st Century research. Article entitled “Being ‘in sync’—is interactional synchrony the key to understanding the social brain?. Open access link here

The context of Tipping Point in Projects | Within Projects

The notions of power and influence are therefore introduced. The Tipping Point gives a perspective on both that I do not believe Project Management theories fully engage, particularly where risk and the powers and influences are directing project energies toward or away from success. This extends beyond stakeholder engagement, leadership or hierarchy, or command and control. These are the wider powers and more subtle influences that can be market forces, political attitudes, or other socio-economic dynamic shifts in macro-scale. Or the subtle influences and hidden power bases working unchallenged and unseen from within the culture of a project and its actors.

The impacts upon intended (or unintended) change outlined by Gladwell as connectors, mavens, and persuaders, are my first moves towards better examining these nuances alongside visibility | behaviour | trust. In the examination of Project Finance projects in UK PFI, per my 2020 MSc dissertation, the phenomena I hypothesised presents a changing risk profile that arises because of the changing influences (not necessarily power) of differing project actors over time. I argue that the early influence of senior debt lending became less, and the new influences that emerged were differently motivated, and accordingly influenced project energies toward their own goals. One possibility I am intending to revisit is whether Tipping Points can be identified to connect these more macroscale influences upon the complexity of relationships in these projects.

My early efforts to introduce systems dynamics into this idea have been thwarted by a lack of credible and common stock unit that is able to contextually transcend system interfaces. I am therefore considering whether less quantitative dependent metrics of influence may serve to demonstrate a more simple binary direction of attention towards or away from a particular project level and its associated goal.

These may direct attention in two directions, or scales:

First, into bigger organising systems – toward much weightier interactions akin to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), which can be examined from much wider interacting systems of influence too. Or much as the Lloyds of London LMX spiral of the early 1990s, which I think presented similar examples of the effects of losing touch with exposures. Other macro-scale modelling may also resonate, although with less relevance to intended change. In oceanography for example the Ekman spiral presents surface currents acting in one direction, whilst above and at depth air and water currents are moving the opposite way – the hidden influence of the Coriolis effect demonstrated to nudge layers directionally from one to the next. This becomes part of the multimodal perspective I believe project, risk, and people management all necessarily need to become aligned towards. Each in their way able to be defined in the project vernacular I am developing and the interplays they then reflect. Can some of these resulting identified projects become understood and characterised with similar Tipping Point influences, reflecting directional interest into or away from other projects, and thereby impact risk profile and predict the range of change over time?

Second, into more contained or smaller scale concepts of influence. TPs also offer possible means to introduce another series of comparable and perhaps connected concepts of projects. The projects of mind, and projects of management. Both of which I am separately but ever comparing as modelled in Project Management and Psychology and much else beyond. The influences within.

Gladwell offers more interconnected analysis that gives me reason to keep making such comparison. Here are seven brief quotes from Gladwell (2000) that all give possibilities of directional influences; or constraints to our attentions; or attribute or trait assumed modal confusion; all of which I argue reflect the grey spaces we create through our interfaces of projects | within projects.

pp152 “…essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain types of environments – that in ways the we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances…”

pp158 “when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situation we are deceiving ourselves…”

pp160 “Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency we all have to overestimate the impact of fundamental character traits and underestimate the impact of situation and context”

pp188 couples use “transactive memory” to share the burden of remembering based upon each other’s skill sets. This extends to family units. Over time efficiency is derived from specialism.

pp191 Keeping below 150 rule give organisational tipping potential to remain across shared memory.

pp257 start by reframing how you see the world…it does not afford to our intuition…

ppp258 the human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) “the Tipping Point : How little things can make a big difference”

This is therefore a first introduction to ideas and concepts that I will be linking to more. Many of which I am certain I am yet to even know exist. My MSc in Psychology begins on Monday, and already my access to university library resources is revealing just how much is there to be discovered. My mind and my theorising forever influenced and changed from my infinite unknown unknowns.

This one book has offered extensive connection between subjects and concepts. It has interest and knowledge and reason to revisit and rethink. It is well written, compelling in its examples offered, and subtly draws you into its persuasive undertones. Tipping Points abound, and this evening it was well worth another read.

About Me

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.

Find my professional mask here:

Can we be risk savvy and reference class forecast cost?

Another reflection of what it is to be Risk Savvy, in the context of RCF

This blog is a first look at the psychological aspects of Reference Class Forecasting and how this relates to Project Management. I link this blog to several papers and contemporary academic debates that sit central to the direction project management betterment is being directed toward. These initial source flags simply highlight the contemporary nature of current debate which in some quarters may be represented as definitive truth.

This is prompted by a line in Gerd Gigerenzer’s 2014 book Risk Savvy, and a passing comment I am yet to better source. This suggestion that his perspectives differ significantly from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Given the central theme Kahneman and Tversky play in the papers introducing Reference Class Forecasting to Project Management, these two perspectives may guide my own research better in whether one perspective can inform or must necessarily dispute the other.

Project Management and reference class forecasting – RCF

Whilst explaining some rudimentary mistakes in representing risk, Gigerenzer states the following, “left on their own people intuitively fill in a reference class to make sense for them” (pp3).

From a Project Management perspective the contemporary discussion on cost estimating is often framed around the concept of “reference class forecasting”. The Infrastructure and Projects Association (IPA) advocate this approach {click here and refer to slide 28}. Oxford Said have supported RCF and developed it into a meaningful betterment of government estimates of project cost, examples here are projects in Scotland and Hong Kong. RCF also has 21st Century and mainstream backing in psychology.

However, government advise has not been ubiquitous in its support. Note the reference here to a paper presented to a House of Commons select committee enquiry in 2019, sourced from the open records of an equivalent representative body in Newfoundland, Canada during the recent Muskrat Falls enquiry.

I remain undecided either way. I have had the privelege of attending several lectures by the Oxford Said Business School. One specifically outlined how RCF is being applied. The Gigerenzer perspective, and the RCF counter-narratives flagged here, present reason to keep asking what it is that drives our decisions. Is RCF sufficiently robust to enable defensive decision-making to be countered? Or are these two accounts compatible? Particularly if this reflects separate sets of variables and influences beyond optimism bias.

In this regard I see Gigerenzer presenting different dynamics to those of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and the entire set of risks I believe RCF are intended to address. Both may therefore be correct, but neither complete. I will perhaps understand this better once a more complete review of the literature is undertaken.

v | b | t

Per my last blog, it is the Gigerenzer case that seems more compatible with what I am leading with, as possible root-cause. I am of the view that many of our project failings are not directly resulting from the estimates of cost, but more the divided motivations of employer and contractor that thereafter emerge. The human behaviour element, being the unaccounted for reality of colloquial decision-making motivations. This is my reason to think the Gigerenzer view to be at least as valid as the estimating bias being countered by RCF.

About Me

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.

Find my professional mask here: