A Dangerous Bias: action over thinking

brainquestionDon’t just do something, stop and think!”

Probably haven’t heard that one recently, have we?

I do an exercise with PM students – both experienced and just starting – the topic is about project problems and I give them a set of instructions.  When asked, “Are you ready to start?” there is a resounding, “YES!” – they are ready to dive in even though the instructions do not include any description of what output is expected (nor any acceptance criteria), nor any time constraint.

Even when primed “to think like project managers,” they just want to dive in.  Except for very rare occasions, there are no questions, just an eagerness to show that they are willing and ready.  When challenged, most responses boil down to: well, you’re in charge, you’ll tell us.

OK, maybe some of it is an indictment of our education system, but I see symptoms of this bias to action (and a bias away from critical thinking) in many projects.

Recently, I was working with a group of young (of course, there seems to be a lot more young people than there used to be for some reason) project managers.  They had just recently moved into PM after being successful in various fields.

The project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to achieve the project objectives.

— A Guide to the PMBOK

That’s a pretty classic view – get it done.  Plan.  Execute. Control.  Close.

No one seemed to have real problems with those processes.  On the other hand, Initiating processes brought up some interesting debate.

Many of these newly minted PMs thought it wasn’t their place to do initiating.  What?  Develop/define a clear mission and identify stakeholders – of course, we have to do this!   Oh… wait… maybe it’s NOT the role of the PM to do these things?

Perhaps it is easy to overlook that other roles have responsibilities, too.  The sponsor role:

Project sponsorship is an active role with a crucial impact on potential project success, particularly in the earliest days of the project. The sponsor should proactively define the project’s mission and objectives.

–Samuel T. Brown, Global Knowledge

Ah.  Of course.  Many of these PMs had not been involved in the earliest days.  They had “inherited” the mission and objectives – the ones that had been carefully worked out by the project sponsor, right?  You know, the mission and objectives that represent an appropriate balance of our stakeholder needs, our allocation of scarce resources, etc.?

I think it’s interesting that the Initiating process group seems to expand in focus in each new PMBOK Guide edition.  Our profession “understands” the importance of starting well as it relates to project success.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen so many projects that do not have sponsors “proactively define” anything much more than “do it.”  Then, we have project managers that are thrown in and are expected to hit the ground running… Now, I understand that we have to show progress before we have everything in place, but it seems to me that we often sacrifice ever defining a clear mission.

Perhaps some of us have embraced agile processes to the extent that we deprecate defining mission and objectives to nearly the point of oblivion?  Actually, I don’t think that’s the main problem here (although, I do believe many are doing “agile” techniques in very un-agile ways).

No, there’s a systematic bias.

So, perhaps if our agile and iterative processes do not seem to be leading us on a path to success, maybe we just dove into the deep end without spending quite enough effort to understand how our stakeholders will be defining success (or even who they are), balancing competing interests over resources and time… and if our sponsors are not doing enough, who is going to step up?



1 thought on “A Dangerous Bias: action over thinking”

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    Right on, Alan! Even after 25 years of project experience I still have to fight the urge to “Just Do It!” Instead I prefer the S.T.O.P. approach that was printed on a pen I found in an airport. When someone shouts “Go!”, we need to Stop, Think, Organize, Plan, and then Proceed. ALl of this need only take a few minutes in many situations, but it takes discipline to do it EVERY time, even when we’re “too busy”, or sure the task is too trivial to warrant this. Thanks for your valuable reminder!

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