The ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ problem in project management


We are all aware of Han Christian Andersen’s story of an emperor who gets a new suit of clothes which cannot be seen by stupid and incompetent people. Initially the emperor wears these new clothes in front of his courtiers, who say nothing to him. He gets emboldened and goes around in his new pair of clothing in front of the entire town. No one in the town is ready to point out what is very obvious. Finally it takes a kid to spell out things as they are.

This is something that happens in the business world more often than we like to think. While undertaking projects we have a tendency to plan every little detail. However as is so often seen, project execution often throws our way challenges which were not planned for. Sometimes these challenges are glaring with obvious solutions and sometimes they appear as innocuous little niggles and very soon grow into complete mess like situations.

During planning phase we kind of benchmark our expectations and often times while execution we know that we are missing the benchmark but we gladly carry on as long as we are in a close enough approximation. The problem is that the approximation is always close enough for us. Nobody wants to be the first one to point out something which may not even be a true risk. The project status report therefore is always green on all parameters of a project until discovered otherwise. More often than not this discovery happens when it is too late to take corrective action.

The key to solve this problem plaguing the project management industry is to be able to Increase the sensitivity of the project risk management process to identify emergent risks faster while minimizing false alarms. There are a couple of ways to resolve this however to my mind the most effective way is to use the ‘Wisdom of Crowd’ functionality to gauge the health of the project. This could be done in a couple of ways, by passing out questionnaires, letting people take surveys , encouraging them to point out any potential disasters. Typically these kind of exercises are to be done individually and not as a team. The project manager can however use these inputs and make use of data analytics to understand and prioritize these risks.  Here the manager’s key skill lies in how he lets the data drive the next steps in the project. What kind of system the manager uses to interpret these risks (a good system should have a high ratio of true positives to false positives) is also going to determine whether the team spends time on solving actual problems or on falsely perceived risks.

Managers also need a certain level of skill and experience in dealing with this. Sometimes with all the thingsthat are running simultaneously in projects, managers are running from pillar to post trying to douse current fires with very little time left to use their analytical side and experience in addressing risks that are not yet full-blown.

With the advent of data science and its application to project management, we are entering into a phase were managers will have it much easier going forward. Systems which collect the wisdom of crowd ,analyze data and calibrate the status of the project as an output will see a huge acceptability from the project management community going forward. These systems will get smarter and evolve as time goes on. Eventually we will see the role of project manager will change too.

These are exciting times being brought forward by the application of data science and analytics in the practice of project management. The emperor might find it little difficult now to roam around naked on the streets of his town.

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