The Human Factor within Project Time Management

Welcome to the Final Post in the CPM Mechanics Blog Series

In this final post of the CPM Mechanics Blog Series (July 2012 – December 2013) I wish to emphasize the very real limits of the technical tool we call the Critical Path Method of Modeling. In Chapter 14 of CPM Mechanics we briefly considered a few popular alternatives to the Critical Path Method. And while not beaten to death on those pages, the clear inference was that every Project Time Management approach has its limits — even the Critical Path Method of Modeling. CPM’s limitations can be spotted at three levels.

  • Structural/Operational Limitations: Look for limitations imposed by the very structure and operation of the Critical Path Method. This category could include anything from the rounding effect of durations, to the comparative definition of “critical,” the unavoidable uncertainty of virtually all schedule values, and so forth.
  • Data Sampling Effect: To a large extent, the Project Schedule is little more than a representative sampling of a much larger Whole that, itself, defies detailed mapping. We need only stop to consider that (at a minimum) 83%* of the actions required on any project are not (and, indeed, cannot practically be) included in the CPM schedule, we quickly appreciate the data sampling nature of the schedule. We then compound this reality by the way we use reductionism in our managerial application of the CPM Schedule, such as when we focus our attention on activities with low Total Float.
  • Overlooked Human Factor: Most important of all, Dominant Project Management’s recommended practices for Project Time Management are conspicuous in their utter disregard for the central role played by the human factor.
* S.M.I.L.E. (Situs, Materials, Information, Labor, and Equipment)

That final bullet is what I want to talk about in this last blog article. It has been my observation over several decades that some of the most popular Project Time Management practices effectively treat the activities contained in the Project Schedule as if they were movements of inanimate objects. They apply probability theory to activities as if they are steel balls in a pinball machine, who speed and direction are entirely predictable based on laws of physics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Activities in a Project Schedule relate to corresponding Actions in the Project itself. The key point is that each of those Actions is powered by human energy, directed by human judgment, and tempered by human emotion.

A Word or Two about Human Judgment

Human Judgment and Human Emotion coalesce in the mind of the worker (or manager) to form the motivation by which Actions are performed. Such motivation ultimately determines all of the variable human attributes that form the essence of the Action: its quality, its competency, its completeness, its timeliness, its efficiency, and so forth.

I have long insisted that “a schedule is, above all else, a statements of intentions (commitments), and not merely a tool of prediction.” Yet that is precisely how Dominant Project Management regards and uses the schedule: to predict how everything will ultimately turn out. This explains why Earned Value and Total Float Analysis and Monte Carlo Simulations and Risk Management and Critical Chain, and so many other technologies treat the schedule’s activities as just so many finite eventualities that can be acted upon by formula and theory.

Despite the illusion of order and organization, behind the deterministic logic and thoughtful activity sequencing of the Critical Path schedule are human beings who will, at any given moment, act in consonance with their strongest emotions, the schedule notwithstanding. Make no mistake: such independent thinking is not a simple case of insubordination. Quite the opposite, their defiance of rules (in order to do what is best) is an act of responsibility and integrity.

My father used to say that, “locks are for honest people.” After all, a thief will simply kick the door in or break the glass; the lock mainly tells the honest person to stay out. Somewhere in my professional past I repurposed my dad’s admonition, when I noted that, “contracts are for honest people.” If someone is dishonest, then no amount of contract language will reign them in. To gain redress you will have to “see them in court.” Well, for purposes of this final blog article, I would like to now add that “schedules are only as good as the integrity of the Project Participants who commit to them.” As simple as this statement sounds, it pivots on two profound observations, so basic and yet so easily (and often) overlooked:

  • Projects are Human Endeavors: Never forget that human attributes infuse each Project and animate the hundreds or thousands of interwoven processes. I’m talking about any attributes that distinguish Man from all other animals; like fear to love, and every possible emotion in between. Feelings like anxiety and excitement and pride and jealousy and integrity and honor and guilt and shame. They all influence the way that both individuals and companies perform on a Project. Further, any one of these emotions can be cranked up or ratcheted down by the level of passion behind the emotion.
  • Projects are Communal Endeavors: This is no small observation. By definition, a community is a gathering of people who have one or more things in common. The great challenge of Project Management is, of course, to identify and cultivate a sense of commonality among the Project Participants. Tto do this in such a way that the Project’s primary objectives align with the passions of the individual participants is the essence of Project Management.

Let’s Talk about Leadership

I could write a book about leadership: objectives, requirements, techniques, and lessons learned. But to keep this final blog post as succinct as possible, allow me to reduce it to two primary functions: fostering teamwork and encouraging innovation. I chose these two goals from so many other equally valid choices because both of them shift the burden of Project Success from any particular Individual to the collective potential of the Group. Viewed as a seamless continuum, the most successful Leader will (a) create a functional Team, and (b) will inspire that Team to be as innovative as possible. Let’s talk about each:

About Teams

Teams are more than just groups of people performing together. People may be the raw ingredients of a Team, but the Team constitutes an operational atmosphere where the individual is able to soar higher and reach farther than he or she ever could on his or her own. When individuals work in a collaborative atmosphere, the Project gets a synergistic shot in the arm. Sure, each individual is more productive, more insightful, and more enthusiastic. But something else happens: there is something magical that happens when people collaborate. They feed off of one another; they absorb each other’s energy — be that positive or negative energy.

It has been said that a marriage is more than two spouses; that there is a third entity in every marriage — the marriage itself. Marriage counselors advise young couples to pay close attention to the needs of all three parties: to one’s self, to one’s mate, and to the marriage itself.  Each has distinct needs, and filling any one’s needs will not necessarily fill the needs of the other two. It is the same way with Project Teams. It is not enough to simply identify and meet the needs of the individuals alone. We must also identify and meet the needs of the Teams, too. And when we train ourselves to treat the Team as an entity in its own right, we begin to recognize group attributes that transcend any one individual.  The beautiful thing is that Group Attributes, properly managed, can yield much value to the Project, as a whole.

This idea of Group Emotion is not unfamiliar to us.  We have heard the term esprit de corps. Just what does that term mean? According to the Online Dictionary, it means, “as sense of unity and of common interests and responsibilities, as developed among a group of persons closely associated with a task, cause, or enterprise.” That about sums it up, wouldn’t you say? Actually, it doesn’t. That definition only speaks of the “sense” of unity and common interests. But, in my opinion, it falls short of capturing the emotions, the feelings of the individuals in the group. From the French, it translates literally as “spirit of the body.” There are two very important words here:

  • Spirit is a word that is often used to refer to “the incorporeal part of humans.” As opposed to the physical being, the spirit of a person is sometimes thought of as its soul. When we speak of spiritual things, we are referring to supernatural, not of this world. Included is the godly.
  • Body reminds us that the group (experiencing the esprit de corps) is itself a body, the point I was trying to make above.

It is common to speak of the culture of an organization. We know what that means. We also know that the culture of the organization is molded at the top. If Upper Management rewards infighting and backstabbing and finger-pointing, then that is what will be found at every level. On construction projects, “Upper Management” is better known as the Project Owner.  If the Owner creates a contractual environment that discourages trust and poses a Zero Sum Game, then that is how the Project will be played out.

Leadership is about creating an environment where the members of the Project Team feel a personal commitment to the goals of the project. This is never any easy assignment, but it is made far more difficult if the culture of the organization fosters Fear (Love being the polar opposite).

About Innovation

This is the other primary role of Leadership, to inspire innovation. Let’s break this apart, as well.

  • Inspire finds its roots in Latin, and can be literally translated as “spirit within.” The Latin word is inspirare, which means “to breathe.” Possibly related back to the Biblical story of Creation where God breathed life into a clump of clay and formed Man. At the risk of getting too ethereal, if “spirit” refers to the incorporeal aspect of the Team, and inspire refers to infusing spirit into the body (of the group), then inspiration is all about cultivating within the group that aspect of the Group that transcends anything physical. Which is why esprit de corps makes sense. We want to cultivate a feeling not just about the group but, more importantly, emanating from the group, such that when one belongs to the group they feel a sense of something greater than themselves.
  • Innovation – now this is the heart of Project Management, as far as I am concerned. In fact, I think it is the absolutely essential and critical key to successful projects. Literally, innovation simply means “something new or different introduced.”

Just how important is innovation to Project Management? Well, think about it.  What do we say about change? “The only constant is change.” This could not be more true than on a construction project. Why? Because:

  • The future is a minefield of impending changes.
  • Projects are  concentrated, compact, and congested future, where the effects of change are amplified.
  • Construction projects are inherently more uncertain than the projects of virtually all other industries.

Bottom line: one would be entirely naïve not to expect change, and a whole lot of it, across the life of a single project. Which brings me to my question: why does Dominant Project Management advocate a host of rigid processes that fight, tooth and nail, not to permit deviations from the Plan? Alexis de Tocqueville may have anticipated Dominant Project Management when he wrote, “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”

William Pollard once said, “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.” He understood the inextricable link between Change and Innovation. So did Steve Jobs, who said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

I hope you appreciate why I included a short discussion about innovation. Because, it stands in stark contrast to how we have been taught to accomplish Project Management. We have been told that Project Management boils down to scores of structured processes. If we simply memorize the processes, and perform them dutifully like one follows a recipe, the necessary result will be a successful project. The fallacy in this thinking is that Projects are guaranteed to be riddled with Change.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote, “Mindless habitual behavior is the enemy of innovation.”

Projects are Human Endeavors

Here are three Immutable Truths relative to the success of Project Management and, by extension, to Project Time Management:

  • Humans are Spiritual Beings: Humans are spiritual beings have a human experience. So often we forget this. We get to relying too much on our ego to save us. We forget God. We think that all we have, and all that we might ever have, will come from our hubris. This attitude motivates us to put undue faith in the promise of strength, power, and aggression. We view others with distrust and suspicion. We hold our cards close to the chest.
  • Humans are Pack Animals: With only the rarest exception, humans are at their most creative, productive, and happiest when they are with others of like mind. We crave to belong to a community of others with whom we share certain values or beliefs or goals in common. We benefit from collaboration and camaraderie.
  • Humans are Innately Creative: We are happiest when we are creating — anything! If might be a poem, a great basketball score, or a shorter route to work. We like to invent, to solve problems, find solutions. That’s why we like puzzles and sports. We love to advance the cause –any cause. We even argue to win, sometimes so passionate to win the argument, we forget what we were arguing about.

What we can glean from these Immutable Truths is that a successful project requires a creative community of mutually-respecting colleagues among and between whom thoughts flow freely and positively. From this, we can appreciate the immense value of communication … constant and honest. We should also meet, as a group, as often as possible. Build esprit de corps. Deliberate extensively. Invite creativity. Resist the temptation to over-control.

Bringing all of this back to Project Time Management, and a course/book on the Critical Path Method, never lose sight of the inherent limitations of any technology, and the profound contribution of the Human Factor.  The Critical Path Method of Modeling is a pretty powerful tool. And, in the next course, Planning & Scheduling, we will learn how to use the Critical Path Method to actually plan and schedule a real project. And in the third course, Project Time Management, we will learn how to use the plans and schedules to maximize our wise use of time on the project. Yet, with all of these cool processes and tools, at the end of the day it comes down to the Human Factor. We are well advised to never lose sight of this simple-enough point.

1 Comment to The Human Factor within Project Time Management

  1. Zach Reed says:

    Great thoughts on the human factor of projects. I agree with much of what was said about leadership and building a better team. A good leader will bring people together and create an environment of support and edification. Innovation is certainly an important quality of an effective leader as well.

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