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I just read an interesting paper1 that was released in Oct 2014 in a journal that, although not aimed at training courseware development, seems to apply to our work too, crossing domains.

The authors discuss how uncertainty that is inherent in the increasing complexity and scale of modern projects causes failures in project management and they point out methods to avoid such failures by reducing uncertainty, rather than eliminating it.

They talk about ways to reduce uncertainty in software projects and I suggest it is equally applicable to courseware projects. They suggest that project leaders:

  1. Identify uncertainties so we can convert them to risks in risk management actions.

  2. They suggest that we pick the project management approach that best fits the situation. They call this “characterizing the project.”

  • Traditional Project Management
  • Agile (I’ll add Lean) Project Management
  • Two research and development (R&D) approaches that don’t seem to apply to courseware much
    • Extreme Project Management
    • Emertxe Project Management (yes, it is extreme spelled backwards) Since these are less relevant, that is all I will say about that.
  1. The next suggest we identify sources of uncertainty. This is similar to identifying causes of risks, but in complexity sometimes cause and effect are not traceable. They offer the following four sources:
    • Market uncertainty (customer, suppliers, partners, and the current market situation)
    • Technical uncertainty They mean mixing new and mature technologies. For example when there are too many dependencies in old technologies, when few people know how to support older technologies. This may entail refactoring code to requirements for software. For courseware, it may mean replacing older Flash components or old interactions.
    • Environment uncertainty (e.g. competitors, consumers, government, shareholders, team capacity, resources available, duration of the project)
    • Socio-Human uncertainty (e.g. how people perceive, learn, remember and think, how organizational processes change, innovate, and “fit the reality”) This phrase fit the reality” struck me because it nearly matched exactly what General George S Patton in the WWII era said of his successes in the extreme uncertainty of large scale combat. >”One does not plan and then try to make the circumstances fit those plans. One tries to make plans fit the circumstances. I think the difference between success and failure in high command depends upon its ability, or lack of it, to do just that.” ~ General George S Patton2

The sources the paper’s authors identified struck me as very similar to a METT+T analysis used by the US Army.

  1. The authors go one to suggest identifying early warning signals
    • Sense-making of early warning signs
    • Picking up early warnings as weak signals amidst all the noise
  2. They suggest adapting to uncertainty by:
    • Experimentation
    • Improvisation
  3. Then they suggest ways to contain or reduce uncertainties.
    • Risk management actions
    • They did not mention this, but the military plans for reserves to help compensate for uncertainty (this works in personal finance too)
    • I don’t remember if they said this or if I just wrote it in the margin while reading their paper, but another method is to **model future scenarios ** and prepare for them. The military calls this war gaming alternatives. Most businesses call it Monte Carlo simulation.
    • Flexible contracts. I found that interesting. Conservative contracts make Agile Lean approaches much more difficult in my experience.
    • Trust building and managing expectations and keeping stakeholders informed
    • They mention reflection too. When teams really understand the principles of Agile and Lean, reflection should occur during iteration retrospectives They mention more techniques, but this list suits my purposes here. See their paper for all of it.
  4. Then if unexpected outcomes occur they suggest:
    • Reduce the impact
    • Adapt, apparently by triggering contingency plans
    • Detour or avoid the outcome
    • Pivot, or what they call reorient They state that the software development community has demonstrated increasing awareness of the impact of uncertainty on projects. In training courseware development we can do better.

Sources: 1. A Guide to Deal with Uncertainties in Software Project Management, by Marcelo Marinho, Suzana Sampaio, Telma Lima, and Hermano de Moura, International Journal of Computer Science & Information Technology (IJCSIT) Vol 6, No 5, October 2014.

2. History of the Second World War, by B. H. Liddell Hart, De Capo Press, 1999.

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KW Lanham


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