Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Story and the Theory of Constraints

Carl Pritchard makes some interesting comments about communicating risk in some of his presentations, although (in my limited exposure to him) I fear that he may be overestimating our ability to eliminate uncertainty in our mitigation efforts. One of his best insights, I think, is that risk needs to be presented as "story". If we limit ourselves to a formulaic presentation we not only obscure all of the uncertainty, but we also discourage the kinds of 'common sense' approaches to risk mitigation that are most effective. After all, forwarned is forarmed.

The basic problem is people, as Pawel Brodzinski points out is typical with all sorts of project problems. People do not think about "risk" in mathematical terms. In fact, people tend to think about things in "stories". (As an aside, I believe that this is why use cases, when done well, are so helpful in system design ... the "story" bridges the gap between technical and business jargon sets). If we can effectively describe a potential risk in a way that includes story and context, then we probably understand it better ourselves and we have definitely expanded the universe of potential "risk mitigators". Some might even interpet this as the "Tom Sawyer" approach to project management ... other people will end up volunteering to "do the work".

Eli Goldratt, the most prominent and original proponent of Theory of Constraints certainly understood the power of story. His seminal works on the subject are presented almost as novels! His site (linked above) is a good resource. Most of the stuff is for sale (and he is … probably justifiably … proud of his efforts), but if you poke around some you can get some free excerpts of his insights. It is scary how much of those insights line up with some of the stuff I have put together in my Project Rescue Operations consulting practice, especially with respect to the importance of addressing uncertainty. As often happens to me, I persist in attending the school of hard knocks, finally slog through to the other side of the swamp with some reasonable perspective on the problems encountered, and then am presented with a nice, tidy theoretical framework that explains how I could have gotten through without all the mud and mosquitos. It's sort of a Project Manager's version of Pilgrim's Progress (albeit with lower stakes).

1 comment:

Pawel Brodzinski said...

I like your point about telling a story when talking about risks. I think that easy trick can bring some life into risk management sessions. Still, you need to have people who are commited and believe in whole thing. In other case story will suck and it won't help much.