Project Management Lessons from Paleoanthropology

In early 1987, a study of 145 mitochondrial DNA samples from women representing a variety of populations, conducted by biochemists and geneticists, was published in Nature. Using a complex analytical model based on mutation rates, the authors determined that all living people have a common ancestor, later dubbed Mitochondrial Eve, who lived in east Africa between 140,000 and 200,000 years ago. This was a blow to the multiregional hypothesis promoted by several prominent paleoanthropologists, which asserted that the fossil record showed continuous evolution over the last two million years in widely distributed locations. But recently, a team of geneticists, paleoanthropologists, and other scientists collaborated to develop a new model. And their approach has important lessons for those of us who manage teams of knowledge workers with diverse specialties.

Acknowledge Biases and Assumptions

Every well-developed knowledge specialty has its own culture, models, methodologies, favored data sources, and assumptions. Consequently, practitioners have biases that reflect their specialty. The scientists in this interdisciplinary team, led by archeologist Eleanor Scerri, wanted to avoid letting their professional biases lead to “cherry picking across different sources of data to match a narrative emanating from one [field].” So, the team met for three days to review each other’s work—challenging assumptions, noting accomplishments and problems, and learning to communicate effectively with their colleagues in other specialties. This process led to a coherent view, goodwill, and mutual respect. Lesson learned: many of our biases arise from deep knowledge in our specialty and confronting them early can facilitate cooperation and team building.

Develop a Common Vocabulary

Paleoanthropologists, geographers, geneticists, and environmental scientists have very different ways of talking about their work. Each field has its own jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms. Scerri noted, “[Our] understanding of findings tends to be influenced by the models and paradigms we have in our heads, which tend to … [affect] how we process new information.” The team had to pool their knowledge in a way that let them share data, methods, and models in a way that didn’t leave anyone out. This required them to adapt their communications to use terminology that was meaningful to the entire group and avoid a dependence on jargon. Lesson learned: time invested in establishing a common vocabulary facilitates understanding and leads to real progress.

Become Accustomed to Conflict

The researchers were able to reconcile their different theories into a cohesive story that accounts for the complexity of the different data points and leaves room for the abundant ambiguity still present. Scerri noted, “Insights from different models can help to shed light on the answers we look for … it’s all about incremental steps and changing perspectives.” Lesson learned: conflict can often be resolved, but even when it can’t, the root of the conflict is often based in some ambiguity. Acknowledging that ambiguity is a step toward a tentative agreement, pending eventual resolution of the ambiguity.

Scerri and her colleagues recognize that, like humanity itself, their model is still evolving. New data and new ideas will inevitably lead to future refinements, and they are fine with that. And that might be the most important lesson of all: you don’t need to be absolutely certain in order to deliver something of immediate and future value.

And if you’re curious, here’s a link to their paper.

New PM Articles for the Week of July 9 – 15

New project management articles published on the web during the week of July 9 – 15. And this week’s video: Cy Swan, still working as a blacksmith and knifemaker at 81, celebrates Independence Day by blasting an anvil into the air, at a pair of hovering drones as they film the whole thing. Yeah … 3 minutes, safe for work, and no anvils were harmed in the making of this video.

Business Acumen and Strategy

  • Dave Gershgorn reports on the push by Microsoft for Congress to regulate how facial recognition technology is used, based on potential human rights risks. 2 minutes to read.
  • Richard Fall reports on the evidence of bias in the proprietary algorithms in COMPAS, a program used by judges that recommends criminal sentences. 3 minutes to read.
  • Dipayan Ghosh gives us the executive summary of California’s new data privacy law. 4 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • John Goodpasture shares a response from one of his students to the change management question, how would you prepare an organization to take on Agile methods? 2 minutes to read.
  • Robert Wysocki describes a comprehensive model of project management called the Scope Triangle. 4 minutes to read, part 1 of 2.
  • Glen Jones explores the selection of KPIs for executive oversight. Here is part 2. 6 minutes to read both parts.
  • Kiron Bondale notes the perils of expressing resource availability as a percentage. 2 minutes to read.
  • Nat Schatz recommends additional due diligence for efficient consolidation of project resources and processes after a merger or acquisition. 12 minutes to read.
  • Mike Clayton explains the meaning of education contact hours and PDUs, as used in the PMI credentialing process. 8 minutes to read.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his list of Agile content, from changing corporate culture to product prioritization to whether Scrum is iterative or incremental. 7 outbound links, 2 minutes to read.
  • Chitra Manoj presents a case study that demonstrates the value of a gap analysis in a project to implement an off-the-shelf replacement for an existing financial system. 3 minutes to read.
  • Svetozar Krunic explains lead scoring, a user behavior metric valued by marketers. 4 minutes to read.
  • Justin Rohrman describes a definition of “done” for development completed by a small team with no real hand-offs. 6 minutes to read.
  • Claire Reckless gives her detailed answer to a simple question: What is software testing? You can’t manage what you don’t understand. 10 minutes to read.
  • Steven Sinofsky points out the bear traps in implementing API connections to other systems from your enterprise system. 12 minutes to read.

Applied Leadership

  • Alexander Maasik curates his weekly list of leadership articles, from making sure your goals have impact to not believing your own BS to the need for better governance. 3 minutes to read.
  • Johanna Rothman posts two parts on objectives and key results (OKR) and how that translates to accountability, versus fostering responsibility and autonomy. 7 minutes to read both, here’s part 2.
  • Cesar Abeid interviews Jason Evanish on the importance of using 1 on 1 meetings in growing your team members. Podcast, 36 minutes, safe for work.

Research and Insights

  • Greg Satell reports on recent progress in the war against synthetic identities used to defraud financial institutions. 5 minutes to read.
  • Tom Merritt suggest five alternatives for making your web browsing more secure. Read or video, both 2 minutes.
  • Polina Aronson and Judith Duportail examine the starkly different empathic responses of two different AI conversational agents: one programmed in the US and one in Russia. 12 minutes to read.

Working and the Workplace

  • Emily Esposito recaps the key points from Daniel Pink’s new book, When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. 3 minutes to read.
  • Benjamin Spall distills lessons learned from talking to over 300 successful people about their morning routines. 4 minutes to read.
  • Michael Lopp shares his practices for managing his browser, phone, Email, and life. 5 minutes to read.
  • Alyse Kalish explains why everyone should have a professional headshot handy. 2 minutes to read.

Enjoy!

New PM Articles for the Week of July 2 – 8

New project management articles published on the web during the week of July 2 – 8. And this week’s video: Bill Gates discusses his pledge of $2 billion for investment in new alternative energy technologies. 3 minutes, safe for work.

Business Acumen and Strategy

  • John Detrixhe points out some of the reasons that European “Big Tech” companies are smaller than their US and Asian counterparts. 4 minutes to read or scan the high points.
  • Benjamin Gomes-Casseres examines the apparent death of the “GE model” in the aftermath of that company’s removal from the Dow Jones Industrial index. 4 minutes to read.
  • Peter Diamandis summarizes three ways that technology is making a huge difference in healthcare, from personalized medications to intelligent prevention. 6 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • John Goodpasture notes that schedule slack is your most powerful tool for managing risks and explains why. 2 minutes to read.
  • Rob England follows up on the 20 IT project management dysfunctions he gleefully listed on Twitter. “If only the strong survive your system it’s time you fixed your system.” 3 minutes to read.
  • Michael Wood identifies the challenges inherent in managing projects in a change-resistant culture. 7 minutes to read.
  • Brad Egeland warns us not to let the project become about the technology. 5 minutes to read.
  • Mike Clayton explains the Belbin Team Profile, a widely used team assessment tools. Think of it as roles defined by behavior, useful for diagnosing team dysfunction. Video, 6 minutes, safe for work.
  • Joel Carboni posts another in his occasional series on the characteristics of a sustainable project manager; this time focusing on the PM as an agent of change. 2 minutes to read.
  • Elizabeth Harrin interviews Bill Dow on the PMO life cycle, including the need to eventually close them down. 3 minutes to read, or watch the video, just over 3 minutes, safe for work.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his weekly list of Agile content, from scaling Scrum to whether Agile is a cult to Agile organization design. 7 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Chris Kenst makes the case for including testers in code reviews. 5 minutes to read.
  • Kiron Bondale asks: when a team member leaves and knowledge transfer is required, does it matter whether the team is using Agile methods? 2 minutes to read.
  • Roman Pichler advocates a growth mindset to improve your product management skills. 6 minutes to read.
  • Jennifer Bonine interviews Gene Gotimer on a practitioner’s view of the pervasive role of QA in DevOps. Video, 12 minutes, safe for work.

Applied Leadership

  • Alexander Maasik curates his weekly list of leadership articles, from team goal-setting to why team-building exercises don’t work as well as team nurturing. 5 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Scott Cochrane says that the way to avoid decision-making disasters is to always know who “holds the key” to the decision. 2 minutes to read.
  • Melody Stone shares some insights into selecting meeting attendees and some behavioral “failure modes.” 4 minutes to read.

Research and Insights

  • Lila McLellan reports on a new study that found open office layouts may make people less productive and change the way they communicate. 3 minutes to read.
  • Andrew Mauboussin and Michael Mauboussin share the results of their research into how people interpret imprecise terms like “likely” and possibly.” 7 minutes to read.
  • Scott Gerber recaps input from the Young Entrepreneur Council on the new technologies that appear ready for widespread use. 4 minutes to read.
  • Teppo Felin reconsiders the “gorilla on the basketball court” experiment: if humans are blind to what is obviously out of place, does that simply mean we are good are focusing our attention? And what does that imply about artificial intelligence? 18 minutes to read.

Working and the Workplace

  • Suzanne Lucas reflects on the growing gap between biology and social mores in the age of #MeToo. The law isn’t keeping up, so corporate rules need to adapt. Quickly. 7 minutes to read.
  • Alicia Adamczyk notes that requesting help from people with whom we have “weak ties”—not friends or family—can be more effective precisely because they are not like us. 3 minutes to read.
  • Leigh Espy tells us how to build rapport with remote team members. 5 minutes to read.

Enjoy!