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.

The Internet of (Human) Things and other Siri-ous Issues

“I need your FM voice.” My wife says I sound like the announcer on a classical music station. The problem is, Lien sounds like a Taiwanese woman speaking English, which she mostly learned as an adult. Siri mangles half of what she says, and it annoys her beyond depiction. My reaction would be to not speak to that wretched Apple faux person at all, but Lien expects that things should work as advertised. Her solution: she composes a message, recites it to me, and then holds her iPhone up to my face so I can repeat it in my dulcet tones. Pointing out to her that using the keyboard would be faster only exacerbates her annoyance. So I help her overcome one more twenty-first century, First World problem caused by the overreach of consumer technology. Which brings me to the Internet of Things.

Useless Cases

An article by Paul Sawyers in VentureBeat last year reported on funding secured by San Francisco-based June, which is developing a Smart Oven. I won’t bore you with the feature set – instead, I’ll just ask: How much baking goes on in your household? Based on that, how much usage would you get from an Internet-connected gadget which inspected whatever you plopped in the oven, determined what you were cooking, and adjusted the temperature accordingly? Isn’t this why God created thermostats for regulating oven temperature, which recipes invariably stipulate? Perhaps someone smarter than me can explain the use case for this “solution.”

That Looked Better on Jeri Ryan

CosFailThat oddity aside, there are a lot of incredibly valuable applications for placing passive RFID tags on newly manufactured products so they can self-report their presence. It simplifies everything from preventing inventory shrinkage to check-out (bar codes are so 20th century). So, do we want to use human-implanted RFID chips to authenticate identity? This is a thing, at least in small number. A recent article about RFID implants in Australia makes it seem like a silly fad, but the number of available applications for the technology is impressive. And as more phishing attacks expose more of our personal data, the allure of an identification that can’t be spoofed is undeniable.

Useful Cases

Over the last few years, the IRS has detected a number of fraudulent tax returns submitted electronically, with W-2 forms apparently retrieved by providing minimal information, such as SSN and birth date. If you had an implant with a very long unique identifier that could be read by your phone or other device and validated by some central database, would you feel more or less secure? How about if it could be read by any pocket-sized harvester? Well, would you like your device to generate a complementary key based on your fingerprint that would combine with your RFID tag to uniquely identify you? At what level would you feel secure about being an internet “thing?”

Scenario: Imagine you are working in a hospital emergency room. An ambulance brought in a patient who is unresponsive. Fortunately, her RFID tag was read on the way in, and her records – from medical history to address, next of kin, and insurance coverage – have already been retrieved. But the other victim in the accident lost his arm, where the tag was implanted. He’s bleeding out, and you have to collect his identification the old-fashioned way in order to treat him. While this seems extreme, it’s not unrealistic. An embedded RFID tag might be the difference between life and death.

You Knew This Would Be About Ethics, Right?

As project managers, we’re going to be asked to manage a lot of projects that will be done because they are possible, or because they solve another twenty-first century, First World problem. We need to accept responsibility for being not just the agent of the sponsor but the agent and voice of society. We have to be prepared to point out flaws and even talk powerful people out of their pet projects. If someone had been the voice of reason in 1945, saying, “The war is almost over, and this nuclear Genie should be left in the bottle,” would the world be a safer place? On the other hand, we have a responsibility to support the development of technologies that can save lives, even if they seem a bit creepy to us.

Siri and Alexa are just the beginning. From autonomous vehicles to next-generation biometric authentication, we are changing the way humans interact with the world. You might never find yourself in a position to influence the future. But if you do, don’t hesitate to speak out. Don’t wait for the Law of Unintended Consequences to catch up with our innovations.

To a Millennial

The pace of change increases at an exponential rate, and over the next two or three decades, our civilization will undergo more change than in the last millennium – changes that may make entire institutions, including nations and religions, obsolete. By the end of this century, from artificial super-intelligence to life spans approaching two or three centuries, the human experience may be completely unrecognizable to today’s school children. We can’t possibly imagine what it will be like, any more than Gutenberg could imagine the Kindle Fire, or understand it without falling into utter despair.

As a sixty-something, it’s time for my cohort to make room for Millennials to step up and lead. And to you, I humbly offer some thoughts on how you might prepare to ensure that people do what is right, rather than what is merely possible. Much of what you will learn during your life will be obsolete before you master it. But learn, you must. Indeed, your children will likely experience foundational changes in a range comparable to those that led from Clovis points to COBOL, and riding that avalanche must be the natural thing for them to do.

Learn to be Skeptical

For the Boomers, an undergraduate degree was a differentiator. For Generation X, it became table stakes. For your generation, education is just a sunk cost and memorization is simply ridiculous. But if you have learned how to research, to think critically, to separate facts from mere assertions, “sponsored” search results, fake news and outright bullshit, and to unlearn everything that once mattered so much to you, then you are empowered to not-drown. Note that this doesn’t mean you will swim, or even float.

Learn to Change

Discipline is freedom. Your ability to change your behavior, whether it involves reinforcing the good things or stopping the bad ones, reshape your body or preserve your health is entirely a function of your ability to take disciplined action. Learn to be still, to be reflective, and to be mindful. But also learn to abandon old habits, design and adopt new habits, and continually assess the effectiveness of your behaviors in helping you achieve your goals. Embrace the process, and the results will follow.

Learn to Make Decisions

If you’ve learned nothing else from your games, you should know that hesitation is a decision, and often the wrong decision. Learn to quickly decide in the absence of certainty, to take assertive action with minimal actionable information, to recognize a bad decision, and to abandon it. Don’t just fail quickly – backtrack immediately. This means taking risk management to places we’ve never gone before – be sure to send us a selfie, if you’re still doing that sort of thing.

Learn to Influence

Yours is the collaborative generation – you swarm a problem in ways that make us Boomers feel like equestrian statues, covered in pigeon-shit. The next skill beyond collaborating is influencing. To influence opinion is to influence action. Just don’t be selfish. Don’t be exploitive. Don’t drive people to behave unethically, or cause them to regret falling under your influence, even if they have no idea who you are.

Learn to Lead

Once upon a time, in a world without social media or even telephones, we believed that we led by example. But in the last few decades, it’s become obvious that even odious examples could inspire followers. I don’t know how you should proceed here, because my generation’s thinking is simply invalid in this subject area. I ask only that you embrace equality, justice, kindness, and respect, and that you never abandon them for hate and tribalism.

Aside from these principles, I have little to offer you and can give no reason for you to feel like your world will be a better place – that will be entirely up to you. Peace be with you.