Have you ever stopped at the supermarket to reflect on the constantly improving state of the art in maximizing grain yield per acre? Of course not. You simply grab a loaf of bread, glance at the “Sell by” date, and put it in your cart. You don’t feel a sense of gratitude that you and your family probably won’t die of starvation, as was so common for earlier generations. You don’t feel a sense of wonder that so little labor is now required to feed seven billion people. And you certainly don’t notice that, adjusted for inflation, you pay less for that loaf of bread than your grandparents did. You just move on to the next section, which was carefully organized to make it easier for you to find everything without assistance from the staff. You benefit from that simplicity because others handled the complexity. And that is a large part of a project manager’s job: to enable simplicity by allowing others to ignore the underlying complexity that makes it all possible.
Simplicity Is Expensive
If you want simplicity, you have to be prepared for a lot of capital expenditure. Whether it’s a manager’s dashboard or microwave popcorn, someone had to expend a lot of money on experimentation, development, productization, and rollout. Good project sponsors understand that; the rest need to have it pointed out to them. Simplicity costs more than complexity in almost every case, although the incremental cost may be spread across a larger market. If you have a fixed market, like “the managers in my company,” then cost per manager will increase. That said, a solution that isn’t used is a complete waste of resources, so good project managers are advocates for optimizing allocation of resources to get the expected (or at least desired) benefits.
Simplicity is the New Baseline
Twenty years ago, you could download files containing a movie. It took a long time, you’d need special software to view it, it would eat up a large share of your hard drive capacity, and technically speaking, it was illegal. But a funny thing happened when business people noticed that they couldn’t make a dent in piracy with public service announcements or occasional prosecutions: they changed their business model. So now, anyone who wants to can stream videos on demand, for anything from cheap to free. From the consumer’s perspective, it’s simple; the problem has become about what to watch, rather than how. But when playback pauses due to connectivity issues, the consumer gets upset. They expect reliability, not just simplicity. The cautionary lesson is simple: good project managers work to temper the pursuit of faster-better-cheaper with constraints of scalable-sustainable-supportable.
Simplicity Redistributes Risk
One of the common side-effects of simplicity is a change in the risk profile. GMOs have helped reduce crop yield uncertainty (although not necessarily increased yield) but there is concern among consumers that their health might be impacted. Self-driving cars are represented as safer, eventually reducing the number of accidents, but not all accidents are preventable by software. Good project managers ensure that sponsors and other decision makers understand the real and perceived implications of their actions when shifting risks.
As we continue to reduce the degree of engagement and commitment required of the end users of our products, it is necessary to continuously reassess the business model that delivers it. The project manager is increasingly expected to be an active participant in that reassessment, and the wise project manager will embrace that expectation. The days of the project manager as administrator and status reporter are in the past. Going forward, we will succeed only to the degree that we adopt the more expanded vision of an executive.