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.


Hiring is Part of What a Manager Does

The unemployment rate is below 4% and technical positions are remaining open for up to a year at a time. Hiring managers need to up their game.

My consulting practice consists of human capital management transformation projects, so I spend a lot of my time around HR people. Many HR professionals will tell you they are fighting a “war for talent.” Employee turnover rates are higher and average tenure shorter than at just about any time in history for most organizations, for a variety of reasons. Employees with advanced technical skills are not staying in jobs as long as they used to, and every open position represents an opportunity cost. When the work has to be spread among other employees, the negative effects accumulate quickly. As a result, both recruiting and retention get a lot of attention—except from the managers they work for.

Suzanne Lucas, who writes as The Evil HR Lady for Inc. and number of other publications, recently touted an article by Chip Cutter on the practice of ghosting—job applicants cutting off communication with corporate recruiters and hiring managers. There has always been a fraction of new hires that don’t show up on their first day in retail and restaurant jobs, but this is now a growing phenomenon for technical and white-collar positions, too. Lucas and many other HR practitioners say this is a behavior that the applicants learned from employers, especially hiring managers, during the era of high unemployment. Now, there are more open positions than unemployed workers and the tables have been turned.

Perfection is Over-rated

“I couldn’t pass an audition to join my own band.” Frank Zappa

Every manager wants to hire someone who has exactly the right skills and personality, experience and education, and can hit the ground running. And just about every HR executive complains about managers who won’t choose among the candidates they’ve been presented for open jobs. They point to managers who admit that “This one is perfect,” but they want to see a few more. They forget that outstanding candidates have other opportunities. Unemployment rates in technology are much lower than the rates in the general population, which is now at the lowest point in this century. Even those managers who have successfully “poached” employees from another company underestimate the competition for talent. The hiring manager must be decisive and communicative to be effective.

Understand the Hiring Process in Your Organization

Job ApplicantsMost large employers these days go through an extensive HR-managed process that includes everything from drug testing, credit, and criminal record checks to nondisclosure and IP agreements. Equity grants and other compensation approvals add steps and approvers. This introduces a certain amount of latency, and the longer it takes to get someone on board, the greater the exposure to cold feet. I know of one Silicon Valley employer that had a 10% no-show rate among candidates who had already accepted offers, and that was several years ago. If your organization allows the hiring manager access to the applicant management system, you should monitor the workflow for each requisition, and if necessary, nudge those who have aging actions in their inbox. After you decide on a candidate, maintain contact with that new team member right up until their start date. Keep them informed and feeling wanted, or you might see them snatched away by some other firm.

Make the Landing as Smooth as Possible

Studies have found that the ‘new employee experience’ largely drives tenure. In exit interviews with people who decided to leave their new job in the first six weeks, most organizations hear reasons that amount to ‘disappointment.’ It’s not just onboarding, but fitting in. Excellent teams make a point of getting their new members to feel comfortable asking questions without fear of being judged.  Excellent managers don’t just delegate the new hire experience to a ‘buddy,’ they work to establish a new relationship.

Retention Starts on Arrival

Say what you want about the job-hopping habits of the Millennials: they’re just applying the rules of the modern marketplace. Can you really blame a twenty-something for wanting to develop her resume? The challenge for the manager is to help her develop that resume without leaving. Special projects, additional responsibility, and training aren’t exactly golden handcuffs, but don’t you really want to retain the ones that are engaged? Understand that new hire’s personal goals and make that part of your management plan for them.

Getting to Team Stability

Most managers will tell you that continually re-forming the team as people come and go is a strain on everyone. It helps to engage the group in onboarding and retention. It’s a drag for the new hire to follow someone who was perceived as a valued colleague and trusted friend—no one can match up on the first day. Sensitize your team to the needs of the new starter and enlist them in helping her be successful.

The pace of business picks up a bit more each year. Don’t expend your valuable time as a manager being indecisive, and don’t let someone surprise you with a resignation. As tough as this year looks, next year will be worse, and you won’t like to face it with only half of a team.