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Software project management and the law of attraction

Bas de Baar

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It is hard to imagine someone who hasn't read or seen The Secret (if you have been in a cave the last two years, you can watch the first 20 minutes of the movie on YouTube). Basically, its message can be summed up as follows: "If you think bad things will happen to you, they will." And luckily for us mortals, this "Law of Attraction" (see the Wikipedia entry for more), has a reverse. So, think happy thoughts and your bank account will explode.

The reader who is paying attention might detect a slight hint of sarcasm. That is correct. I don't like this esoteric mumbo jumbo. I hate it. I hate it because it has some truth in it. The state of our mind determines how we look at things. If I regard my project as some military kind of operation, if I think of management as the enemy, if I use words like "troops" and "battles," this metaphor I am using for the situation might become true. Labeling someone as "the enemy" will determine my behavior towards him, and that will not be seen as friendly fire. Enclosed in the way we look at things is some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (although, when the revolution comes, I have my eye on some developers).

I still hate that movie.

If I tell my team we are not going to make it, I reduced the chances of making it just by saying so. If there is no hope, there will be no effort. At least not the kind of extra effort that makes a tight deadline. What, then? Should you lie to the team in such a case? If you are not sure you are going to make a deadline, should you keep your doubt to yourself? The law of attraction states that you may not even think about it. If you have doubts as a project manager, you are doomed. Doomed, I say! For crazy ambitious schedules you should be looking for an optimistic and "no worries" kind of PM.

Good luck finding one. There will be people that have these characteristics. But for a project manager to state that he "is optimistic concerning planning" and "always assumes everything will turn out for the best" is professional suicide. A PM should always be realistic, always reducing risks, creating plan Bs from here to eternity, managing expectations (understatement for providing hints that people are not getting what they want) and have metrics available to express how big the mess is, or might be. Or can be. Or should be. I just have to get rid of the sarcasm!

Personally I am very thrilled to have tools available that can express uncertainties in planning (link: LiquidPlanner.com). The trick is to provide range estimations, for example. Instead of stating that something is finished on date A, you provide a range, between date A and B. The wider the range, the higher the uncertainty of that particular task. For a PM it is a gift from heaven. You can communicate your uncertainty. Death to the one dimensional Gantt chart. Hail to the multi-dimensional Uncertainty Based Multi Range Task Chart!

Project management resources
Estimating actual project progress 

Seven ways to keep your software projects in motion 

Want a project to succeed? Think about the big picture

This is just the thing we need to make loop holes in the "Law of Attraction." We just add probabilities to our thoughts and expressions. "Team! We will make it! Push a little harder, because I am sure we will meet the deadline." You just add a 30% probability to the statement in your mind and schedule. Good things will happen!

It is great to be a project manager. I should be optimistic. I should be happy. I should be realistic. I should be skeptical. I should be risk-focused. I should be schizophrenic.

I really hate that movie.

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About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, www.SoftwareProjects.org. His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.


This was first published in February 2008

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