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Project managers cannot rely on generalizations

Software project management requires a more nuanced approach than relying on stereotypes, advises PM expert Bas de Baar. By categorizing, PMs set themselves up for trouble.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar

As a project manager you are in the business of making decisions. Based upon yesterday and today you try to predict what will happen tomorrow. We are lousy at it. Although we have techniques for estimation and forecasting project activities, there are two fundamental aspects that prevent us from being some kind of project Nostradamus. First, reality is just too darn complex for us to comprehend. It is called "dynamic complexity" and it basically means that humans cannot oversee the true cause-effect chains in real life.

The second reason was given to me by Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is the human need to categorize everything. We just have to put the world around is in neat boxes. Taleb coins the term "Platonicity" for this phenomenon -- "the focus on those pure, well-defined, and easily discernible objects like triangles, or more social notions like friendship or love, at the cost of ignoring those objects of seemingly messier and less tractable structures." We put a label on an event and use that knowledge to reason about the future. We use this mechanism on everything, including people. This kind of stereotyping can be dangerous because it tries to say something about an entire group of people and leaves individual differences out in the cold.

It is quite convenient to believe that Hispanics always have a siesta and that Americans already start their day in a hurry. And then we have the French… ah, don't get me started about the French.

You know I am kidding, don't you?

Before you try to draw conclusions about an entire continent, just start with the individual  instead.
Bas de Baar,

"Empirically, sex, social class and profession seem to be better predictors of someone's behavior than nationality (a male from Sweden resembles a male from Togo more than a female from Sweden)," writes Taleb. By putting people in the wrong box, we draw conclusions for the future that are incorrect. Although our brain needs to categorize, the simplifications we make, the false labels we use make us suckers for the day of tomorrow.

There seems almost no way around it. We are social, so we need categories and groups and labels. Our identity is how we see ourselves within the ultimate large group of humans. It is not something that makes sense on an individual level, it is a group thing. Without groups, the whole concept of identity wouldn't make sense. We are shaping identities by combining three mechanisms: categorization, identification and comparison (see this Wikipedia entry on identity formation for more). Although broadminded people like to think they do not put everyone in boxes, everyone does. We always put people in categories, we "label" them. This is done by looking for signs that we associate with a certain group. These signs are the mentioned use of icons, rituals or speak. To be able to associate yourself with a group, we first have to divide society into groups. Identification is the part where you affiliate yourself with a group. "But we must be able to use some stereotyped knowledge, otherwise how would the FBI successfully profile criminals?" you may ask. Fair question. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, provides us the answer in this article in The New Yorker: They don't.

"In the mid '90s, the British Home Office analyzed 184 crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases...The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons," wrote Gladwell.

Where does this leave us, the project professionals? Is there absolutely no way we can use some generalized knowledge about team members to predict the project future? Of course. Being aware of this fact is already half the battle. Stereotyped anecdotes exist because they have some truth in them. Different cultures result in different behaviors of people.

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But before you try to draw conclusions about an entire continent, why not just start with the individual project team member instead. Take a mental spin, take a leap, perform a 360°, try to assess a situation in a different cultural reference frame. Before you draw conclusions on everything labeled as a "Technical Issue," look at each issue individually.

Categories are a way to store information in your brain. It is a way to retrieve information. Use it as a storage device, and not as the blind truth. Putting plastic in a green garbage container doesn't make it eco-friendly.

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, 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 last published in April 2008

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