Carl Pritchard: Life without Numbers, Sort Of

The “sort of” part of this is that we often become slaves of hard numeric metrics, when we should really be questioning the validity of these approaches and the data behind them.
Where did the numbers come?
It doesn’t matter if it’s return-on-investment or project actual cost, it is crucial that we identify where the data comes from. We often accept numbers without questioning their source. The numbers take on a life all their own, driving management decisions and pushing us to find more numbers that may be more favorable to the desired outcome.
Although the numbers and their sources are valid, it might be time to adopt a qualitative approach to project management. It might be time to change our hard numbers for some soft ones.
What are the chances that it will rain tomorrow near you? Consider the answer to this question. It’s not as simple as it seems. 40%? What does it mean, even if you know the percentage from your forecast? It means that 40% of the time conditions are as they are now, historically, there has been rain. Do you think that this data will help you make better decisions? If not, it’s time to reevaluate our approach in terms of the soft stuff.
Softer Thinking
We can all change the language in our organizations to increase probability and produce better results. Organizations are prone to react instinctively to the likelihood that events will occur. We can help reduce that tendency. We can change the conversation by using a few simple terms. If the weatherman says there’s a greater chance of a weather-related event than 50 percent, that can be referred to as a “high” consistent. It happens more often than half of the time! For most project discussions, this is the extent of our knowledge. We don’t really know much more than that, so “high” serves us well.
Have you ever seen it happen before? It’s rare or unusual. It’s rare. It happens less often than half the times, but more than once. This is a moderate chance. Take all of these and you will have an intelligent conversation that isn’t dependent on numbers. It’s easier to have a consistent conversation with no numbers. Do we agree that numbers are essential? Fine. You can apply certain numeric values to each one of the four classes (high-medium, low-low, and remote). We have some consistency if high is always at 65%. We have hope. We can have a consistent mathematical conversation with no hard numbers.
Are you talking about schedules or budgets? Range estimates offer many possibilities. We can be more transparent and include more data when we offer estimates in a range than we do with fixed numbers. A 3-day estimate with five-day ranges might be a concern. A 3-day estimate with a 2-hour range is clearly more precise and targeted. Most budget and schedule estimates are presented as gospel numbers. It is the gospel of truth, without any qualifiers. We may be more effective than those who advocate for a world without the fiction of hard, numerical values before we continue to do what many organizations do.
Carl Pritchard is the US correspondent for Project Manager Today. He is a speaker on project management and risk management around the world and teaches the PMP(r), Certification exam preparation extensively in the classroom. He welcomes your insights at [email protected]