IPMA International Project Management Association
4 January 2018 / 10:09

Dancing with your project – anticipating next steps based on weak signals

The time close to New Year´s Eve is the season for the fortune-telling business. How is our economic and political situation developing, or how are personal circumstances changing to the better (or the worse). Some of this fortune-telling is just charlatanism, others are extrapolating the past developments and ignore the disruptions that are part of nowadays world. However, some of the augurs have skills of anticipating the future that are difficult to explain or to provide scientific evidence. Some of those augurs´ skills may be special sensors for weak signals that we have lost in our past or that are buried behind our education and “scientific” façade.

Industry 4.0 is already making use of special sensing skills for predictive maintenance. For example, Augury Inc. [https://www.augury.com/] is a start-up company in New York that “brings internet-age technologies into the maintenance world and combines them with the gold-standard practices of Predictive Maintenance… We teamed up certified Vibration Analysis experts with Machine Learning algorithm experts – in order to build the mechanical diagnostics platform of the Internet of Things.” Machines that produce a slightly different noise may need maintenance. It´s just about recognising the different noise, compare it with benchmarks and conclude what actions may be necessary. Professor Fritz Böhle, a sociologist of University Augsburg researched with several colleagues already in the early 1990s about what he calls the “High Tech Feeling” [http://www.gab-muenchen.de/de/detail-17_17_277-hightech-gespuer-erfahrungsgeleitetes-arbeiten-und-lernen-in-hochtechnisierten-arbeitsbereichen.htm], especially in the context of complex machines or factories. Listening to the sound of the technical equipment, feeling the vibrations they produce and getting an impression of “how the machine feels” makes you consider corrective actions and learn for improving the situation. It requires people to accept that they have the possibilities of looking ahead based on their feelings, analysing weak signals and interpreting ambiguous senses to decide what should be done, even when this may sound “irrational”.

What can we learn from this? Anticipation is an important competence for project managers. We tend to intensively plan and drive projects through plan and control habits. This has the touch of scientifically correct behaviour and sounds very “professional”. However, the world is volatile, it´s ambiguous and non-predictive, old behaviours come to their limits. We need to (re-)discover our human sensors and listen carefully to what they are telling us. The signals are typically weak, but they are there. For example, before an earthquake animals are quite, they sense the first eruptions from the inner of the earth. Farmers predict the weather from the formation of the clouds and decide when it´s time for the harvest. In projects the signals that customers send, for example not attending the regular meetings anymore, could mean a declining interest in the outcome of the project or a worsening relationship. Team members who do not attend the status meeting, being unusually often on sick leave or avoid contributing to discussions may be overwhelmed by their tasks, lack progress but fail to communicate this in an adequate manner. The tone of the conversation in the project team is getting louder and more aggressive, the discussion is stuck in one aspect and people are finger-pointing. These are all signals that should be observed thoroughly. Professor Böhle and colleagues argue, that in such cases project managers often increase their efforts on planning and controlling instead of digging deeper and taken the signals serious. Thus, project managers need to sharpen their senses, listen carefully, anticipate future developments and take actions based on these skills rather than increasing their efforts on planning or controlling. It´s like dancing with your project…

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.