Alien abduction and project management

ufo-1379888_1280“Wouldn’t it really suck to get abducted by aliens in a foreign country? They wouldn’t even know what language to use when they probed you.”

These words of wisdom were spoken by a companion during a drive on French country roads in the wee hours of the morning. This is really quite a revealing phrase; both of the underlying psychological issues of my companion, and of what we as modern citizens consider really “foreign”.

Let’s set aside the fascination with alien probing, and look at our perceptions of foreign.  While it may technically mean a different country – a physical, cultural, or political boundary – I don’t believe that’s how most of us view it.  If you’re scheduling a trip to tour the Guinness brewery in Ireland, you’re much more likely to call it an international trip, or an overseas trip.  Foreign has a connotation of something we don’t understand.  Language illustrates this.  You might consider French a foreign language, but a visit to Paris an international trip.  Why the distinction?  I think the basic difference is that you know how to find Paris, but not speak French.  You have the ability to understand the context around the geography but not the language.


extraterrestrial-1287037_1280This is where alien abduction meets project management.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  Poor Zlarp the Alien Project Planner has an impeccable plan.  He’s identified a perfect area outside of Paris, optimal times to avoid radar detection, and briefed his team on communication methods using French.  Instead, by bad luck he ends up with Americans.  What did his project plan say?  How many potential languages could his abductees speak? This is a variable that is not accounted for in his plan – and realistically cannot be.  We see the same things in our project plans – variables that just weren’t even imagined.  Long-service employees leaving, technological advancements, changes in the marketplace – all things that cannot be predicted.  I say cannot be – but truly it is that they should not be predicted.  Analysis paralysis is what can occur if we try to capture all of these variables.  Inability to move forward because we just don’t know enough.  That occurs often with traditional project planning due to the appeal of things like Six Sigma or PMP, they pretend that if you’re good enough, all can be controlled.

Some methodologies talk about trusting the judgement of the people (agile) or pivoting based on new information (lean start-up).  Regardless of this most companies want adherence to a plan.  “We’ll work it out and adjust accordingly” isn’t acceptable to most finance departments.  There needs to be scope and controls on the process.

Failing according to plan

How does Zlarp keep his commander happy?  Assume that Zlarp has some kind of critical path map that shows successful communication as a milestone.  He can’t just drop you off, and go pick someone else up . . .he’s spent time, money, and flying saucer fuel to get you.  Pivoting may sound good logically, but won’t look good on his mission performance review.  He should have thought of potential foreign visitors.  It will definitely be held against him.  So he juices up the probe anyway – and your lack of ability to understand French results in the average intelligence of humans being underestimated for the next 200 years.

This is the result of a highly structured and politicized organization.  Many of us have experience in this environment.  There is NO methodology that can save you once you’ve reached this point of the process.   And – most methodologies take you right down this path.  Sound depressing?  Here is the solution: negotiate outcomes.


Not tollgates, milestones, sprints or any of the other semi-useful mechanisms for project control.  If you are in Zlarp’s position and getting your project defined, focus on outcomes and boundaries.   For example – our alien friends don’t really care about individual probes – they want data.  Task based methodologies would quantify the number and cost of tasks in some fashion.  If you focus on outcomes you look at the data requirement alone.  This gives Zlarp the freedom to quickly drop us back in the wilds of the French countryside and move on to a more opportune target that may have more data.   Even better – if the first three visits were very successful, he could move on to another species not repeating a task just because the plan said to do so.

The challenge here is management acceptance.  Program plans are not designed for success.  They are designed to deflect blame and show due diligence in case something fails.  It takes leaders and project managers with a high risk tolerance to step outside their comfort zone and focus on what really matters – the outcome.

French nobility, crepes, and data science in 1700

An excellent grasp of data analytics determined who got to watch King Louis XIV eat dinner more than 200 years before the first programmable computer.
I had the privilege of visiting the Palace of Versailles last week. The architectural achievement, majestic beauty, and historical importance certainly was visible to me — just like any normal, non-data-geek visitor. So now my more geeky of readers must be thinking — but of course, you noticed the fireplace and thought of The Doctor. No, that’s not it either. Well, not entirely.versailles

Structure drives flow

What I noticed was the design of the structure and how it supported the flow of information. French nobility had the basics of life under control. Food, water, shelter — accounted for by the labors of others. The information that was useful to nobility was where they ranked in the constantly shifting hierarchy, and what the people a step above them were doing. This resulted in a complete lack of privacy for those at the top as constant observation was the key mechanism for data gathering and a strictly regulated schedule was necessary for all players to participate in the routines.
Think of your last visit to a nice restaurant. If you had a reservation, you probably made it online or at least via telephone. The host has an iPad or computer where scheduling is managed. Now think of coordinating all of the guests without knowing who may come, at what time, and dealing with a strict protocol about who would be seated first, closest to other guests and such. What a mess. This is what the palace staff at Versailles managed impeccably on a daily basis.

Decide what is important

How? By focusing on only important data elements. Jumping back to 2016 — if you made a reservation online, there was likely extraneous information that you were required to provide — some for the reservation service, some for marketing purposes, some just because the system may be sub-optimal. Let’s take your email address as an example. There is a corresponding physical address used in the 18th century — but I am confident in saying it wasn’t included on dinner placards. What mattered was rank. The design of the buildings routed people to the right places. Think of it as a funnel. Various corridors serviced the purpose of educating the visitor of the importance of who they were about to see, his achievements, and based on the location of the visitor (which level of apartment or dining) the king or higher nobility could judge the importance of the guest. Physical location drove assumptions about data elements.
This is a tactic that we should see more of today. We greatly tax the patience of our business partners and customers by asking them to fill out form after form — collecting data for the sake of future use. Think like a French noble. What do you really need to know, and how can you know it? Be efficient. While digital technology is a great tool — it shouldn’t stop us from thinking about the analog world. If you wouldn’t take the time to track the data in an analog fashion, you should ask yourself if you really need it. What problem does it solve for you?

Royal Stalking

There really was a room designed for the king to be observed while he at dinner, and the other nobles would provide running commentary among themselves. That’s a rather creepy level of data gathering.

And the crepes — they were just what I ate for lunch and quite memorable.