one flew over the cuckoo's nest, project management, Toby Elwin, blog

Portfolio project management — seeing not perceiving

bias, perception, project, Toby Elwin, blog
Prediction: someone’s perception will seriously derail this project team.

The ability to scope and deliver a project is a competitive advantage.

The best organizations realize project management capability is a strategic competence.

Organizational imbeciles subvert project management roles to write notes, schedule meetings, and take the blame for projects that fail.

That above paragraph represents my bias.

Perhaps you see it the same, perhaps you do not.

Bias affects what you think, what you believe, and how you behave.  How others see you is through their very own bias and seeing is in no way believing, seeing is only perceiving.

I am curious who knows why:

the same people; fund the same people; to staff the same people; to deliver new projects; despite the consistent inability to scope, plan, execute, or evaluate sunk cost on past project performance.

Projects start with an executive need:

  • New market evaluation,
  • Improve operating margins,
  • Disruptive technology,
  • Your competition is eating your lunch

Whatever the reason, a project is how an organization translates an executive strategy. What is a project:

  • a project has a definitive beginning and end;
  • a project is a temporary effort, specifically to create a unique product, service, or result;
  • a project is not part of business operations, but can develop capability and become part of operations

Note: Do not confuse temporary with short duration and do not confuse temporary as something that does not, ultimately, becoming operational once the project stabilizes or delivered i.e. a new facility or new production technique.

Why do projects get funded?

Why do projects fail to assess risk?

Why do projects underestimate cost and overestimate subject matter experts?

There’s a bias to all this projected incompetence.

All About the Bias 

Bias has to take the biggest hand in the (in)ability to project accurate projects.

Bias creates the tendency, in all of us, to prejudge.

I return to The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices first outlined in Subjective communication objective and a relevant list they present of bias that cause so many project hangovers.  Go through the list with any current project in mind and check against the following in play:


The tendency to base decisions on information that can be easily recalled, neglecting potentially more important information. As an example, a project manager might give undue weight to his or her most recent professional experiences when analysing project risks, creating a barrier to an objective consideration of risks that are not immediately apparent. This particular example of availability is an illustration of the recency effect, which refers to the fact that people often make judgements based on recent events rather than those in the more distant past.


The tendency of people to favour (or selectively seek) information that confirms their opinions. Another manifestation of this bias is when people interpret information in a way that supports their opinions. This is also related to availability bias in that information that confirms one’s viewpoints is more easily recalled.

Illusion of control:

The tendency of people to overestimate their ability to influence events and outcomes that they actually have no control over. This is closely related to overconfidence … and optimism bias—the belief that things will work out in one’s favour, despite there being no evidence to support that belief.


The tendency to make judgements based on seemingly representative, known samples. For example, a project team member might base a task estimate based on another (seemingly) similar task, ignoring important differences between the two.

Selective perception:

The tendency to give undue importance to data that supports one’s own views. Selective perception is a bias that we’re all subject to—we hear what we want to hear, see what we choose to see and remain deaf and blind to the rest.

Loss Aversion:

The tendency to give preference to avoiding losses (even small losses) over making gains. A particularly common manifestation of loss aversion in project environments is the sunk cost bias of throwing good money at a project that is clearly a lost cause.


The tendency for people to seek as much data as they can lay their hands on prior to making a decision. As a result, they are swamped by too much irrelevant information.

source: The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations by Paul Culmsee and Awati Kailash*

Bias derails evidence, evaluation, argument, and decisions for perception. This is a small sample of cognitive bias wrecking havoc on perception.

Risk Rots From the Head Down

To manage noise many have built an information gate and communication drawbridge against saturation.  Bias is both a decision shortcut as well as a communication wall.

To mitigate bias, or at least reduce biased bias, I borrow portfolio planning from finance and describe projects as portfolio option mix to meet organization strategy.

C-level, business executives fully understand financial risk.

With a portfolio view, projects have priority with the same risk and return criteria that capital expenditures and other financial or strategic commitments evaluated for better decision-making.

Project portfolios link to organization, financial risk and take their place in business resource demand, business continuity, and finance risk.

Statistically, your company strategy deserves numbers, not bias, to evaluate opportunity. People’s personal, pet projects are now pooled, exposed, and evaluated, rightfully, as a business case.  The capability to deliver projects is now an organization risk:

  • Organizational planning impacts the projects by means of project prioritization based on risk, funding, and the organization’s strategic plan.
  • Organizational planning can direct funding and support … on the basis of risk categories, specific lines of business, or general types of project.  source:  MyPMHome – Project, Program and Portfolio

As I wrote in A Led Zeppelin page of project management: The project that commits time to review historical information on what exists, before project launch, before project planning, before project concept, itself, presents the difference between a project getting things done versus getting things accomplished:

  • Getting things done wastes time
  • Getting things accomplished values time

We are swimming, some might say drowning, in communication saturation.

email, meetings, phone calls, RSS streams, Tweets, magazines, social media, and books are some of the noise that make us feel we are slaves of the feed.

To cope, we filter the noise, very understandable.

The opportunity: project communication as a risk strategy for bias, perception, and delivery.

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