Thought Leaders

Carl Pritchard: Life Without Numbers, Sort Of

The “sort of” piece of this is that we often become slaves to hard numeric metrics when we should really be considering the validity of those approaches and the sources of the data behind them.

Where do the numbers come from?

Whether it’s return on investment or even project actual cost, it’s crucial that we identify the sources of the data we’re using on projects. All too often, we accept numbers without question, and without challenging where they’re coming from. The numbers take on a life of their own, driving management decision-making and pushing us to ferret out even more numbers, perhaps more favorable to the desired outcome.

While the numbers and their sources may be valid, it may be time to take a more qualitative approach to the various practices of project management. It may be time to re-evaluate our hard numbers in favor of some softer ones.

What are the odds it will rain tomorrow where you are? Think about the answer to that question. It’s not as easy a question as it might appear. 40%? Even if you have the percentage from your weather forecast, do you understand what it means? (Technically, it means that 40% of the time that conditions are as they are right now, historically, there’s been rain). And now that you have that data, does it genuinely add to your decision-making capability? If not, it’s definitely time to re-evaluate our approaches in terms of softer stuff.

Softer Thinking

For probability, we can universally change language in our organizations and come up with a better result. Most organizations act instinctively on the likelihood of events coming to pass, and we can be the ones who minimize that practice. With just a few simple terms, we have the capacity to change the conversation. If the weatherman is saying there’s a greater than 50 percent chance of a weather event, we can label that as a consistent “high”. It happens more than half the time! And for most project discussions, that’s the extent of our understanding. We really don’t know a whole lot more than that, so “high” serves us well.

Never seen it happen? That’s a rarity or remote situation. Seen it happen only once?Low. More than once but less than half the time? That’s a moderate likelihood. Put them all together and you have an intelligent conversation without numbers. More importantly, it’s much easier to have a consistent conversation without numbers. Should we decide that numbers are absolutely essential? Fine. Apply certain numeric values to each of the four classes (high, medium, low, and remote). If high is always 65%, we have a degree of consistency. We have hope. We can have a consistent mathematical conversation without hard numbers.

Talking about budgets or schedules? Seriously consider the possibilities afforded by range estimates. By offering estimates in a range, rather than fixed numbers, we become more honest and embed more data in each number we provide. A 3-day estimate with a five-day range might be something to worry about. A 3-day estimate with a two-hour range is clearly a far more targeted and accurate number. Most schedule and budget estimates are provided as gospel numbers. Written as the good news of truth without any qualifiers. Before we continue what in many organizations is the fiction of hard, numeric values, we may be far, far more effective as the individuals who push for a world without that level of faux certitude.

Carl Pritchard, PMP®, is the US Correspondent for Project Manager Today. He lectures around the globe on project and risk management and teaches PMP® Certification exam preparation extensively both on-line and in the classroom. He welcomes your insights at

Carl Pritchard
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