Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Chasing Earned Value

Recently, I was given the task of writing a short (4 – 5 page) paper on the basics of Earned Value Management (EVM), and why it’s useful for medium to large organizations in managing their projects. The idea was to deal with the “why”, not the “how”. I worked in a large aerospace organization for over two decades and we used EVM extensively. It is, after all, a requirement for all government contractors.

Earned Value Terminology

A Plethora of Acronyms Revealed

Having retired from that industry a little over four years ago, I was a bit rusty. However, you can’t have that stuff drummed into your head without it engraving itself fairly deeply on your consciousness. It didn’t take me long to come back up-to-speed. In fact, the biggest problem I had was knowing where to stop. EVM is full of acronyms and formulae (BCWS, BCWP, ACWP, SPI, CPI, etc., etc., etc.), all of which I’m fairly certain are useful . . . when used intelligently. As with most things, how valuable they are depends a great deal on what you’re trying to accomplish, how prepared and disciplined you are, and how well you execute over time.

Now this brings me to a somewhat vexing problem and the reason I’m sharing this. I could swear there’s a good argument somewhere as to why EV is not a very good method for managing a project. However, when I searched for problems or reasons not to use EV, all I could find were lists of where organizations go wrong because they don’t plan properly, they don’t pay attention to detail, or they don’t use tools as they’re designed to be used.

So I have a question, which I am now going to throw out into the aether. Assuming some who read this actually know about, and have experience with, Earned Value Management and maybe one or more of the systems used to facilitate its proper application, are you aware of any reasons NOT to use EVM and, if so, could you point me to a resource or school me on the subject? Thanks.


The Crowd, The Cloud, & Working Out Loud

A couple of years ago, in response to a request from the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, I conducted (as I recall) twice-monthly seminars on the use of social media for small businesses. They were called “Facebook Fridays” and you’ll never guess what day of the week we held them on. They started out as presentations on various aspects of the technology and the philosophy behind their use. However, after a short while it became clear that people had lots of specific questions they wanted answered. In response, I changed the nature of what I did and started each session off by opening it up to questions.

It worked quite well for nearly a year but, toward the end, attendance dwindled and I grew somewhat weary of doing the necessary preparation and having to show up twice a month. The Chamber found someone else willing to continue the work and I moved on. By that time I was becoming disenchanted with the direction I had chosen to attempt building a useful business and was looking to other areas of endeavor as well.

Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of the Chamber and we decided it would be useful for me to bring back what I had done before, the difference being the subject matter would be a little less focused on marketing and a lot more focused on business model, business process, technology, and cultural transformation. Today was the first of what I hope will be many such events.

I used a vehicle I have not used before to conduct this 50 minute webinar – Google Hangouts on Air. I’m not sure it’s the best way to conduct something like this, but viewership is unlimited and the session is both recorded and automatically placed on my YouTube Channel. I’m embedding the session below. This really was somewhat of an experiment and the subject was quite broad. I’d love to get some feedback. Don’t be shy now.


Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

 

In an effort to improve my “working out loud” chops, I’m learning from a friend who has begun sharing the text of (not links to) his blog posts on Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as on the blog he’s had for a very long time. <Light Bulb!> This one’s a kind of reverse emulation, as this is something I shared on Facebook first.

Simplicity - Da VinciI have found an interesting difference of opinion on the subject of simplicity versus complexity, but it seems to hang on what dimension of endeavor we’re looking from. From an engineering design perspective – especially wrt products for the consumer market – there’s evidence complexity (think shiny objects) is actually a better seller than simplicity.

It seems to me, however, that da Vinci was looking a little deeper than marketing prospects and was more interested in the aesthetics of design . . . all kinds of design.

So . . . I’m thinking of it in terms of this software tool I am now representing, called World Modeler, which is used to model the elements required to make important and quite likely expensive organizational decisions to better . What we (Quantellia, LLC and I) can do is transform highly complex decision models (involving numerous decision levers, external factors, intermediate effects, interconnections, and even qualitative assumptions) to graphically (and quite simply) show how they will play out over time given certain values. The goal is to render the complex simple, not to simplify that which is complex.


Universal Innovation

Sometimes, it seems like innovation is all anyone talks about. It’s been a really hot topic for the last five or six years; probably more. In the last two years before I left Rocketdyne — let’s see, that would have been from 2008 to 2010 — I participated in several innovation classes/exercises and, in fact, I setup the SharePoint collaborative spaces that were used by the teams in one of these exercises that were exploring different avenues for the company to invest in. I was also part of a team looking at one of the many technologies we were investigating at the time, and we even brought in a Professor from the USC Marshall School of Business to help us “learn” innovation.

I’m not going to get into my thoughts about what it takes to be innovative, or creative, but I just want to throw out this observation I’ve been mulling over for some time and see what others think about it. One of the things I think I’ve noticed is that almost everyone approaches innovation primarily as a way to come up with new products or services to sell. There seems to be what I think of as a blind spot when it comes to how we got things done, to our processes and procedures that are the backbone of our day-to-day activities. I’m also not confining the daily activities we might look at to businesses or governmental agencies and institutions either. I’m also thinking about things like mass public transportation and local traffic patterns and uses, our use of public facilities like parks and schools, the ways we approach (or choose to ignore) recycling, the value of our food and how we produce, distribute, and consume it – and on and on.

So here’s my big question for now. What if we started looking at enabling – empowering, if you will – everyone who was interested, to be involved in social and cultural innovation; in our continuous social and economic evolution . . . as citizens of our local municipalities, our neighborhoods, our nations, and even as inhabitants of the planet Earth, i.e. as a species? What if we came up with ways to encourage, communicate, evaluate, and pursue ideas that would improve – dramatically or otherwise – the lives of many people, perhaps everyone? Very public ways. What would that look like? How would we do it? What would be the biggest challenges? What infrastructure and social constructs are already in place to support such a thing?


A Dichotomy of Tears

After my retirement, I determined to make this blog one in which I could write about both professional topics and personal topics, which meant I would share my thoughts about the many things I find of interest. It also meant I planned on writing about my feelings and experiences over the years. It hasn’t been easy, as I’m quite certain some of my thinking is not mainstream and — in some cases — is certainly frowned upon by some sizeable chunk of the population. Nevertheless, I keep plodding along and, in that spirit, I share here something I posted on Facebook recently.

Two things brought me to tears the other day. The first was the ending of the current episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Just knowing what has been accomplished by my fellow human beings; the incredible discoveries and wondrous inventions that have accompanied our ever-growing knowledge of the workings of the universe takes my breath away at times. The other evening was one of those times. They were tears of ineffable joy.

Japanese Umbrella

A Miniature Wagasa (Umbrella) made of Camel Cigarette Packs, Toothpicks, and thread by my Mother-in-Law, Taka Shitara

The second was being reminded of the terrible injustice wrought on the Japanese people who were living in the U.S. when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law, as well as many of my wife’s extended family, were “relocated” in internment camps. Many lost everything they had worked so hard to accomplish, much of it never to be regained. They were not the enemy . . . and they did not deserve the treatment they received, nor did those who stole their property deserve what they gained. These were tears of inconsolable anger and shame.


What Is Decision Intelligence?

World Modeler Logo

World Modeler adds a Systems approach to Project Management

In my last post I took a stab at defining, and explaining, the concept of Decision Intelligence. I’m willing to bet you’re going to be hearing a lot about it in the not-too-distant future. So you don’t have to click back and forth, I’ll copy over what I wrote about it in that post:

This is the term Quantellia now uses to describe what it is we do. NB – The term is not “Decision Analytics”; there’s a reason for this. Perhaps it is best understood when one looks at a part of how decision modeling is accomplished. Part of the raw material available today for making decisions is what we call “big data”. There’s an awful lot of attention being paid to the field of predictive analytics, which uses big data as its raw material. We at Quantellia prefer the term predictive intelligence. This is because predictive analytics uses past performance (data) to project trends into the future. We like to think we take the concept a bit further.

While we believe analytics are useful and important, they lack the dimensions of human knowledge and understanding that can more completely predict how the past will play out in the future. A subtle distinction? Perhaps, but I find it a valuable one. Unless we’re talking about the future activity of a machine designed to perform a very limited set of instructions or actions, our activities involve human understanding, emotion, and interpretation. There are times when these attributes can dramatically change the course of an organizational effort, rendering previous decisions moot or, at best, only partially useful or correct.

By providing a method whereby human understanding, intuition, and wisdom can be incorporated into the decision model itself, we believe we can more intelligently predict the future. We are well aware there is no such thing as infallibility. However, we also know the more useful and actionable information and knowledge we have available to understand what has happened − and is likely to happen − the better our decisions will be.

Now, having had some time to think about it – it’s been over a month since that post -and having discussed it a bit with Quentellia’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Lorien Pratt (@LorienPratt), I’d like to add a little something to both the definition and the description of what World Modeler has to offer. Keep in mind, as with many things, perhaps even more so with something truly emergent and reasonably new to my experience, both my understanding and my ability to explain are evolving; developing structure and nuance as I learn more theory and encounter more examples of real-world situations.

I consider systems thinking, or the ability to see systems — and systems of systems — as the most effective way to understand what is happening within any one or more of those systems, as well as have a chance at affecting the outcomes of the ones designed to produce value and realize valuable results or consequences of their workings. The more elements of a system that can be modeled, the more likely you will be able to understand downstream effects of your decisions, and the more likely you are to see the unintended consequences of actions before you take them.

Here’s where Quantellia’s World Modeler™ excels as a decision modeling — and making — tool and enabler. Consider Predictive Analytics, the practice of extracting information from existing data sets in order to determine patterns and predict future outcomes and trends. PA usually returns fairly simple, pairwise relationships, e.g. these customers in this demographic, with this amount of revenue, etc. are likely/not likely to churn or devoting a certain amount of energy to customer retention is likely to affect/not affect customer churn.

World Modeler, on the other hand, allows you to create a highly complex systems model. This means you can look at numerous elements and their interrelationships to see how they work together, e.g. customer characteristics, customer retention efforts, likelihood to churn, total customers, revenues, and even business rules that might have to be taken into consideration if certain levels of activity are reached. Furthermore, when you don’t have data for one or more of these elements, you can use human expertise, the tacit knowledge of your employees or the group to fill in the gaps. When you have real data, if you later are able to gather it, you can then plug it into the model and continue going.

One more thing. World Model is a highly flexible, iterative navigation mechanism. It allows you to predict without complete or perfect knowledge, then pivot and change the model as new and/or different knowledge, information, and data are gathered or encountered. You can do this repeatedly over the course of months or years, whatever’s necessary to help you make the best decisions for achieving your desired outcomes. So success doesn’t depend on long-term predictions. Rather, it depends on navigation and alignment between the organizations systems, processes, and the humans that employ them.

Now . . . having learned all that, aren’t you interested in seeing how this tool works? You can get a free evaluation copy and all you’re giving up is a little contact information. There’s no obligation. Click on this the link to download a fully-functional two-week evaluation copy of World Modeler. Give her a Whirl(d)!


What Did I Say I Did?

Biz Card

You Read it on the Internet, so it Must be True!

Anyone who knows me, knows I am quite the stickler for clarity and correctness in communication. I have proudly held myself out as a Senior Inspector in the U.S. Grammar Police, as evidenced by this card I created only halfway in jest. Actually, the card’s creation (I shared the process publicly) led to a couple of paid editing gigs. I’ve also been called a Grammar Nazi, which has caused me to momentarily flash a slightly sheepish smile, accompanied by a sparklingly demure blush.

Recently, I began a new engagement with a company I’ve wanted to work with for some time, Quantellia, LLC. As of the beginning of the year, I am what they call a referral partner. As such, I am contracted to Quantellia to sell their product, World Modeler™, and their services, which include training, workshops, etc. designed to help organizations make better decisions. In learning about my new venture, I have come across a few phrases that are similar, yet different enough to cause me to dig a little deeper in search of clarity as to their meaning. I want to very briefly share my understanding of the meaning of four separate phrases, each of which begins with the word “decision”.

At first, I thought one of the terms was kind of a catch-all; an umbrella term that encompassed the others. However, I no longer believe that to be the case, at least not fully. Keep in mind, all four of these phrases are relevant to what it is Quantellia and I are doing. At the same time, my understanding is quite likely imperfect and incomplete. As I gain a foothold in the discipline, and become more proficient, I have no doubt my definitions and my understanding will need refinement. 

Decision Science – at first I thought this term was one into which the others neatly folded. However, having done a bit of research, I can no longer say that’s the case. As I currently understand it, Decision Science concerns itself not so much with the process of making business decisions, but with the psychology of making any kind of decision. In other words, why do people make the decisions they do; what are the factors they take into consideration; how do they weigh them; how emotional are people in reaching decisions, etc.

Originally constituted in late 1968 as the American Institute for Decision Sciences, and later named the Decision Sciences Institute, this organization had its first annual meeting on October 30 – 31, 1969 in New Orleans. If interested, here’s a history of the organization written in July of 1989 by the then President, Bernard W. Taylor III. According to Wikipedia, the Institute is a “professional association of university professors, graduate students, and practitioners whose interest lies in the application of quantitative and qualitative research to the decision problems of individuals, organizations, and society. Many of the members of this academic organization are faculty members in business schools.”

It seems that Decision Science is a relatively new discipline. This conclusion is backed up by the history of its presence in some of the Universities and Colleges in the United States. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences finds its roots in 1976, as part of what is now the Marianna Brown Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.” The Harvard Decision Science Laboratory opened its doors much more recently. According to their website, they’ve only been around since January of 2009. I couldn’t find the date George Washington University’s Business School’s Department of Decision Sciences opened its doors, but my hunch is it was sometime in the last decade, at most. The Columbia Business School’s Center for Decision Sciences, formerly part of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, appears to be fairly young as a separate discipline as well.

Decision Modeling – Although at best an inexact science, decision modeling can be a highly effective tool in helping an organization better predict the outcomes of its decisions. This is made more likely if the model is comprehensive, based on not merely data and analytics but also the knowledge of the people involved in the organization for which the decision is being made, and if the model is iterative and capable of incorporating newly discovered information and relationships. Furthermore, the structure of the model becomes more and more effective as it accurately models the complex relationships it seeks to help understand. World Modeler™ is capable, despite it’s seemingly simple interface, of modeling highly complex relationships. I’ll post more in the future about its capabilities, including embedding some excellent videos showing what it can do.

Decision Engineering – This is a term I don’t believe we are using any longer to explain what Quantellia does. Frankly, as someone who spent over two decades working with aerospace engineers and rocket scientists (quite literally, on the Space Shuttle Main Engine, Delta, and Atlas engine programs), I’m kind of partial to engineering. I can, however, understand how it may sound a bit intimidating or dweeby to people without my background, so I won’t dwell on it here.

Decision IntelligenceDecision Intelligence – This is the term Quantellia now uses to describe what it is we do. NB – The term is not “Decision Analytics”; there’s a reason for this. Perhaps it is best understood when one looks at a part of how decision modeling is accomplished. Part of the raw material available today for making decisions is what we call “big data”. There’s an awful lot of attention being paid to the field of predictive analytics, which uses big data as its raw material. We at Quantellia prefer the term predictive intelligence. This is because predictive analytics uses past performance (data) to project trends into the future. We like to think we take the concept a bit further.

While we believe analytics are useful and important, they lack the dimensions of human knowledge and understanding that can more completely predict how the past will play out in the future. A subtle distinction? Perhaps, but I find it a valuable one. Unless we’re talking about the future activity of a machine designed to perform a very limited set of instructions or actions, our activities involve human understanding, emotion, and interpretation. There are times when these attributes can dramatically change the course of an organizational effort, rendering previous decisions moot or, at best, only partially useful or correct.

By providing a method whereby human understanding, intuition, and wisdom can be incorporated into the decision model itself, we believe we can more intelligently predict the future. We are well aware there is no such thing as infallibility. However, we also know the more useful and actionable information and knowledge we have available to understand what has happened − and is likely to happen − the better our decisions will be.


 

Mild Disclaimer – I hope I didn’t rattle anyone’s cages too much with these definitions/explanations. They represent my current thinking and, being somewhat of a newbie to the science/craft of decision making as a discipline, my understanding is necessarily incomplete and in a state of flux. Nonetheless, this is a first attempt at explaining some of the concepts that are informing my work with Quantellia and World Modeler™. Consider it an ongoing process.

At the same time, I would like to make it clear that Quantellia has been doing this for approximately eight years and has a track record of helping organizations both large and small to make decisions and manage programs successfully. Dr. Lorien Pratt, co-founder and Chief Scientist, as well as her team, know their stuff and are the biggest part of my team. We are looking for people who have “wicked problems” they need to solve; people who are facing highly complex decisions involving lots of time and money, and for whom the wrong decision could be very costly. If you fit that description, or know of someone who does, you could do a lot worse than contact us for an initial discussion of your needs. We begin with the end in mind and believe we can help. Only by understanding what it is you face can we determine whether or not that’s possible.


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