Sequestration Management

Half way through the gym week! Another not bad day, but then the weight bouncers and cacophonous educationalists are sparse on “T” days. This was science podcast day and much of the content was concerned with the sequestration, largely in the form of eye wringing and hand weeping.

Much of the discussion was about how the cuts had to be taken, being specified in the usual lazy governmental fashion as salami slices – supposed equal distribution of pain. And of course the heads of agencies were trying to break those rules by telling their minions they could cut as they pleased. In other words, if you don’t do salami slicing be prepared to take the political heat when you cancel some pet rock project. Most managers aren’t likely to do so, not so much because of the political heat and the whining of the project principal.

On which azimuth I heard a few interviewees indulge in Tarzan chest thumping declaring that their project could not be cut without complete compromise. Hearing this took me back to my own days as a manager of R&D. And I had project managers who declared thusly.

And I dearly loved it when they did.

Let me start by saying there are three types of project managers:

  • those who know they have to take some cuts and so long as it does not exceed their “fair share” they accept stoically and continue to manage;
  • those who take their cuts, whine for a while, and then manage on; and
  • those who declare that any cut will ruin their program, which is the most wonderful thing since sliced raisin bread with crunchy peanut butter and Kosher garlic dill pickles.

I should comment that that list also is in order of management competency from good to abysmal.

But it’s the last group that actually save the day, a case of arrogance and poor cooperation doing good for a change. First, one has to understand that with R&D projects there is a greater aspect of risk: risk that the project will fail miserably for some unforeseen reason; risk that the project will fail miserably for some foreseen reason; and  raisk that the project will fail and amount to nothing. Now all projects are sold on the basis of the best possible outcome, and after a while poor project managers tend to have drunk the yellow Kool-Aid enough that they start believing it. So in the mind of the project manager everything is “IF-THEN” when actually it is “IF – MAYBE THEN”.

So if you have enough of the soap opera managers, who usually have denied that their projects have a probability of success of about 0.2, you can select the 0.8 riskiest, cancel them entirely and not have to cut any of the lower risk projects managed by competent managers. At worst you can cut the cuts down to nuisance rather than meatless Fridays. And all because of these folks who declare any cut is mortal and thereby let you cut everything.

Makes life much easier for a manager. And overall, better for progress.

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