Home » Change Management » Beware The Moneyball Myth In Project Management

Coaches kick on forth down more often than statistics indicate they should. In several cases, including fourth-and-goal situations early in games, their timid choices “represented clear-cut and large departures from win-maximization.” Romer’s paper got some attention in the NFL, but it has had almost no discernible impact on behavior. Going for it on fourth down is still seen as a daredevil move.” The Moneyball Myth, Bloomberg Businessweek, October 24 – October 30, 2011.

Beware The Moneyball Myth In Project ManagementI loved the book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. It highlighted so much of what I’ve seen in business and projects, where what we did day to day was based upon habit and “common wisdom” and not based on any hard facts or by truly paying attention. The fact that these habits and alleged “common wisdom” kept us in business (even if the projects were late and buggy) was proof that they were the right things to do. When we finally shook things up and significantly improved what we were doing (e.g., on time projects with good quality), many folks clung to the old way of thinking and looked for holes to poke in the new strategies and approaches.

The above Businessweek article seems to be trying to do the same thing for the experience reported in Moneyball. It seems that because everyone didn’t automatically jump on and use the successful approaches reported, it must mean the methods are not really very good (i.e., a myth). The argument is couched in “efficient market hypothesis” and how if sports was an efficient market then these findings (and others like them) would be adopted by everyone and hence they would no longer be an advantage to anyone.

I’ve seen this kind of argument used before in trying to cast doubt on a method or approach in management. Because it is not perfect, it must be wrong. Because everyone is not doing it, we should not do it. Because we can find an example where it didn’t work, it shouldn’t be tried here. In my experience, this mind set is not based upon the objective experience, but usually based upon a resistance to change, the fear of losing what we know and hence our relevance to the organization.

The solution that has worked for me is to stick to the objective data and to work at minimizing the emotions (e.g, listen to people, understand and help air their concerns, take their suggestions where possible, etc.).  The data and the experience will indicate what works and why it works. Working with people through the learning curve will help them adjust to the new concepts and approaches. Sometimes we just need time and perseverance, as the learning curve indicates, to let folks understand and adapt. Be careful, however, an awful lot of organizations wait too long before finally making a needed change.

As project managers, trying to have a successful project, we’ve probably all seen this before. A good approach to a problem is opposed because it is not perfect or someone finds examples where it did not go well. Often, this serves only to instill fear, uncertainty, and doubt and takes us away from the focus on the underlying reasons and approach. No approach to any non trivial problem is perfect. We just need to retain the courage of our convictions in our planning and experience, and press on with the best approach we know for implementing a successful project.

How do you handle arguments that your project’s approach may not be perfect?

Thank you for sharing!

6 thoughts on “Beware The Moneyball Myth In Project Management

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    William Nichols • I loved Moneyball. If ballplayers; who perform in front of thousands (millions on TV), who’s performance is recorded in minute detail, and perform in a competitive environment with clearly defined goals can be improperly evaluated, then the rest of us should be at least a little humble. Moreover, baseball has a pretty good measurement system in place with consistency and low error.

    A couple useful books on cognitive bias, “thinking fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman
    http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374275637 Kahneman along with Amos Tversky, are the major figures in the field.

    “Rational Choice in an Uncertain World” by Dawes and Hastie

    We don’t have to be perfect, just better.

    Bruce Benson • William,

    Humble, but also emboldened by the opportunities that we are missing. I’m always surprised by how much we can improve by acting upon what is right under our noses.

    Thanks for the references, I’ve added them to my ever growing reading list.


  2. Tim James says:

    I once saw a situation managed very well by the head of department anticipating large scale resistance to a change.
    He stated the reasons for the change which were outside his control.
    Then he took the entire assembled group through the historic situation to time now using his personal experiences to anchor them :

    When this was first done we transferred from paper based systems whcih we had grown to love and changed over to IT, and everyone hated it.
    Eventually we made a number of improvements and we grew to love it for what it was good at and accept its faults.
    When we changed from X to Y everyone hated it. Eventually …

    And he took it through all 5 iterations.
    The point was made. Change is never painless.
    You will survive and we will make changes that will improve on the initial situation.
    Engage and it will get better sooner, just as it has done all these times previously.

    I’ve never seen it done better since.

  3. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Dennis Vlasich • I don’t think our goal is perfection in any project. As they say, “Don’t let BEST be the enemy of BETTER! Nonetheless, good project management deals with how you handle the problems and issues encountered, not how you avoid them. Failure can be a good thing if we learn from it.

    Bruce Benson • Dennis,

    “good project management deals with how you handle the problems and issues encountered” & ” Failure can be a good thing if we learn from it”

    Two great insights, thanks.


  4. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Kasoga Grace • Commitment to your goals is important. Remember not all projects are the same.Listen to whatever people say but let them not make for you descisions. Criticism is sometimes good and will force you to think hard and ensure that you achieve your intended objectives. Just keep the fire burning dont give up

    Bruce Benson • Kasoga,

    Good reminder. There is nothing wrong with disagreement, criticism or airing concerns and doubts. These are all good and natural things in any project. When they are sincere, they help us do a better job.



  5. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Mike Jones • Counterexamples are risks to be addressed. This kind of input is great! As the objections are made, get specifics, and determine with the team the best way to address the risks. Start with the person making the objection. If they’re just blowing steam and you put them on the spot, you have established with the team that they can’t make idle statements.

    If they have a different approach, hear them out, consider input from the rest of the team, them make your determination. You want to foster a cooperative team approach, especially at the beginning when you are trying to bring the team together. Oftentimes these kinds of objections are part of the way people establish their place in the team. You don’t want to cut them off. Give them their due, but in the end, you need to make the determination of the approach, and establish with the team you are the one who makes the final decisions. Just be ready to back your decision up so the team can feel good about getting behind you.

    Bruce Benson • Mike,

    Great, great comment. We sometimes get the best help and cooperation from those folks who argue with us the most. We’ve gotten folks to support our efforts because they knew we truly understood their concerns, even when we couldn’t always address them fully.

    Good reminder.


  6. Charles says:

    It is far better to move forward with an imperfect plan, than to stop and devise a perfect plan. Because of the existing human knowledgebase, an organization has the momentum of a ship. Every ship’s captain knows that it’s much easier to steer when you are moving.

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