What Next?

Project Management for Primates

While project management1 exhibits repeatable patterns, each collection of human beings is unique. This is why process consultation is a profession instead of a just library: the valuable bit is not the pages of process but assessing a group of people and knowing which page of which book will help them get to their goal. So I doubt there can ever be a single unified theory of getting things done2.

In my career in project management and process consultation, I’ve learned the hard way which ideas tend to work better in which situations for which kinds of people. Meanwhile, I’ve been working for years on a software implementation of a unified theory of getting tings done that I call “What Next?”, based on the idea of working backwards from how long you have left to live and what accomplishments you hope to look back on to figure out what to do next in your daily life. As these ideas bounce around, here are my working notes on what I’ve learned about helping groups of people get things done.

Thinking Tools

  • “Well, what do you expect from monkeys wearing pants?”
    • “Monkey” sounds better than ape, but we are apes. Apes wearing pants. (or salwar kameez). What does that mean for getting things done?

Knowledge-proof Ignorance

  • Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. —Kahneman
    • Exegesis: We know that we do our thinking and knowing with meat brains in primate bodies. These meat brains work amazingly well, and also have many quirky behaviors, like emotions and fight-or-flight reactions and cognitive biases. Some of these quirks are incompatible with reason, but we struggle to take this into account, because the brains we are using to reason about how brain quirks may affect our reason have quirks that affect our reason. Worse, when we ask our brains if our quirks have affected our reason, our brains tell us no, don’t worry about it, everything is fine. So we have gaps and biases in our thinking that we are blind to, and even if we understand and believe and even remember an explanation about one such bias, we’re still biased to not remember or take into account our biases.
  • Krugman’s zombie ideas, ideas that never go away no matter how many times they are disproven. related quote: It is hard to get a man to understand when his paycheck depends on his not understanding.
  • And next to zombie ideas we have [listening to win vs listening to learn]
  • And ultimately some of us have contradictory worldviews. ultimate differences that can’t be smoothed over. buffy needle episode. Tocqueville vs Gramsci: if we could all understand we want the same things in different ways we would get along fine vs we don’t all want the same things and we can’t all get what we want
  • Politics is getting groups of people to do things as groups

Meat brains vs computers

  • we are in fact meat computers—implications
  • memory
    • human vs computer
    • stalinist false memory vs orwellian false memory
  • the world’s data is dirty
  • we need certainty
    • rounding all probabilities to ‘inevitable’ or ‘impossible’ ** can’t live in maybe
    • physicist example of reading bs in the paper
    • NYT as ‘we need a paper of record’ because we need a paper of record, not because it’s good enough to be one
  • Brain math in collaboration
  • 1 brain + 1 brain < 2 brains


  • what is Good?
  • Using specific scientific theories as popular concepts
    • example: schoedinger
    • example: heisenberg
  • on bullshit (typology)
  • Common Knowledge exercise
    • re: bandwidth and co-location vs remote
  • The Amazon article about the 8 failures of the apocalypse also helps explain the value of ‘common knowledge’; it reduces the exploded failure combinatorics. Also relates to why 1 brain + 1 brain = 1.5 brains.


Management tools

  • values model
    • if you are not a direct contributor, what are you doing to support direct contributors?
  • All decisions are, what am I going to do next? That’s the only thing you can control.
  • systems that collect data to support decisions should be designed around the reports they provide, and the reports should be designed around the decisions they support.
  • processes
  • metrics
    • map out all data interconnections - which are value-add and which are machine-transfer
  • metrics
    • compstat effect; must have a firewall vs performance management
    • if you can’t count it, you can’t manage it vs if you can’t count it, but it’s important, you better not ignore it
    • risk register as example
  • burning up vs burning down
    • are we building something, or are we Sisyphus?
  • are we done yet?
  • where are the gains coming from?
  • Dashboards
    • dashboard for an airplane or dashboard for a picnic?
    • Dashboard: top-down, overall status. used for work generation and reprioritizing. includes a second column, “are we doing all we can right now?”, which works from a triage model and can go all-green at any time.
  • Decision-making
    • active decision-making.
    • passive decision-making. Brain has an OODA loop running all the time; this relates to the “instruments” part of the dashboard metaphor
  • change models
    • diverge/converge, w/groan zone
    • break out of normal, then fix it
    • Immunity to Change theory

James Kozloski, who works as a computer neuroscientist at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Centre, says the brain is constantly looping signals through established pathways - pathways that can be thought of as city street maps for our minds. The brain repeatedly retraces its steps through these pathways, covering three different areas of functionality: sensory (what’s currently happening), behavioural (what we can do about it), and limbic (what it means to us).

Kozloski calls this closed-loop model the “Grand Loop”, and hypothesises that these repeated cycles are the reason the brain needs so much energy, even when we’re not actively solving maths puzzles or trying to juggle. Science Alert

  • estimation, forecasting, predicting
    • feedback loop for estimation - fix it at the estimation level
      • i.e., get better at breaking work into comparables.


  • What is Leadership?
    • humans are apes. apes are hierarchical. the ape in power is the one with the most allies, not the strongest (n.b. not true for gorillas, right? the father is in charge? probably species specific and much more complicated).
    • servant leadership. hierarchical model, apes, synecdoche of manger = department
    • sysadmin model: have extra powers because the community (the dcs) delegate them.