The Iron Quadrilateral

You may well be familiar with the Iron Triangle of project delivery: time, quality, and cost are closely interlinked and trade off against each other. Any improvement on one of those aspects will put downward pressure on the other two.

“Faster, better, cheaper: you can only pick two” is the pithy version.

And that’s if it’s done well. You can be slow, worse, and expensive.

I like to break it down further to an Iron Quadrilateral of time, quality, scope, and cost. Quality and scope can trade off directly: do less but better, or more but worse. And they both trade off against the others.

Here, for the first time, is a quick sketch of it!

Doug Clow's Iron Quadrilateral. A quadrilateral with arrows between all four corners. The corners are labelled COST (less or more), SCOPE (do more or do less), TIME (faster or slower), and QUALITY (better or worse)
The Iron Quadrilateral
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MBA Weeks 3 & 4: Corporate Governance

This is part of my Eccentric MBA,  a self-paced self-taught online programme of study.

You can tell it’s self-paced, because I’m doing two weeks in one here because of other commitments. It’s important to get back on the horse rather than letting it gallop away. This topic is corporate governance, and I’m focusing as before on large listed companies in the UK.

When your boardroom is like your board: bright, airy, up in the clouds, often vacant, and mostly white. In fairness, the directors I know are all extremely capable. But they are all white.
Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash
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MBA Week 2: Mergers and Acquisitions

This is part of my Eccentric MBA,  a self-paced self-taught online programme of study.

This week’s topic is mergers and acquisitions. This cropped up in corporate law, obviously, and being short of time last week I was aware I’d not looked at it properly, so that’s what I’m doing this week. I started posting an unorganised set of impressions of things that struck me in a rapid skate over a complex area, which is my baseline aim, but had enough time to tidy it up in to something slightly more coherent.

For this Erratic MBA I’m looking at large, listed companies. I have previously studied mergers and acquisitions at a lower level.
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MBA Week 1: Corporate Law

The first topic of my first week of my Eccentric MBA: corporate law! This is part of a self-paced self-taught online programme of study, all explained on the MBA organiser page.

And of course I’ve had a big deadline on so have had far less time to spend on this than I’d hoped. But I did expect this to happen and the important thing is to keep going.

And one way of speeding up is to give only the most impressionistic, anecdotal account here rather than writing my thoughts at length, so that’s what you’re getting.

Corporate law is cool. Boards are cool. My weird green tea is cool, or more accurately cold. Photo by kishan bishnoi on Unsplash
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When metrics go wrong: Offering everyone a booster by January

The UK Government’s aim to have a big push on booster vaccinations is really great. But their target to “offer a booster to everyone eligible by the end of January” is a terrible target. It misses out the vital importance of takeup, is an obvious setup for fiddling the target, and fundamentally fails to address what we actually care about. With luck it won’t matter, because of the clear sense of mission.

Image by Giovanna Orlando from Pixabay
Ridiculously unimaginative choice of stock imagery: model’s own
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Chart checklist

What makes a good chart? That’s perhaps too contentious a question for a simple answer. And, of course, it depends on context. So let’s do the classic science manoeuvre and replace a hard question with one that’s sort-of similar but much easier to answer:

What should we remember to think about when making a chart? I’m talking about a professional context here, not a school one – exam boards have their own requirements and you should use those, not mine, if you’re working for an exam.

So here is my chart checklist. When you’re under pressure – high stakes, short of time, or both – it’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget something. Which is, of course, the very worst time to forget something. That’s one of the reasons why a checklist that you are in the habit of always using is so valuable. If airline pilots with tens of thousands of hours of flying experience can use checklists, you can too.

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Doug’s Data Doctrines for Project Leaders

These are some of the principles I’ve drawn from more than 20 years experience in what we now call data science: using data to understand and improve human systems. They’re more guidelines than rules, particularly the ones rating one thing above another.

I have two lists: this one for project leaders and managers, and that one for project sponsors. This one is focused on issues around how you deliver a project and what sort of a project it is; the project sponsor one is more about how you frame and resource a project. Obviously, they overlap and have great synergy.

Always good to ensure your project delivery measures up. Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay
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Doug’s Data Doctrines for Project Sponsors

These are some of the principles I’ve drawn from more than 20 years experience in what we now call data science: using data to understand and improve human systems. They’re more guidelines than rules, particularly the ones rating one thing above another.

I’ve split this in to two lists. This one is aimed towards project sponsors, but obviously it’d be useful for anyone who has to interact with project sponsors. I have another one for project leaders. The idea is that this one has more of the things you need to bear in mind in setting up and resourcing a project and connecting it to the rest of the organisation, and the other has more of the things you need to bear in mind in getting the project done.

How these points link together. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
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Sweary parrots and social media

I can’t get this news story about sweary parrots out of my head. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park has had to separate five African Grey parrots after they started swearing too much, egging each other on to tell people to F off and then laughing.

I think these profanity-spouting birds illustrate a process that we see more widely, to lesser degree in traditional media and to a great degree in social media. (It’s also closely related to some recent steps forward in AI, but I’ll leave that mostly aside in this post.)

Many parrots are good mimics, and African Greys are particularly good at it. And they have a widely-known tendency to get potty-mouthed and say completely outrageous things.

How come? Why would a bird do that? They are highly intelligent, for birds, but it really isn’t that they want to insult people and say awful stuff because they’re deep down horrible. We say people are “parroting” something to mean they don’t understand it and are merely mimicking the noise, and we can be pretty sure that’s the case for our actual parrots here.

I think this sophisticated awful behaviour – or perhaps more precisely, this awful behaviour that appears sophisticated – is the result of the interaction between two components: a generative one, and a selective one. (If you know about AI you’ll see where my mind is going.) The generative component is the parrot’s ability to mimic what it hears. The selective component is the parrot’s ability to pick up on social cues and choose things to mimic that reliably get a reaction and attention from people.

Having a parrot pipe up unexpectedly and drop an F bomb will, indeed, reliably get a reaction and attention from people. So our smart-enough parrot tries mimicking things it hears, and when it gets a reaction, mimics that thing more often in future. And that often means persistent cussing.

Grey parrots

This type of feedback loop is immensely powerful. We can see it in lots of places. Toddlers do it. Teenagers do it. And adults do it in the media.

Do we see this in traditional media? Oh yes. We have as the generative process the efforts of a whole creative media industry, and the selective process is complex and multi-layered, but what gets a reaction and attention is a large part of it. Media organisations are desperately concerned with audience. Some of what draws an audience is good, but terrible things can also be a substantial draw.

‘News values’ – what the news prioritises and highlights – have been identified as potentially problematic since the 1950s. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a very old slogan. Reading the local weekly newspaper can be a bit depressing, until we remember that this is a curated list of the most shocking, lurid, and outrageous things that have happened with any tenuous connection to our area over the last seven whole days, which gives some reassuring perspective.

It’s not just news, of course. ‘Reality’ television is clearly well down this path of being rewarded for shocking behaviour.

What about social media?

Here the generative process is a much broader pool of humans composing (mostly) short bits of media, and the selective process is what generates ‘engagement’. Media platforms are optimised to bring more of what generates engagement to users, because that keeps them on the site longer and generates more possibilities for selling adverts. Users learn the sort of thing that tends to be rewarded by the platform, and off it goes in that powerful feedback spiral.

As before, sometimes good things generate engagement, but terrible things are often more reliable in prompting a reaction.

We see this in our everyday lives online. Occasionally you get lovely, uncontroversial things where somebody has done something exceptionally creditable or particularly cute. But more often you get conflict, hostility, and outrage. And some extremely dark stuff can be amplified by the process.

Mr Zuckerberg has sometimes defended Facebook as merely holding up a mirror to humanity. It’s not a mirror, it’s a feedback process that is vastly more powerful. A nuclear chain reaction is perhaps a better analogy. It is possible to harness that power for good, but it’s extremely challenging in engineering terms, and it’s much simpler just to use it to blow stuff up, particularly if it’s someone else’s job to clean up the radioactive mess left behind.

Let’s get back to our parrots. One occasionally-sweary bird isn’t so much of a big deal. The problem at the wildlife park started when they housed these particular five parrots together. One would swear and another would laugh, and with the mimic-reaction feedback, they were soon all swearing like troopers. The BBC report that the park’s chief executive, Steve Nichols, said, “if they teach the others bad language and I end up with 250 swearing birds, I don’t know what we’ll do”.

With social media, we have the human equivalent.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, and it’s not a new observation to highlight the issues with the attention economy. But next time I see something terrible getting a lot of attention on social media, I’m going to think of a bunch of sweary parrots.