The Babel Fish

We live in a world of specialist expertise. However, when we specialize we risk misunderstanding or undervaluing how a specific project interacts with others. In any portfolio selection, the ability to see the whole picture gives a birds-eye view of the scope, interconnection, and interdependencies of projects.

Author Douglas Adams addressed the problem of crossing specialist boundaries in his humorous science-fiction book, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with the use of the Babel fish. The guide advises you to put the Babel fish in your ear and you will be able to understand every known language spoken in the universe. If only real life were so simple! Yet the idea of a holistic view in which all things are intelligible from one perspective has been around since biblical times, hence the story of the building of the Tower of Babel.

Without a process to get us to a vantage point where we see the whole picture, we can become frustrated and defeated. Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, references physicist David Bohm, who likens trying to see the whole from an assembly of fragments to the near-impossible task of reassembling a broken mirror. A nursery rhyme said the same thing: All the kings horses and all the kings men couldnt put Humpty together again.

The problem lies in part with our conditioned tendency to generalize from specific observations or knowledge. Yet a holistic vantage point is not only possible; it is a must-have capability. Later in this book we shall explore in more detail how our projects operate. Youll gain a better understanding of the resources they consume and the value they derive. And it wont involve putting a Babel fish in your ear.

Ingredients

With any meal first we need to decide what we are making and who were cooking for. Then we can collect the ingredients. The same is true for process design. The following chapters will expand on the formulation, shaping, and management of these pieces of the whole.

1. Criteria

What do we want Can we state it clearly And compared to what Clarifying our purpose may seem obvious, but this can become one of those victims of complexity. We may easily lose our bearings. Project purpose amnesia is common. In chapter five well examine scorecards, what they should look like, and how theyre used for project evaluation and prioritization. Well delve into the hefty topic of weighting, or where we assign relative importance to those elements that make up our overall scorecard.

2. Information

Portfolio and individual project decisions are based on relevant information. This, of course, is an easy statement to make. But how do we know what is relevant to our purpose And once weve sorted out what is or isnt useful, where do we keep it And how do we access it

Form follows function. Our function is to search for significance and reject what is immaterial. We need to separate information from mere data. In the next chapter, The search for significance, well drill down into a discussion on data integrity, information filters, types of variables, and the value of a data repository. Technology can help us to build a process in order to retrieve relevant information rapidly. Nevertheless managing that information requires blunt project assessment and scoring, and this is a rational human process.

3. Reports

How we see affects the way we think. The results of our queries should be easily understood. This is done through choosing the right technology and user skill set. When we only see part of the whole picture, we are apt to make mistakes. Even if all the relevant data is presented to us we can still have difficulty deciphering it. Rows of columns and figures can hide Interdependencies and resource-sucking, low-value projects. Only by seeing a holistic view are we in a position to make informed and rational decisions. In chapter six, Thinking eye, seeing brain, we discuss past methods of observing fixed data and new real-time, three-dimensional data movement.

4. Select and prioritize

This is where the rubber meets the road. Process must be designed to arrive at the portfolio of projects that maximizes contribution to the business within the organizations resource limitations.

 

Tools and fools

A fool with a tool is still a fooland sometime a dangerous fool. Fortunately we dont have to be fools because the discipline of data visualization is now better understood. Over the past ten
years we have witnessed transformational improvement in applications that have greatly enhanced our abilities to collect, store, and access data. Add these advancements to our understanding of the most important tool, the one that makes our data and information
meaningfulthe human brainand we have software tools with amazing capability.

Current offerings vary substantially on how well they help us navigate the portfolio analysis process. But no matter how well these tools are engineered, the value of the graphical views they generate will be ultimately determined by the skill of the user.

Afterword

The Atlantic puffin has an instinctual knowledge of fish selection. But for us big-brained creatures, the selection process is more complex. Seeing what choices are available to us is often not obvious. We dont have natural predators (unlike the seabird) but there are plenty of
traps we can stumble into. This book has attempted to alert you to common pitfalls and describes a repeatable project selection process that generates insight leading to appropriate action.

This book, A Fish in Your Ear, addresses project portfolio selection and is one part of a four-part strategic archetype: strategy planning, innovation, selection, and execution.