Thursday, October 27, 2016

Explainers, Elucidators and Enchanters...


BrainPickings has been one of my favorite sites, ever since i discovered it a few years back. It is one place , in fact the only place that you have to visit to cater to your curiosity.

The plus point is that we get so many book recommendations. so many in fact that i find difficult to keep up with that.

This particular post is built around Science writing and as a student of science and good science writing, i like the way how it is presented. More importantly, belive this can be extended to all good writing.

This is how the post explains the different categories of great writing

Explainers make information clear and comprehensible. 

Elucidators go beyond information and integrate various bits of knowledge into a larger framework of comprehension

Enchanters do all of the above, but go beyond the realm of knowledge and into the realm of wisdom. They provide a different level of understanding that is otherwise impossible to get.

Please read the complete post here and do check out the book recommendations too..

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" - Notes to Self

Why this article is important: It reminds us that the advances in science and technology owe itself to  the advances in fundamental science. More importantly, the research in fundamental sciences weren't and aren't  done with the aim of arriving at something immediately useful to mankind. And all this was and is done only with the purpose of satiating a human being's curiosity. Hopefully this will answer queries about the need for  research, be it Large Hadron Collider or Chandrayan or Mangalyan ( India's Mars Mission) or The Voyager or...

I chanced upon this article titled 'The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge' by Abraham Flexner written in 1939. The article starts with the author telling the readers towards the end of the first paragraph  "I shall concern myself with the question of the extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived." It moves on to the question of whether the idea of useful in the materialistic world ( as in 1930s) has become too narrow for the human spirit and proceeds to look at the question from scientific and humanistic spirit.

Flexner moves on to a conversation he had with George Eastman where Mr Eastman, who has a refined taste in music, mentions Marconi as the most useful worker in science. Marconi's name was mentioned by Eastman due to the invention of the Radio. Flexner proceeds to explain how the building blocks for Radio were already in place due to the work done by Maxwell and Hertz and Marconi put them together.

Flexner says that Maxwell and Hertz didn't have the use of the theoretical work in their mind and where driven only by curiosity. To quote Flexner again, "curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times."

 Flexner proceeds to give more example from Science, Maths and Medicine. He talks about the importance of Faraday's work and how the focus was on revealing the secrets of the universe and utility was never Faraday's focus. He also talks about the contribution of Gauss ( non-euclidean Geometry) and the importance of this to theory of relativity. He mentions Group Theory and Probability to strengthen his case about the originators never worrying about the utility or usefulness of their work. Flexner then quotes the example of Paul Ehrlich whose work resulted in the science of bacteriology. Flexner concludes that the work of Pasteur, Koch, ehrlich and score of others would never have been possible if the idea of possible use had come up in their mind.

He then goes on to talk about how the advances in modern science or inventions have been the built on the work of multiple men and women and how we must be weary about attributing scientific discovery to any one person. To quote him "Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history. Someone finds a bit here, another a bit there. A third step succeeds later and thus onward till a genius pieces the bits together and makes the decisive contribution."

Flexner continues to emphasize the importance of research for its own sake through this paragraph

"I cannot deal with this aspect exhaustively, but I may in passing say this: over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which schools have been founded."

By continuing this emphasis, he moves on to the topic of the importance of intellectual and spiritual freedom and says that people who want to reatrain the human thought is the real enemy of man "The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless and irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings"

Flexner explains how this idea has conceived and founded the University of Berlin or the John Hopkins University. He goes on to say "It is the idea to which every individual who values his immortal soul will be true whatever the personal consequences to himself. Justification of spiritual freedom goes, however, much farther than originality whether in the realm of science or humanism, for it implies tolerance throughout the range of human dissimilarities. In the face of the history of the human race what can be more silly or ridiculous than likes or dislikes founded upon race or religion? Does humanity want symphonies and paintings and profound scientific truth, or does it want Christian symphonies, Christian paintings, Christian science,..." 

Flexner then talks about the Institue of Advanced Studies, how it is organized and gives examples of how the structure of the organization helps scientists.  He ends the article with this paragraph "We make ourselves no promises, but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past. Not for a moment, however, do we defend the Institute on that ground. It exists as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so."

In summary, It is a very well written article that starts with the problem statement ( pursuit of seemingly useless acts result in undreamt of useful stuff for mankind), talks about curiousity and its importance, gives examples from the field of science to strengthen the authors case and finally ties up all this to the motto of Institute of Advanced studies with examples about how the idea of the institute has been found useful to the scientists.

The complete article in pdf format can be read here 

Further reading about Institute of Advanced Studies (pdf file)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

From 'Management by Objectives' to 'Strategic Project Management'

What follows below is a draft that examines the evolution of management from Management by Objectives (MBO) to Strategic Project Management. It shows how Project Management and Management by Projects are different. It discusses about the present state of Project success and shows how the lack of a clear strategy is a major reason for project failure in organizations. It introduces the concept of “strategic project management” and presents it as a solution to the problems faced by organization, elaborates on the concepts, implementation and also mentions how traditional project management plays a key part in strategic project management.Objective is to educate the reader about the importance of project management as a strategic competency and its relevance in a fast changing world where aligning organizational objectives with flawless project execution is a key differentiator. 

Since this is a draft, feedback / criticism is welcome.


We can’t but wonder about the kind of project management practices that would have been used in building of Pyramids or the ancient temples of India, as Practicing Project Managers. The fact that the structures stand today brings out the obvious fact that they have stood the test of time and is a testament to the quality of the product. 

Considering that this was done aeons ago, when royalty was the sponsors, and the constructions took a long period of time, indicate that the only goal was to get the job-done and not worry about cost or schedule. Unfortunately for us, this kind of a luxury can only be dreamt of by Project Managers of today, since they need to closely manage and control the triple-constraints of a project (Scope,CostTime).In fact, in today’s world where better Return of Investment (ROI) is expected on the money-spent, we as project managers are not even sure that a project with end date ‘not-known’ and a budget that is ‘unlimited’ would even get considered for approval, leave alone getting approved. 

It is obvious that there should have been some kind of a structured project management approach and quality-consciousness, given that the buildings still stand today, though we don’t know what it was. Just goes on to show that documentation has always been an issue. In the last hundred years, Taylor’s Principle of Scientific Management was considered as one of the modern approaches followed to ensure standardization and optimization in projects and in operations. Even this wasn’t enough and World War I and II made people feel the need for better approaches to manage work on hand due to limited resources and time constraints. The focus then turned to Peter Drucker and his Management by Objectives.

Management by Objectives

Early days of project management coincided with the push by the Then business schools’ towards Management by Objectives (MBO).  Management by objectives (MBO), also known as Management by Results (MBR), is a process of defining objectives within an organization so that both management and employees agree to the objectives and understand what they need to do in the organization in order to achieve the objectives. The term "Management by Objectives" was first popularized by Peter Drucker in his 1954 book The Practice of Management

The essence of MBO is participative goal setting, choosing the course of actions and decision making that is aligned to the objectives set. An important part of the MBO is the measurement and the comparison of the employee’s actual performance with the standards set. Ideally, when employees themselves have been involved with the goal setting and choosing the course of action to be followed by them, they are more likely to fulfill their responsibilities.

MBO has its detractors and notable among them was W. Edwards Deming, who argued that a lack of understanding of systems commonly results in the misapplication of objectives. Additionally, Deming stated that setting production targets will encourage workers to meet those targets through whatever means necessary, which usually results in poor quality.

Management by Objectives did not help organizations to evolve over a period of time by accomplishing strategic objectives. The strategic objectives can be anything like a new product launch, creating market share in a new market, increasing revenues, reducing costs or creating greater value for share holders.Deming’s warning on the big picture wasn’t heeded to and Management by Objectives proved to be a failure. 

In Peter Drucker’s words, “Management by Objectives works – if you know the objectives. Ninety percent of the time you don’t”. This lack of success in Management by Objectives paved the path to its next evolutionary step of Management by Projects (MBP).

Management by Projects

Tom Peters in his book ‘In Search of Excellence’ co-authored with Robert Waterman Jr and published in the year 1982, championed the cause of Management by Projects. To understand ‘Management by Projects’ we need to look at the work performed by organizations.

The work performed by an organization can be categorized into two categories, namely
  • Projects
  • Operations
Project and Operations are same in the sense that they are both 
  • Performed by people
  • Constrained by Limited Resources
  • Planned, Executed and Controlled
They differ in that
  • Operations are ongoing
  • Projects are temporary and unique
Management by Project allows people to manage both types of work as projects. This approach recognizes that projects can’t be treated in isolation from work. All the work needs to be considered together so that the right projects are worked upon by the right people at the right time. The priority of projects is determined by the strategic objectives of the organization.  Hence we can call Management by Projects as an approach towards conducting business. 

The difference between Project Management and Management by Projects is listed out in the Table1 below

Project Management

Management by Projects

The direction and management of a Project

The integration, prioritization, communication and continuous control of multiple projects

A discipline

An operating environment


Enterprise wide

A tactical issue

A strategic issue

Goal focused

Concerned about operational effectiveness i.e. the best we can achieve by the help of available resources

More static; Gives a snap shot view of a project and is as good as the last updated plan

More dynamic, providing real time information on the projects in the organization

From Table 1, it is clear that Managing by Projects is not the same as having more of project management. We can also make it out that the drivers for an organization to move towards management by projects is as follows

  • Operational effectiveness; Making the best out of the available resources
  • Dynamic; providing real time information about the organization, with respect to its strategic goals
  • Better Resource management: Allows the organization to manage its resources better by aligning with the strategic goals

In the book ‘Advanced Portfolio Managementand the PMO’ by Gerald I Kendall and Steven C Rollins (J Ross Publishing 2004), the authors call out the following as symptoms of defective strategy


Symptoms of Defective Strategy


Project Managers fight over resources


Project priorities frequently change


Managers have authority to unilaterally approve and ‘fund’ pet projects


Projects are launched regardless of availability of resources


When a goal is met, the expected improvement is not achieved  


No linkage between projects and strategy
 The ‘Management by Projects’ approach helps in ensuring that the above symptoms of defective strategy are addressed by setting the project priority at an organizational level. In the subsequent sections, we explain how the idea of ‘Strategic Project Management’ is an extension of the idea of ‘Management by Projects’ and is implemented using Project Portfolio Management. But before that, we would take a short detour and look at the present status of the project completion in America and United Kingdom.

Strategic Project Management as the Solution

The solution is to use Project Management as a strategic tool. According to Managing Projects for Value, by John C.Goodpasture (Project Management Essential Library 2001), Strategy is the term for the collective, actionable steps necessary to achieve goals and implement operating programs.

Since all projects proposed by an organization compete for the limited resources and support, strategic project management views all of the organization’s projects together as component of a portfolio and makes strategic choices in their support.  The difference, according to PMI’s Standard for Portfolio Management, is that Project and Program management focuses on doing things right, while portfolio management focuses on doing the right thing.

In his paper 'Introducing the revolutionary Strategic Project Management Maturity Model’, Heerkens. G defines Strategic Project Management as a series of practices, procedures, processes, tools, and behaviors which, when considered collectively, characterize the extent to which an organization creates effective linkages between excellent project management practices and excellent business practices– all in the name of advancing the overall strategic objectives of the organization (Heerkens, 2007)

We can see that the above definition encompasses the key points discussed in Table 1 about ‘Management by Projects’. The definition also extends the points to include procedures, Processes, tools and behaviors which help the organization create effective link between excellent project management practices and business practices.

But if we think that knowing strategy through the traditional strategic planning exercise will be good enough, nothing can be farther from truth. Strategic planning begins with initiatives and develops objectives for Senior and Mid-level managers who then push it down into the lower levels. While each level may accomplish its objectives, strategy remains limited to the executive level, while the lower levels still work with management by objectives (MBO) whose shortcomings we only know too well.

Strategic Project management differs from Traditional strategic planning in the following ways:

  • It aligns key business processes of strategic planning, strategic goal setting and enterprise project management.
  • Using the analogy of financial portfolio, it allows the effective use of constrained resources
  • Like a well managed portfolio of investments, an efficiently managed portfolio of projects ensures a high ROI because projects can be managed together. The leadership team can select right investment opportunities from a mix of potential opportunities, that are in alignment with the strategic objectives of the organization
  • This allows the organization to set a short term, mid-term and long term goals thus providing the much needed focus to reach the targets
Considering project success in the context of the achievement of the strategic goals of the organization is the way to proceed for any organization as the success rate of projects increase when organizations link their projects to their business strategy. The concept of Strategic Project Management can be implemented using Project Portfolio Management.

Basics of Project Portfolio Management

The Project Management Institute (PMI) released ‘The Standard for Portfolio Management’ in 2013. According to PMI, “Portfolio Management is an approach to achieving the strategic goals by selecting, prioritizing, assessing, and managing projects, programs, and other related work based upon their alignment and contribution to the organization’s strategies and objectives.”

Portfolio Management combines the organizations focus of ensuring that projects selected meet the portfolio or organization strategy with (b) the project management focus of delivering projects effectively and within their planned contribution to the portfolio.  This combination is important because it is only under this scenario that effective project management becomes a strategic competency because it helps the organization to advance it strategic goals.

Challenges faced and suggested solutions

Economic pressures, such as cost constraints or the inability to raise prices or cut costs without losing customers, often force organizations to focus on the tactical day to day or quarterly goals, with very little time to think strategically with a long term focus. The adopters of Strategic project management may encounter challenges in the following areas.


Challenges Faced

Suggested Solutions


Without buy-in from high level decision makers and their ability to give guidance and support , strategic project management will fail.

Executive Sponsorship :To have a powerful executive champion, whose presence will also help manage internal politics


Lack of Business acumen for deciding project priority in the portfolio

The portfolio manager should have enough business acumen to decide project priority


Project Management Process not strong enough

Since any strategy is only as good as the implementation, the strategic goals should be complemented with the right kind of project management process to ensure successful project delivery


Unrealistic timeframes and budgets that set the strategy to fail even before execution starts

Efficient and effective execution of projects across the board depend upon honest and realistic timeframes and budgets


Veering off course in times of trouble and returning to the reactive mode of managing individual projects

It takes a great deal of business acumen and persistence to stay the course in executing the strategy


Being Rigid and out of touch with external world

Strategic Project management means that the Organization stays in touch with grass roots and reality. As the external world changes, internal priorities also change and executive guidance has to be taken accordingly.

 Table 3: Challenges faced and suggested solutions for adopters of Strategic Project Management

This section shows how Strategic Project Management can be implemented by good Project Portfolio Management practices and how it has extended the ideas of Managing by Projects. The framework for Portfolio management, once implemented, gives any organization the confidence to take on challenging projects that are in alignment with the strategic objectives of the organization.

While the Portfolio Management framework ensures that the organization successfully attempts execution of a challenging project, excellent project management practices ensure that the project is also finished successfully, as measured against the goals set.


Traditional Project management comes as reactive where as the fast changing world of today, demands project management to be proactive. The paper has elaborated on how and why Project Management should be treated as a strategic competency and the requisites for it to be treated as the same.  This shows that Project Management as a strategic competency is a basic quality for any organization and hence mandatory for its survival.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Curious Minds by John Brockman - A Review

I borrowed this book from a friend recently, my curiosity kindled by the title, Curious Minds - How a Child becomes a scientist.

This book is more of a biographical essays by scientists like Richard Dawkins ( author of the Selfish Gene ), Murray Gell Mann ( The Quark Man) , Philospher Dan Dennet ,  Mathematician Steven Strogatz, Howard Gardener ( author of the multiple intelligence theory ), V S Ramachandran ( author of  Phanthoms in the Brain),  Theoretical Physicist and Mathematician Freeman Dyson and Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist. The names are just representative. 

The book is not a series of steps to make a scientist out of your kid. So people who take it like that and want to read the book need to be aware of this. But it contains lot of anecdotes and makes the book interesting

Best essay was Steven Pinker's where turns the idea of the book upside down. He says rather than the childhood experiences deciding what we become, who we are decides our childhood experiences. I am not giving away anything more and suggest people to read the book.

The book has a few lessons for parents.

#1. Nurture plays an important role. The kind of environment that was provided to most of the author of the essays seems to have played an important role. This is a point that parents need to be aware of.

#2 The role of an adult(s) in the formative years of a child and even well into teens, is very important. This role can be by a parent or both parents or a relative or a friend who inspired the kid and ensured that the child's curiosity was kept alive, with the right inputs and motivation.

#3 Nothing special was done by the parents for the kids. No special classes or any thing of that sort that the parents of these days have in mind. What stands out is the amount of  free time that allowed the kids to explore and the fact that parents were not overbearing. 

#4 The parents provided the kids the space that allowed the kids to evolve at their own pace. Almost all of the parents come across as laid back as per today's standards.

Overall an Interesting book and worth a read.

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