Managing Complexity

Been a trend in the day job to look at complexity as a subject in itself. Whether Oil&Gas or Nuclear Power, the systems view seems to acknowledge complexity as an explicit variable to be addressed. Thanks to David Gurteen for the link to this piece by Nick Milton – knowledge management, whatever you believe that is (*), is part of the solution. Topical on the scale of human generations, in the post-Macondo, Post-Fukushima context.

(Agree with David Gurteen’s observation that it would be interesting to hear Dave Snowden’s take – in the light of the simple BCG Grid, given his extrapolation of the grid concept into the world of complexity.)

Sadly the New Scientist link appears broken – looking into that.

(* The Ron Young version, or the Euan Semple version. Being too well defined is counter-productive.)

Project Management Memetics

Leon sent me a link to this paper a couple of years ago, to which I responded “interesting” – he knows I’m interested in memes. I didn’t actually read beyond the title until today.

The essence of memes is that there is something “self-serving” about patterns of information (*1) which is independent of any rationally intended human purposes in using them. The same is as true of (say) project management procedures and practices as it is of any rational processing of information – my agenda is that this is a problematic feature of management and governance in the most general sense, not just businesses and projects, any decision-making-to-act process, knowledge-management practices, even the rational domain par-excellence science itself. So I have no doubt about the problems of failing to see the memetic aspect of project management activities – it’s is of course where my concerns began in Oil & Gas industry and Information Management projects, 15 or 20 years ago – the reason I’ve been blogging since blogging was invented …. but this is not about me.

In fact none of this is new in management circles, just the new(ish) memetic language, and part of the problem now is that memetics itself is contentious to some people (*1). But even without memetics, the idea that decision-rationality = action-irrationality has been part of action-science management theories (eg Argyris / Brunsson et al) and probably longer before that with (say) Parker-Follett – guru to the gurus in management.

In any “professional” management situation it is difficult (anathema) to suggest that doing a rational thing is the irrational (wrong) thing to do. You’re mad, surely. “Before we make this decision to act, we should study and agree upon this issue – right ?” Wrong. Act and experience the outcomes (with “care”, in the knowledge of the issue). It’s been called analysis-paralysis for years, but it’s not just “analysis”, it’s following any rational, objective process that delays action, because it is the action that provides experience. Experience is worth more than theory, in practice.

Performing rational (project) management analyses, modelling and management decision-making processes tends to lead to more (project) management activities – ie self-serving – rather than achieving the value-adding goals of the enterprise or project. (IT / IM projects, particularly new, integrated business and/or government (civil or defense) systems, are often legendary in terms of project failure, however they are actually post-rationalized. Not surprisingly there are newer “agile” IT project management processes that force the action and feedback cycle milestones.)

(*1) Patterns of information, known as memes because they are copied (not the other way around), come in many levels; patterns (upon patterns) upon patterns of information (statically defined) and patterns (upon patterns) of their (dynamic) relations, procedures, patterns of use, communication and processing. Because genes – the biological analogue of memes – are based on 4-bases (*2) and n-chromosomes in any given species (*3), there is a popular misconception that genetic copying in biological reproduction is well defined in terms of atomically discrete “digital” genes, whereas memes are somehow more woolly – anything from a single word representing an identifiable concept to the whole idea of ideas, concepts, interpretations, representations even internet crazes, fashions, cultural patterns (even whole religions and cultures) etc. Many people baulk at the idea that “cultural units” (memes) can be considered as discretely as “biological units” genes. Now, reducing things to discrete objects (genes or memes, or anything else) is part of a wider issue, but genes and memes, their own definitions and the processes and patterns involving their transmission and reproduction are equally complex and ultimately flaky – just equally useful in describing the processes involved – information processing processes both (*4). The analogy is in fact a very good one. It’s about what IS copied and communicated, not prescriptive about what they should be, or how they might be represented when communicated and processed. Naturally, simpler patterns of information (memes or genes) – patterns of information which are simpler to represent – are communicated, processed (and replicated) more easily, so unsurprisingly discrete objects are much more “popular” than complex patterns of information – another self-serving aspect. Simple ideas rule, but often simple may be dumb.

(*2) Even the 4 DNA / RNA bases are not in any sense absolute. They just happen to be the basis of the most prevalent and most studied organic biological forms. Other biochemical possibilities exist. And of course even in R/DNA based life, there are many other non-R/DNA cell structures involved in the processes too. Doesn’t change the essential pragmatic truth of genetic reproduction.

(*3) And even the definition of a discrete species is highly context dependent and controversial when it comes down to it. Different definitions are accepted for different practical purposes.

(*4) Objective reductionism is full of contentious topics when it comes to more subjective things like free-will and consciousness, but this is true even at the most fundamental levels of physics too. Arguments in these topics need to be conducted extremely carefully – avoiding “misplaced-objectivity” and “greedy reductionism” – more self-serving memes.

[Need to come back and link to the implied sources throughout.]

[Post Note : Existentialism and Evolutionary Psychology – Heidegger, Foucault, Dennett and many more in Jon Whitty’s project management presentations. A man after my own.]

Macondo “Permitorium”

Listening to a presentation from the International Association of Drilling Contractors on the Macondo fall-out.

Demands for containment resources x00% x max spill potential available on site or within x hours are being used to reject permits to deep water drill since the moratorium ended in October. A little bit “no spill ever again” level of safety demand before permits will be granted. At least a year of deepwater drilling industry shutdown in the US gulf, which is a major regional industrial depression well beyond the O&G companies.

(Incidentally – innovative capping containments also being developed internationally. Ixtoc 1979 was bigger and flowed for a whole year. See previous Macondo threads and comment threads.)

Great Wall Drilling / Hashwe(?) / Repsol / Saipem / Gazprom / Statoil / Pertamina / ONGC / PetroVietnam / Petrobras and other partners, drilling in deep water (1 mile deep) in loop current between Cuba and Florida, with flows at 14 knots towards Florida and Carolina Atlantic coasts, and/or Cuban coast, not of course regulated by US permitting. Worse still …

People have already been prosecuted heavily for US content of technology (see partners) delivered indirectly to Cuban drilling industry. US (politically) cannot provide BOP or containment technology for a drilling operation that threatens the US coastline. People are trying to “do the right thing” without getting fired for legal infringements, amongst the political regulation. Interesting angle.

The BP Commission Report

Still digesting this

They were operating on well-known and understood tight margins on pressure balance ever since the incident during partial drilling by the earlier rig, and right through completion of the drilling to the final “primary” cement job. That balance was always between too little (mud, pressure, cement, etc) failing to control the hazardous hydrocarbons, vs too much (mud, pressure, cement, etc) destroying (the value of) the well. It may seem scary to lay people, but this is always what engineering is about – difficult judgements by responsible, moral people – we’ll “probably” be OK. It looks like “cost-cutting” to do less, but we all cost-cut (look for the best price, the most cost/value effective) every day.

[At this point, I’ve only read as far as the end of the cement design and analysis – ch4, p102 – and I’ve not seen any mentions (yet) of the problems and risks associated with the BOP systems, or the top-sides relief systems, serious but secondary – but I’ll hazard a guess (based on earlier reading of BP’s own report) that the real failure is the decision to ignore the failed negative pressure test (!), and the failure of any warning / criticality signs in BP’s higher supervisory management systems that this whole operation was on tight margins, which could have enforced double checks on the safety-critical decision points, like this one, and other additional quality surveillance. As I said earlier the irony is that BP were one of the first to introduce “criticality” ratings to the industry, 25 years ago.]

So, continuing, reading on … a quote from the commission report (their italic emphasis, not mine) and even with hindsight their use of the tense “would” – is telling.

“At the Macondo well, the negative-pressure test was the only test performed that would have checked the integrity of the bottom-hole cement job.”

And later …

“It was therefore critical to test and confirm the ability of the well (including the primary cement job) to withstand the under-balance.”

The visiting execs and the new trainee in the team both add to the dynamics of dealing with the apparent problem at a critical moment in what was already known to be a critically-balanced situation – interesting. And then the fateful error :

” … the 1,400 psi reading on the drill pipe could only have been caused by a leak into the well. Nevertheless, at 8 pm, BP Well Site Leaders, in consultation with the crew, made a key error and mistakenly concluded the second negative test procedure had confirmed the well’s integrity.”

After that, yes the BOP’s should have been a last line of defence, but weren’t … it’s history … Having been in the pressure testing position myself on several projects, I feel for Anderson …. was he amongst the dead, I wonder ? [He was.]

The recommendations need reading in detail, but this looks like systemic management / surveillance / regulation system needs, so that what look like normal processes in abnormal situations don’t (accidentally) skip critical checks. To their credit, BP still seems to be taking the full hit of responsibility, but I doubt BP is special in this respect.  These are industry needs.


I usually avoid politically partisan material, but this caught my eye.

In the whole “Wikileaks” saga recently, I several times made the points that publication of otherwise secret material was never a “right”, and that responsible journalism was always needed in the loop in a working democracy, as opposed to anarchic free-for-all slanging match politics of governance. The immediacy of web social media possibilities does not change that basic need.

Thanks to Dave Snowden for the anti-Fox-News rant on the same point above, and for several other excellent recent posts.[ Moral Purpose. ][ The Last Thing. ][ The Penultimate Thing. ]