A project manager should front-load a project with Slow Thinkers in the planning phase, and gradually move the balance of resources towards Fast Thinkers in the implementation phase.
The theory of Fast and Slow thinking is explained in detail by the Nobel Economics winner Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. This article suggests an application of the theories from the book. I do not intend to summarise or review Kahneman’s book here.
Very briefly, System A (Fast) thinking involves a lot of shortcuts to allow us to make lots of fast decisions in a short time frame. System A thinking is frequently sub-optimal, or downright wrong. Where the inputs are very complex System A thinking becomes a guessing game. System B thinking (Slow) involves a full evaluation of all the input factors. It takes time and considerable mental effort, but usually arrives at a better answer than System A.
The premise of this article is that projects require a lot of System B thinking at the beginning to establish operating parameters. If the planning phase is set up properly it will create decision rules for the implementation phase. This will allow implementation staff to make many Fast (System A thinking) decisions, driving the project forward and keeping momentum going.
We all use both System A and System B thinking, depending on the situation. When you buy a chocolate bar you make a snap decision. The risk of a wrong decision is low. It costs 1 Euro. When you buy a home you revert to System B thinking. You look at the local schools, transport, parks, shopping, parking, neighbours etc, because the impact of a poor decision will be very expensive.
Let’s stick with the house purchase as an example. Imagine you have been appointed project manager. Your brief is to buy a house, decorate it, and then move your family into it. You have to set up a project team. Do you need to include the removal company in the team for the selection of the house?
The house you buy will impact upon the job of the removal company. They will want to know how many floors are in the house, how far they will drive to get there, height restrictions on parking access, if parking is on-street, if it is an apartment, does it have an elevator etc. But you do not buy a house to suit the removal company.
Think of the removal company as the System A thinkers in your team. They need clear guidelines and boundaries. Given these they can supply you with costs and timings to complete the work. If you ask them whether you should buy a detached house or an apartment you simply make their job more complicated, and the input they give you will not improve your planning decision.
At the planning phase of the project you need System B thinkers. More importantly you need resources who have a stake in the game. The success or failure of the project should directly impact their career. This will ensure they fully play the “risk averse” card and identify as many potential pitfalls as possible before implementation begins.
Here is where it gets interesting! The type of people who are strong System B thinkers, who are so valuable in the planning phase, become a liability in the implementation phase. When you are buying your house you want your spouse or partner to ask all the hard searching questions. When the removal company ask where to leave a vacuum cleaner, you do not spend a day evaluating the lowest risk location. They are on the clock, and you need to make a fast call instantly. The brain work has been done, the house is bought, the major parameters have been fixed in your project. Implementation is all about System A thinking.
The danger is that “Consideration” which is so valuable in the planning phase becomes “Dithering” in the implementation phase. On the flip side someone who is good at “Confident Fast Decision Making” in the implentation phase may be exposed in the planning phase as a weak System B thinker.
If you draw a line between Marketing and Sales you can see that marketing is weighted towards System B thinking and Sales is weighted towards System A. Marketing takes complex information inputs and analyses them to decide WHAT TO DO. Sales takes a marketing plan and decides HOW TO DO.
One interesting trend I have noticed in my career is how Marketing is a popular, and successful, career for many women. Sales (in my experience) has been weighted in favour of men. I know lots of women in sales and lots of men in marketing, so there are no rules or biases here.
There is much academic literature which suggests that women are more risk averse than men. Reasons may be historical, cultural, biased by social systems etc. What it suggests is that Women revert to System B thinking faster than men. If true, this makes them better project planners, while men will be better implementers.
OK, I am not being sexist (I promise). What I am saying is this. If you are a project planner you need to find a way to identify which of your resources are best at System A thinking and which are best at System B thinking. You should balance your resources over the project so that you have more System B thinkers in the early planning phases, and then gradually move towards System A thinkers in the implementation phases.