Friday, November 20, 2009

You always lose in a zero sum game – always

In the real world, where real things happen and theory hides in books there is little to gain from any interaction where one gains at the others lose. This applies directly to projects and project management.

Let’s look at a simple example: a project to improve market share in the hamburger market. The project includes creating a fancy website, iphone ordering and email marketing blitz…you currently have 30% of the market and hope for 40%...a healthy 1/3 increase. Could be worth an additional $50k a month if you get it…sounds beautiful. So you build the site, you create the iPhone app and you blitz the hell out of people until they start to associate you with the world’s best hamburger and you reach your goal….you might have spent $100k doing all of the including increasing your capacity to provide the additional hamburgers everyone wants. What happens day 2? When your competitor follows your lead or someone on the outside gets excited when they see the lines of customers waiting for your hamburgers? You didn’t really increase the overall demand, you just adjusted the finite demand…your initial costs and on-going support costs not just for the site and iphone app and email blitz, but also for the increased hamburger making capacity is still there as the hamburger seekers start to look elsewhere, the profit margins reduce and your new Mercedes is getting towed away by the repo man.

When you wrestle with any finite/zero-sum item you’re essentially spending to gain something that will eventually be lost – if you were able to increase overall demand, say from 1 in 10 people wanting hamburgers to 1.5 in 10 people wanting them, even if a share of that increase drifts to another hamburger provider you established a bigger pool to work from. The potential of going back to the demand where you started or even less is reduced.

What does any of this have to do with project management? Think of resource sharing, think of budget constraints, think of sponsor sharing – anyone or item that you have to timeshare with any other team puts you in a zero-sum game and continually puts you at a higher risk of failing at the end of the day. What you gain today in a finite pool will cost you more tomorrow to keep and cost you dearly if you begin to lose your share.

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