The (False) Cheese Dichotomy of Project Planning
How Do You Choose an Approach?
“Planning a big project is like eating a big cheese,” the project manager told me. “I can start by cutting the whole cheese into a large number of cubes, which I eat one by one. Alternatively, I can cut a thin slice and defer any further decisions until after I have tasted it. In that dichotomy, I choose the slicing technique seven days a week.”
Two options are presented as an either/or choice, but beware — it may be a delusion to assume that one of them must be true and the other false. One option may well be preferable in a specific situation while the other is better in another situation. Even worse, there may be more options than the two presented to us. We call this fallacy a false dichotomy. However, even a false dichotomy may provide good insights.
Firstly, it depends
In 1827, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown described how pollen particles move randomly in water. This phenomenon — subsequently termed Brownian motion — later inspired Jean Baptiste Perrin’s work “on the discontinuous structure of matter,” for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1926.
My friend, the project manager, was fully aware that, without planning and prioritizing our projects, our collaboration would reflect Brownian motion and lack direction. Pointing out a direction is an enabling constraint that concentrates collaborators’ efforts toward something so that they do not careen randomly like Brown’s pollen particles. With the cheese analogy, the project manager was arguing that the slicing method is a less risky way to create direction. Decisions are postponed until what, in lean thinking, is called the “last responsible moment.” This is a very useful principle when we do not know everything in advance but is less useful when we do.
The assembly line that was pioneered in automobile manufacturing is a recurring metaphor in the development of software and products, but (soon to be) cars are already 100 percent specified. Even though an individual car may be customized, there are really no surprises. Customers can choose from only a limited number of options, and everything is decided long before the car is manufactured. Planning one slice at a time seems effective when we develop software and products, yet cutting the whole cheese into cubes obviously increases efficiency on the assembly line.
Secondly, more options exist
This leads us to the second delusion that constitutes the false dichotomy: the belief that only two options are available. My project manager was choosing between a big plan up front (cheese cubes) or incremental development (cheese slices). Here is a third option. Imagine that we serve multiple types of cheese. Furthermore, we set out a few biscuits, grapes, and apple wedges and add culinary bites of Finnish mämmi, Scanian spettekaka, and British kidney pie to the table.
We are neither planning everything in advance nor planning step by step. Rather, we experiment with many — eventually mutually contradictory — theories in parallel, and this parallel experimentation protects us from the sunk cost fallacy (that is, falling in love with our prototype). When cause and effect don’t walk hand in hand, this third way also helps us eliminate bad options quicker than when we are forced to wait for the first increment before evaluating our single direction.
Here is what we have come up with so far:
- When everything is known in advance: plan all steps upfront and start executing. (Known Knowns)
- When general direction is known, but every detail is not: plan a viable increment and defer decisions about the next step until after the first step is completed. (Known Unknowns)
- When complexity is high: make multiple small experiments in parallel. (Unknown Unknowns)
Predictability seems to be an important factor in deciding which of these three methods is most suitable to our current situation. Be aware, however, that three is not a maximum number of options either. That is why we have the concept called “false trichotomy.”
Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf and most recently Monotasking with Simon & Schuster.
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