Lost Keys

by | Feb 3, 2022 | Blog Post

Fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” – George Santayana.

In the absence of a holistic view of your entire portfolio of projects and lack of defined process, you rely on guesswork. Under pressure or through habit you revert to doing what you know how to do. Rationality goes out of the window.

There is a story of a drunk who lost his car keys and searched for them under a streetlamp. A police officer came up and asked him where he thought he lost the keys. The drunk pointed to his car off in the darkness. The police officer asked, “If you lost them over there, why are you looking for them here?” The drunk replied, “Because the light is better here.”

A heuristic is just another name for a rule of thumb or a shortcut. The lost key story is an example of the availability heuristic: we only see what is directly available to us. We’re confronted by a problem and immediately start solving it with a cookie-cutter approach. This seems natural because from an early age we look at problems and select from a menu of possible predefined solutions. This is how algebra works. We see a problem and select a formula with which to solve it. But the neat world of mathematics is very different from the complex, rapidly changing, and open-ended possibilities that present themselves to us when we’re high-stakes decision makers.

If past experience doesn’t work, and there seems to be no available and easy and repeatable process, then what do we do? Do we rely on the people who report to us? Is their technical expertise enough? How do we know what they are advocating is good for the company rather than good for their own self-promotion? Relying on gut decisions causes indigestion, dysfunction and unintended consequences. We’ve all heard it all before: Do more! Work harder! These generic and vague injunctions do little except give us temporary emotional relief and cause anxiety and panic in those who work for us.

Ad hoc decisions are likely to interfere with existing courses of action in the same way that adverse drug interactions do. The wise physician wants to know a patient’s drug regimen before prescribing. Any new initiative must take into consideration what else is proposed – what else is on the table for discussion. Without a repeatable method of seeing the likely outcomes and interdependencies of our decisions, we can easily regress into reptilian management. We all know what happened to the largest reptiles – the dinosaurs.


More data is not the answer. Managing complexity requires us to ask appropriate questions. Are we bringing the right data to the table? The trouble is that our plates are already full. How do we digest the data we have? How do we make it understandable? How do we extract long-term, capital-efficient, profitable growth from our existing knowledge?

Despite the slew of data, managers are finding it increasingly difficult, or just plain impossible to understand the impact of any proposed action. How do you know what happens if you delay a project? What happens if you accelerate it? Which projects should you postpone, and which should you kill? What are realistic expectations? How do you differentiate a realistic expectation from delusional happy talk? Do we understand how difficult any particular problem is likely to be? And even if we do get this, can we say so and still get our projects funded? Which regions are doing well, and which are sucking up precious resources with no hope of delivering results? Guesswork doesn’t cut it. You have to see what’s going on.

What’s needed is a repeatable decision-making capability to catapult your business results to hit your goals. Something that enables you to see the bigger picture. Without a defined and repeatable process, decision making can become random, ineffective, and confusing. The best-in-class project-selection process reduces complexity and accelerates good decision making.

But where do you start? Our following Blog Post, Complexity Busting will investigate the ingredients needed to cope with ever-increasing complexity, and explore the formulation, shaping, and management of these pieces of the whole.

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Extract taken from Michael Menard’s book, A Fish in Your Ear, The New Discipline of Project Portfolio Management. Available on Amazon.

Complexity Busting – The best-in-class project-selection process reduces complexity and accelerates good decision making.

A Thousand Cuts – Each decision inflicts pain. Often this pain goes unnoticed – for a while. But sooner or later, the consequences make themselves felt. Weak growth, dwindling profit, and a slow erosion of value make up make up the predictable declining trajectory. Failure to create profit rarely comes from one single cataclysmic disaster.

A Mouthful of Fish – For the puffin, choosing the biggest fish is an instinctive demonstration of efficiency, value, and execution. So how do we know which are the biggest fish for us?

My Moment of Truth – The event that changed my career happened on December 14, 1996, at precisely 6.30 a.m. I was commuting. The radio was on. I wasn’t paying attention until these words hit me like a sock to the jaw: do not go to your grave with your music still inside you. Then the idea burst into being.

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