Too many decisions on projects are made without cognizance of their downstream consequences—but do our processes enable these consequences to be known and considered?

No-dimensional thinking

Toddlers have no dimensional thinking. They do not understand the consequences of what they do—that putting their hand on a hotplate will burn it, that jumping off a balcony may kill them, and so on. They have to be taught what is okay to do and what is not okay either by parental intervention or painful experimentation.

The development of one-dimensional thinking

Gradually we get the idea that actions have consequences. Misbehave in class and you’ll get punished. Lose your lunch money and you don’t eat at lunch time. Play around with matches and you’ll get burnt. And so on.

We develop one-dimensional—action/consequence—thinking.

Unfortunately, this is where too many people stop in their thinking development. They always see events and responses as one-dimensional. Costs are too high, cut staff. Office real estate costs are too high, implement open plan or hot-desking. Margins are not to plan, slash budgets.

The advantage of one-dimensional thinking is that it is simple—cause and effect. It is also dangerous as it ignores the consequential dimensions of these ‘simple’ decisions.

The consequences of one-dimensional thinking

Repeated research has found that firms that cut staff to ‘save costs’ were often in a worse position after two years than they were at the time of the cost-cutting.

Open plan offices and, worse, hot-desking may save real estate costs but at the cost of massive reductions in staff productivity. Many people, especially introverts, do not work well in big, noisy open plan offices. When you then add ‘no place to call home’ hot-desking this just exacerbates the situation and further reduces productivity.

Slashing budgets to preserve margins can slash the very expenditures needed to restore margins. Many organizations implement a ‘hiring freeze’ in the last quarter of their financial year to reduce their staff costs and boost their margins. Then they wonder why they didn’t have the resources to deliver their planned results.

The need for multi-dimensional thinking

When making decisions, to make the right decisions you need to think in terms of two or more dimensions. In a project context this can mean:

Scope decisions need to not only consider the immediate impacts on the project time, cost and effort but also on the longer-term business value and results. Cutting a project’s scope to ‘come in on budget’ by destroying the long-term benefits of the project is wasteful one-dimensional thinking.

Generating a business case to ‘get the project over the line and approved’ is of no value if the project is of low strategic priority, essentially low value and/or unlikely to deliver the claimed results.

Measuring a project’s success in terms of ‘on time, on budget and to specification’ not only misses the point that projects are commissioned to deliver the desired business outcomes, benefits and value, but also can encourage decisions that ensure ‘on budget’ delivery rather than delivery of what is actually desired.

So when making decisions you need to think in terms of the longer-term implications and impacts. What will/can happen downstream, beyond the immediate impact, as a result of this decision?

Do you enable multi-dimensional thinking?

Consequently, our processes need to enable these two or more dimensional decisions to be made—by, for example, spelling out the value impacts of scope change decisions. Does your scope change process do this?



Topics: Productivity Improvement

Further Reading



[1] ...

Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (May 2016) as "The Dangers Of One-Dimensional Thinking"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections