Are you passionately curious? It's IT project management's success secret

Why do some projects stir a passion within you and others leave you less revved up? Could unlocking the secret lead to fewer IT project failures?

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It’s true, isn’t it? The more passionate about a task you are, the more likely you are to succeed. Even doing the dishes can be a chore or a fun twenty minutes reviewing the day with a loved one. Same with IT projects!

I’ve been involved in some REALLY exciting IT advances. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always brought my A game and been REALLY proud of the delivered project and then, strangely, found myself getting EVEN MORE excited about the next project that had a less “headline grabbing” outcome. I know I’m not alone because a friend just emailed to say that of the two projects his team were handling, a “sexy new app” and a “keep the lights on” system upgrade, he was more excited by the latter. What’s that all about?!

I’ve often been asked what it is that gets IT project talent out of bed in the morning. What drives us to search out seemingly hidden meanings in oceans of project data? What spurs us to burn the candle at both ends, to pull late nights and long weekends to miss nights out with friends and nights in with the other half? I’ve also often joked that if we could work this out, bottle it and sell it – we’d be millionaires! So, let’s have a go at this.

By chance, recently, I happened across a concept that I first heard about in the 1990s and which, I think, may hold the key to why some projects inspire more than others. The information gap theory of curiosity.

The information gap theory of curiosity was developed by Professor George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 1990s. Essentially, Loewenstein believes that curiosity can be boiled down to the emotional reaction you have when you identify a gap between what you know and what you want (or need) to know!

Einstein once remarked, “I have no special talents,” adding, “I am only passionately curious.” Was Einstein on to something? I think that this “passionately curious” tag applies to everyone in IT project management most of the time ... but not always! So, why are we more “passionately curious” about some projects than others?

It could be that size matters.

I’m not thinking about the size or complexity of projects, although it is sometimes nice to have a big meaty project to sink your teeth into – that’s not always enough to spark a project manager’s passion. Thinking back to Loewenstein’s theory, could it be that how passionately curious you are about a project is directly related to the size of the gap between what you DO know, and what you NEED TO KNOW to deliver it?

Paraphrasing Loewenstein, we tend to be more curious about things when we feel close to the answer ... but not quite there. Therefore, if you feel that delivering a project is a walk in the park, you may be slightly less animated working on it than on a more cerebrally challenging project, even if that project’s outcomes are less likely to set the world alight!

Similarly, extending Loewenstein’s theory in the other direction, where a project is totally and utterly beyond your current capability and experience – it’s maybe even easier to see how you might fail to keep up a sense of passionate curiosity when the information gap is too great.

Talking recently on a Radio 4 documentary about (of all things) Mars, Professor Loewenstein remarked, “People tend to be most curious when they know a lot about a topic but there’s some kind of salient question that remains unanswered. That’s sort of a sweet spot for curiosity. If you don’t know very much about something you don’t tend to be curious and of course, if you’ve answered the question, you’re no longer curious – because you have the answer!”

So, this could be why you get passionate about some projects and others... well... not so much. When a project tests you, challenges you and wakes you in the night with “eureka moments” but you know that delivery is within your capability, you are much more likely to apply your curiosity muscles to it than when you’re way out of your depth, or coasting to a hassle-free delivery.

As Loewenstein says, “The perfect gap is where you know a lot but there’s still a well-defined unanswered question. In the case of Mars there’s a lot of questions but certainly, the number one question is whether there’s life there or has been life on Mars in the past. It’s a very ... salient information gap for a lot of people.”

That salient gap may be the key!

I suppose when you know a lot but not quite everything you can, with some confidence, fill in the gaps from yours or your team’s knowledge bank. You fill in gaps with hypotheticals, informed estimations and experience led guesswork. That must also drive curiosity... you want to see if you were right (even though you’re pretty sure you are because you made the call with the safety net of past success). The larger the information gap the more any guesswork becomes less of a calculated risk and more of a gamble.

Thinking about all this, I am wondering if the information gap theory of curiosity could be the root cause of problems with most failing projects, that I am asked to consult upon and attempt to rescue. I mean, I have seen projects where complexity and size are way beyond the experience of those tasked with delivery and failure could (and should) have been predicted, but there also projects that fail where you’d think that successful delivery was WELL within the team’s capability. It’s a bit like when a league leading football team beats everyone in the top half of the table but loses against the side fighting relegation.

I think that we have stumbled upon something here but how do you apply the information gap theory of curiosity to IT projects? What can you do when you risk either complacency because a project is too safely in your comfort zone or wild guesswork when it’s way, WAY outside? The regular reader will expect me to point to Project Management as a Service for the solution and I’m not about to disappoint. After all, if there’s one thing that I am passionately curious about it is the ever-expanding universe of answers that is the PMaaS market.

It might be obvious to point to the big information gap projects as candidates for patching in PMaaS talent and resources, but I’d also suggest that projects at the other end of Loewenstein’s thinking might also benefit. Is your in-house talent best deployed on an “easy” project, or would they be better somewhere else in your portfolio? PMaaS can free up existing talent and resources who are working to keep the lights on so that you can allocate them to a place where being passionately curious might have a greater impact.

So, there you go. Something I heard about in the 1990s and stored in the back of my mind piqued my curiosity in 2018 and presented a possible secret to success! I’d be passionately curious to hear about any information gaps you have in your project portfolio and even more passionately curious to see how we could help fill them.

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