illusion of control

Some thoughts about project control …

Is there a simple way to define when someone (such as a project manager) has a project under control? Can we really quantitatively evaluate control, or is control in projects just a simple gut feeling with no real value for the project?

First we all agree that “control” is just a word and it has two major interpretations:

  • One is to check or to verify and
  • one is to dominate, command i.e. to exercise power among others or things.

Now we find both interpretations in projects and in terms of verification of project parameters in order to evaluate progress, it seems quite justifiable to be seeking for control. Nevertheless, no matter which interpretation or method for project controlling we choose we are just trying to predict the future.

Driving projects

Do you know the feeling of perceiving the chance of having a car accident as smaller when you are driving than when you are sitting on the passenger seat? This has to do of course also with one person’s driving skills, but luck in the sense of unpredictable events while driving in not something that can be controlled.

Good project managers are asked to drive projects and they do take the drivers seat, because of challenge, competition and often because of habit. Good project managers profiles correspond  to leaders with a strong personality in the sense that they usually have a positive opinion about themselves and some good amount of self-esteem. They also need to believe they can influence things and often is is requested from them to have a hands on mentality.

Finally it is almost a must for the job to be an emotional stable person and to be able to cope with stress and bad news. Although these qualities can contribute to the project in different ways they can also lead to an illusion of control of the project and sometimes upon the people in the project. Although it could be better to let others drive the car while observing from the pit-stop ensuring that the car can drive, project drivers want to hold the steering wheel in their hand and the most worst thing is that this is often expected from them.

Illusion of control

Back in 1975 Ellen Langer has discussed something that is called the illusion of control. During events of pure chance, people connect known skills with the outcome of the action experiencing a feeling of control over the situation. For example when throwing a dice people tend to throw smoothly  to get small numbers and harder to get large numbers. The skill in this example is the ability to throw the dice in different ways. Simply described, the fact of being able to choose how to throw the dice is interpreted as control over the random event.

Taking now the strong personality of project manager, combining it with all the methods for controlling a project that are listed in the literature and the choice to apply measurements during the project how much control do we really think we have?

How we perceive control in projects

A good milestone plan

Partial, milestone, iterative or incremental deliveries, call it as you like,  are for the upper management typical indicators for projects under control. Nevertheless what might happen is that the delivery itself i.e. the fact that something was delivered, becomes more important that the “What is delivered”, its quality  and its relation to the overall scope.

Processes and rituals

Following processes, rituals, weekly or daily meetings is  perceived as controlled project process. When something unexpected happens, weirdly enough, all the rituals and recurring events which in some extend can indeed contribute to the project, loose their importance until the feeling of control is regained, by some other first-aid hands on action. Who is actually controlling who in these situations?

Rewarding the outcome of a project can also be a misleading strategy, since I cannot imagine that a project manager would timely admit loosing control, asking for help or changing direction while knowing that a bonus for himself is connected to the outcome or even to the original plan.

The 80% done, never ending projects

We have all seen projects changing their status from green to red within a day, or projects that they were delivered on time to 80% and needed three times as much time and resources to reach 100%. Maybe we should not be talking about control, but rather about visibility, information flow, collaboration, learning and fast adaptation capabilities. Nevertheless one would argue that this is again one way to extrapolate the illusion of control to the rest of the stakeholders. Therefore it seems to me that control over the outcome of a project only a subjective feeling that can be passed through even in form of quantitative measurements.

I believe that the only thing we achieve by trying to control a project is to just document the project dynamics, although we could spend some more time as project leaders to drive a project to success with other methods than via planning. If the project is very dynamic, predictions or planning have less or no value, if the project is quite static the predictions are close to reality just implying a feeling that the project was controlled or managed well, while the project just followed its natural flow.


Without any doubt, at a specific deadline there will be an outcome of the project. Nevertheless I believe that we should not be  talking about controlling this outcome, but about how to influence it with the best possible way during the project. I think that control is quite passive, while influence is active and fits to project and human systems dynamics.

Controlling success

From a project manager point of view, risk identification, planning and control in general are important for project success. There are several forms and levels of planning and they should be questioned how they really contribute to the actual project delivery. Sometimes I dare to challenge if the only reason for the existence of planning is to transfer an illusion of control to the upper management. Thus if the upper management requires this illusion, then as a project manager we succeed in providing it. I would be though very frustrated if that is my only purpose as a project manager, rather than delivering something useful, so is there a pragmatic way to gain control of a project?

You cannot control people

You should not try to control people, but to enable them.

There are no 100% predictions

Accept that there is not such thing as a 100% prediction of future outcomes. A plan for example, is just a prediction and has to be continuously adjusted. If you confuse control, with being able to predict 100% of the project outcome then you are in trouble.

The project is in control of you

Aks yourself, who is really controlling who? You are part of the project and most probably the circumstances and goals of the project have gained control and not you. If you then try to control you just react. Even if it sounds quite unfamiliar, maybe it would be good to change the perspective. What if you are controlled by the project in terms that you were placed in that position in order to play the game and not to change or control the game? The game has it rules, its goals and it just needs the right players to play ball. If you do not agree to the rules then do not play the game.

Manage and produce value

There are a lot of things that you can influence in a project, but if you are interested in control the above mindset changes will lead you to the final step, which is that if there something that can be controlled in projects, it is the activities that require specific skills in order to be successfully accomplished.

Therefore if you manage to continuously keep on

  • identifying the important activities (and I do not mean only technical tasks)
  • the right people to do them and
  • establishing the right conditions so that these people can work

Then you would be having a great amount of control over the successful outcome of the project.

Defining the importance of the activities is not a topic for this article, but in general terms they can be identified on how much measurable value they provide to the people that would use the outcomes of a project.

Finally, if politics and future sales play a significant role during a project then there will be conflict between the important activities for the delivery of the project and the activities for politics and business development that will interfere.  We are moving now a little bit closer to the real project world, but this only shows that projects cannot be controlled and outcomes can only be influenced based on the circumstances.