Yousif Almoayyed: Apply Economic Thinking To Better Manage Your Technology Projects

Does economic knowledge help you manage complex IT projects? Yousif Almoayyed thinks it does. He combines management knowledge with careful project management and principled economic thinking.

Economic thinking utilizes foundational principles to integrate knowledge management and business task management for all kinds of projects. IT projects provide a representative example.

The economic principles for IT project management include:

  • Ends-Means analysis.
  • Marginal benefit — marginal cost analysis
  • The law of returns — savings, investment and future benefit flows
  • Combinatorial productivity
  • Knowledge-based processes
  • Incentives alignment
  • Trust and reliability as institutional enablers

Ends-Means Thinking

Your ends are business ends: to generate new economic value by serving customers with continuously improving and continuously innovative services. Technology can be a means to achieve those ends, if properly harnessed. It can help with value delivery, it can help lower costs, eliminate waste and increase efficiency.

The key to economic thinking is to keep business ends and customer experience primary, and manage technology to serve those ends. Don’t let technology be the business’s master.

Marginal Benefits and Marginal Costs, and The Law Of Returns

The so-called Law of Diminishing Returns theorizes that, after a firm or a production process has attained some optimal level of performance, each further addition of an input will tend to achieve a smaller and smaller output increase. This can be true of technology projects and repays careful benefit-cost analysis. You probably already have considerable technology resources in your business, including access to services via the internet. Examine each additional tech input, at the margin, and identify just how much additional business benefit you can anticipate as a result of the new input. A rigorous approach to this analysis can be helpful in ordering priorities and understanding trade-offs.

Combinatorial Productivity

Economic thinking recognizes capital as a flexible, continuously changing combination of elements. Some combinations are capable of generating higher productivity than its individual components can achieve separately. This combinatorial productivity may not be intuitively predictable in advance, and so experimental combinations are appropriate, e.g. of old and new systems.

Don’t be afraid of mistakes in your experiments. If you don’t encounter some surprises, you are probably not experimenting enough. Don’t permit technology vendors to constrain your experimentation. Proprietary systems can force you to work within their boundaries; there are plenty of routes to new productivity outside these boundaries. Yousif mentioned his experiments with Raspberry Pi — the single-board computer used by many for experimental applications such as robotics — as an example.

Knowledge and People As Critical Assets.

Economic processes are knowledge processes: bringing the right knowledge to bear at the appropriate step. Much of the knowledge is tacit – in individuals’ heads, based on their own individual experience. Consequently, assembling and preserving the right team with the right knowledge — both inside and outside the firm — is the primary task in IT project management.

How much tech knowledge do you need? It’s certainly not the most important knowledge for your project. That position is reserved for business knowledge: your project team, in order to attain the business ends you have established for the initiative, must have complete understanding of your firm’s business mission and purpose, and of the customer service context of the current project.

If you are clear in communicating business ends both internally and externally, you will be prized customer for IT suppliers, since this clarity is often lacking and can lead to confusion and conflict.

You will always be able to assemble the appropriate tech knowledge when your business aims are clearly stated.

Choose the outside vendors who best demonstrate their ability to understand and absorb your business ends, in combination with mastery of the specific technology means you require.

Incentives Alignment and Scope Specificity

Economic thinking pays special attention to the roles of multiple players in a system and the incentives under which each player is operating. For example, a systems integrator salesperson or project manager may be incentivized by his or her company to sell more units, or more customization that requires more installation hours now and more upgrade complexity in the future.

Your internal project management includes the alignment of roles and incentives to guard against this kind of conflict. Best to have your own internal project manager.

A big part of the internal project manager’s role is to think through the project scope in great detail, to give the business ends clear dominance over all other ends, to be as specific as possible on the technology means, and to guard against mission creep and the opportunistic exercise of power by IT managers internally or IT vendors externally who might use their technical knowledge to force choices that are inappropriate to business ends.

Big data analytics projects and A.I. projects can be examples of inappropriate technology choices. Big data projects that include extensive data gathering (e.g. through sensors or via cameras for visual data) can promise new insights through analysis of the newly acquired datasets, but a careful analysis of the potential value facilitation of the output might tell a manager that the marginal benefit is inadequate. Always ask whether the project facilitates new economic value for customers or in the firm’s capacity to serve customers. Make sure the incentives to install new technology are truly business-aligned and not simply to be modern or up-to-date, and staying close to the technological edge.

Trust, Reliability and Institutional Guardrails

All economic systems are collaborative networks of individuals, strategies and artifacts. Economists examine systems not only for efficiency but also for integrity, which often comes via institutional factors such as trust between people, and reliability of input performance from people and groups. Without these institutional factors, collaboration can become impeded and frictions can arise, slowing down projects or even rendering them unsuccessful. Great project managers check for these intangibles as well as for the robustness of the technology.

Technology Combined with Economic Thinking Can Open Up New Business Horizons

Some of these economic factors sound restrictive but they’re not. They help guide you to efficient and effective choices by thinking through resource allocations, trade-offs, system optimality and the long term consequences of invisibles such as incentive alignment.

Technology is capable of changing the economics of the firm. For example, it can change the constraints of size and resource availability via new connections to a vast array of external resources that were not previously accessible and that can boost your firm’s effective scale. Yousif pointed to applications such as Upwork to add global specialized talent at variable cost, and also made reference to his collection of previously unavailable commodity supply data that was once shielded but now is made available by technology and can provide early warning signals about market price movements, making his firm better informed that it was before, and therefore better placed to serve customers.

Use technology economically to expand your capabilities so that your marginal benefits exceed your marginal costs in reaching expanded and elevated business ends.

Additional Resources

A Guide To The Project Management Body Of Knowledge (May 2021):

“Economic Thinking About IT Projects” (PDF):

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