Thursday, October 8, 2015

10:13 AM

A new paper illustrates how managing project secrets can sometimes be a high-stakes game of corporate cat and mouse.

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Vera Tilson
Project managers keep a tight rein on the scope of an effort and the time and budget allotted to complete it. But another element, the use of secrecy and deception, is also a tool whose importance for the success of a project can’t be overlooked, says Simon professor Vera Tilson. She and coauthors Edieal Pinker and Joseph Szmerekovsky are the first to explore deception and secrecy as project management tools in a competitive environment.

The paper, “Managing a Secret Project,” builds a model of the optimal way to schedule a project’s steps to stay ahead of the competition. Traditional methodology helps managers schedule steps to finish the project as quickly as possible; the “secret project” model shows a better way. In a secret project, Tilson says, the objective of the manager is to expose real intentions as late in the game as possible, giving a competitor less time to react.

In addition to scheduling tasks differently, managers can budget for decoy activities that keep the competition guessing. For example, when British supermarket chain Tesco was thinking in 2005 about opening a store in California, it set up a small test store disguised as a movie set to assess the Los Angeles market. Apple Computer routinely files patents for technology unrelated to its next product introduction, pointing adversaries in the wrong direction. “We abstract how much you can hide and what it will cost you,” Tilson says. “The rival would need time to set up a response, and the longer the project manager has the tactical advantage, the better off he or she is,” the authors note.

Originating in Pinker’s research on terrorism and security, the paper’s model can offer one insight into the recent nuclear deal with Iran. In 2003, Iranian engineers reportedly were told to stop developing a nuclear warhead. Iran also indicated it was not taking other crucial steps for developing military nuclear capabilities. At the same time, however, the country’s efforts to enrich uranium, the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon, continued full speed. If Iran were developing a nuclear weapon, it bought valuable time for the project to proceed by giving adversarial governments pause, the authors write.

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