Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Project Management and the Prisoner's Dilemma

This is a copy of the blog post I did for the Silicon Valley "Art of Project Management" Blog.

prisonersdilemmaHave you ever been on a project or program where all the PMs knew that their project was in trouble, but they were waiting for someone else to admit their problems first?  It happens often enough, as soon as one PM admits that they have a problem, everyone else discovers problems too.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

From the PM's position, it's a version of the Prisoner's Dilemma.  In the Prisoner's Dilemma, two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full twenty-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only one-year in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation.

How should the prisoners act?

The Project Manager's Dilemma

So you're managing a project, doing your best, but you made a mistake and need more time with a critical resource.  The problem is, there is another project that need this same person.  

You are putting together your status report.  You know the economy's bad and the rumors are all over.  The company's going to have cuts and people are going to get laid off.  

  • If you confess your need for the resource and the other PM doesn't confess, your project will get the resource and safely go on. 
  • If you confess your need and other PM also confesses their need, there's going to be an evaluation and both projects will lose people and be put at risk.
  • If you don't confess and the other PM does, he will get the resource and succeed and you and your team will be fired.
  • If neither of you confess and wrangles on quietly for the resource, both projects will probably be late, but they will succeed.  There might be some people cut, but both PMs will keep their job.

What are you going to do?


Craig Brown said...

Another metaphor - the boiling frog

Andrew Meyer said...


surely there are similarities, but the frog isn't comparing himself to another frog. Would "playing chicken", where two kids are driving towards each other each with one tire on the yellow line, trying to see whose nerve will last longer and allow them to stay on the yellow line?

Well, okay, maybe it's not THAT bad.

Craig Brown said...

Maybe not where YOU work ?)

The Dan Ward said...

I wrote an article on this topic a while back (cleverly titled The Program Manager's Dilemma). The context for mine was contracts between the government and industry, but I think the core issues of trust are still relevant.

My conclusion: the optimal strategy is "Always Trust." You can read the whole thing here: