Article Overview

In project management, many decisions are made even though for some of them, there is an absence of complete information. How do you make the right decision? The experts, Jon M Quigley and  Steve Lauck are exploring this topic in the article that follows.

Table of Contents

So Many Possibilities

In project management, we make decisions. Sometimes, we make those decisions in the absence of full information. Perhaps we do not have sufficient time to experiment with the possibilities due to market or customer pressures.  That does not mean there is no time to explore.  

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. ~ Mark Twain

From experience, time pressures frequently impact the project.  Early in the project, we are looking for strategies and tactics that we will employ to ensure success.  This is not valid only for project management but in many other areas, for example, engineering.  

Unintended consequences happen, but many happen because of failure to think through adequately.  ~ Jon M Quigley

We often lament the consequences of our actions, “who could have predicted this outcome” from our actions.  Sometimes this is true, from experience most of the time it is because we have spent little time exploring the consequences before acting.  

What is a Thought Experiment?

Albert Einstein demonstrated the power of thought experiments.  He used these to explore and gain an understanding of the phenomena at hand.  We provide Albert Einstein’s train thought experiment.

Imagine you're standing on a train while your friend is standing outside the train, watching it pass by. If lightning struck on both ends of the train, your friend would see both bolts of lightning strike at the same time.

But on the train, you are closer to the bolt of lightning that the train is moving toward. So you see this lightning first because the light has a shorter distance to travel.

This thought experiment showed that time moves differently for someone moving than for someone standing still, cementing Einstein's belief that time and space are relative and simultaneity doesn't exist. This is a cornerstone in Einstein's special theory of relativity.1

What will happen, if we don’t pay for our car insurance?  What happens if we have an accident, perhaps a fatal accident?  Can you game out in your mind, how this situation can end?  Okay, this is a

A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation in which a hypothesis, theory, or principle is laid out to think through its consequences.2  

"A thought experiment is a device with which one performs an intentional, structured process of intellectual deliberation to speculate, within a specifiable problem domain, about potential consequents (or antecedents) for a designated antecedent (or consequent)" (Yeates, 2004, p. 150).3

Using Thought Experiments

Thought experiments, which are well-structured and well-defined hypothetical questions that employ subjunctive reasoning– "What if . . .”
Thought experiments can help identify risks and opportunities and alternative decisions. It is common for a project manager when conducting stakeholder interviews to say, “What if this happens?”

Sometimes a project manager needs a little quiet time to consider consequences and possibilities. Review the Risk log or current project status, start by asking yourself “What if…?” Have a pen and paper handed to capture the ideas that come to mind. Try not to analyze and thoughts until later.

In our experience, doing this sometimes takes us beyond the immediate situation. This is okay because it may validate the experiment.

For example: What if we reduce the schedule?

  • Cutting scope
  • What scope to cut

Will we get client approval?
What about deliverables in the process?

  • Increasing resources
  • More hours
  • Increase costs for more hours
  • More human resources
  • Do we even have the resources?
  • Can we borrow resources?
  • Increasing chance of issues
  • Potential mistakes
  • Overwork

Drawing on one’s project experience will further analyzing captured items. For example, This happened on a previous project and that did not go well. Capture that result as a possible consequence and explore how it might have been handled differently. You might ask yourself:

  • What should I have done?
  • What could I have done?
  • What would I do next time faced with this situation?

Strategies and Tactics

Depending upon the complexity of the project, we may need to explore a multitude of strategies to achieve the project objectives.  This exploration will consider the advantages and assets we have, along with constraints and risks in the endeavor.  Each strategy we explore will have specific associated risks.  It is in our interest to select the best strategy, maximizing the possibility of success, minimizing the risk, and making the most of any assets or opportunities.  This seldom means selecting the first strategy that we uncover or presented.  It is best to explore several strategies. Ideally, we would look at historical records or run experiments to learn which strategy might be the best.  We may not have time to run so many experiments, but we can mentally experiment.


A single point of view for anything complicated or complex has limits.  Can an individual can have enough specific experiences that would make solo exploration productive?
We can start the exploration as individuals, however, cognitive biases and missing information and experiences will limit just how far we can drive these mental exercises.  Our personal experiences and metrics can help this exploration but ultimately, we should have others review our line of thinking as a critique due to the aforementioned limiting factors.

Employ your team members or other stakeholders to review your line of thinking. Review the thought experience with one’s boss may not turn out well. After all, the boss wants a result and wants to know what actions you are taking. But, be prepared when discussing with your boss how you got the decision to take a given action. They usually want to know your thought process that resulted in your conclusion.

System Development

In our automotive product development experience, we will spend significant time critiquing the design, very early.  For example, I cannot count the amount of time we are standing around a whiteboard drawing a graphical representation of the system on the board.  We will then walk through the things that can go wrong, and consequences on the outcomes should that thing go wrong.  This is in the category of thought experiment also.  This mental “what if” and exploration of the depending consequences.  These mental walk-throughs allow us to explore failures early, even before the ability to simulate the system or developing prototype parts.


In our experience, unintended consequences abound.  People are quick to reply when these consequences happen, who could have predicted this result?  Also in our experience, there was little consideration upfront, few or no thought experiments playing through the options we have available to ascertain the best approach to the objective at hand.
We can save ourselves rework, the painful experiences by thinking through our course of action.  Not all things can be known.  That should not dissuade us from at least thinking through the consequences of this line of thinking.  If we are uncertain about the results, we think will happen, we can devise experiments or tests to either refute or confirm our thinking.