Does Your Project Have a Pulse?



By Lon Roberts, Ph.D.

Principal Partner
Roberts & Roberts Associates

Texas, USA


Are your projects vibrant and alive—a breeding ground for innovation and creative thinking? Or, are they better described as zombie projects—brain-dead creatures that plod along but are devoid of life and vitality? And more to the point, does it really matter one way or another, assuming the job gets done? The author of this paper defends the position that creativity and innovation are essential in contemporary projects, despite the fact that they create special challenges for project leaders—especially those who take comfort in routines and highly-scripted plans. Distilling lessons learned from his research, the author offers a set of principles for seeding creativity and innovation by creating a project environment that fosters a healthy curiosity on the part of individuals and project teams. The paper ends with a valedictory challenge to project leaders to become curiosity-curators for their projects.

Few would argue with the assertion that a healthy curiosity is a good thing, but not everyone agrees on what constitutes a healthy curiosity. As a case in point, consider an experiment that a young man who would later become one of the history’s greatest scientists and mathematicians conducted on himself.

When he was a student at Cambridge University in the 1660s, Isaac Newton was curious about the nature of light and color. While some of his contemporaries speculated that color is an inherent property of the light itself, there were others who argued that the perception of color is due to the optical characteristics of the eye. To satisfy his curiosity—in other words, to bridge the gap between what he knew and didn’t know—Newton used himself as a guinea pig. Newton took a narrow, pointed object called a “bodkin” and inserted it beneath his lower eyelid and under his eye in order to test how changing the pressure on the back of his eye (with the aid of the bodkin) would affect his perception of color. The following illustration is an excerpt taken from one of Newton’s notebooks. It documents how he carried out this rather risky and cringe-inducing experiment.

Though it’s questionable whether or not the outcome of this experiment succeeded in answering the original question to young Newton’s satisfaction, it’s clear that he was willing to take greater personal risks than most of us would engage in to satisfy his curiosity. Newton’s curiosity was intense, but in this case, not so healthy.

The Color of Wonder: Perceptual Curiosity

The innate urge to fill the gap between what we know and don’t know is called perceptual curiosity, since it often involves observation or other forms of sensual perception. Perceptual curiosity was the force that compelled Newton to conduct his risky eye experiment—to act on the urge of his curiosity to bridge the gap between what he knew and didn’t know about the optics of light and color—to experience, with his own senses, how manipulating the pressure on his eyeball with the bodkin affected his personal perception of light and color.

Perceptual curiosity is what compels us to seek novelty and also explore outliers. Often these outliers go unnoticed, or they’re simply written off because they are outside the norm. But, to a scientist, an analyst, a problem solver, or a project leader who understands the importance of paying attention to anomalies, outliers are the source of considerable curiosity. In the words of the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, “The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting.” And when the “thing that doesn’t fit” captures our attention, curiosity kicks in by asking—explicitly or implicitly—the “Why?” or “Why Not? questions that impel us to seek answers…


To read entire paper, click here


Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally presented at the 12th Annual UT Dallas Project Management Symposium in May 2018.  It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

How to cite this paper: Roberts, L. (2018). Does Your Project Have a Pulse? Paper presented at the 12th Annual UT Dallas Project Management Symposium, Richardson, Texas, USA in May 2018; published in the PM World Journal, Vol. VII, Issue VIII – August. Available online at https://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/pmwj73-Aug2018-Roberts-does-your-project-have-a-pulse-utd-paper.pdf


About the Author

Dr. Lon Roberts

Texas, USA





Dr. Lon Roberts is a principal partner with Roberts & Roberts Associates, where he is a speaker, seminar leader, and management consultant. He has held positions with E-Systems/Raytheon, Alliance for Higher Education, and Texas State Technical College. His areas of expertise include data analytics, measurement systems, project leadership, and process reengineering.

Lon has authored numerous articles and four books, and he has been a frequent contributor to Defense AT&L magazine. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and B.S. and M.S. degrees from Oklahoma State University.

Lon’s interest in the phenomenon we call “curiosity” stems from his work as a science educator/entertainer. He routinely conducts science-magic shows for schools, libraries, scouting events, private parties, and corporate events, such as awards ceremonies and retreats.

Lon Roberts’ Contact Information

[email protected]  | www.R2assoc.com

[email protected]  | www.sciencefunguy.com