Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for November 2012

Zen and the art of project communication

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Introduction

There is a curious disconnect between the theory and practice of project management: the former is epitomized by various BOKs and methodologies which lay out a rational framework for managing projects whereas the latter is  the reality that project managers experience when they are immersed in the day-to-day activities associated with managing projects.

Although most organisations would claim that they have implemented a project management methodology of some sort, the actual day to day work of a project often proceeds with a logic of its own. Moreover, the requirements imposed by methodologies may even obstruct the progress of a project:  it is not uncommon to hear of situations in which project managers and teams had to bypass their organisation’s processes in order to get things done.

The reason for this is not hard to find: projects – and indeed, organisations –  are often faced with unexpected and unforeseen events. Typically, responses to such events have to be  improvised, not planned.  Although planners are expected to factor in uncertainty,  what is not known cannot be foreseen. As we all know from experience, the future always manages to escape our carefully laid plans.

In this post I argue that the traditional (rational) mode of project communication – involving artifacts such as business cases, plans and status reports – is lacking  when  one has to deal with uncertainty.  Instead of communication based on rationality (or arguments based on facts), an alternate mode that focuses on rhetoric (arguments based on values and emotions) may sometimes be more fruitful.

[Aside: in a strict sense of the term, rationality is a form of rhetoric, but in this article I’ll consider the latter term as applying to values and emotions.]

Shortcomings of “rational” project communication

Traditional project communication tends to be more about conveying information  rather than encouraging  debate.  Specifically, project-related communications, be they verbal or written, emphasise facts and numbers rather than emotions and feelings.  For example, a status report may convey the status of the project in terms of milestones achieved or figures such as percent complete. Moreover, even though a project manager may highlight qualitative information such as risks, he or she will do so in a way that assures the recipients that the assessments have been made in an objective manner.  In short, project communications reflect the scientific-rational basis of project management itself.

In view of the above, it is no surprise that project communications tend to assume that the future can be predicted on the basis of clear cause-effect relationships.  For example, project plans describe future deliverables that will be the outcome of certain planned actions.  Indeed, that’s the whole rationale behind implementing project management processes – they are supposed to ensure that, if implemented right, the objectives will be achieved  “on budget and on time”  as envisaged.

That’s great in theory, but theory is good only for the classroom. As most of us know from experience, reality is messy:   stuff happens; things turn unexpected in a thousand and one different ways. In short, our projects escape our plans.

How do people deal with this messiness?    Closer home:  what do you do when your project takes an unexpected turn south?

In such situations it is not unusual to feel that the seemingly rational edifice on which your project is based is not so sound after all.  You may therefore be forced to examine the assumptions that you have taken for granted.  Consequently, you may ask yourself questions such as:

Is my approach sound?

Am I doing the project right?

Or, even more basic: am I doing the right project?

It is difficult to answer questions with any certainty, particularly when the future events are yet to unfold.  You need to make a decision, but to do so you need to get everyone on the same page. This is difficult to do because when facts are few, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what the “true” problem is and how it should be tackled. Some may even believe there is no problem at all.

A role for rhetoric

As we all know from experience, most people are attached to their opinions. It is going to take more than a logical argument to convince them to change their minds. Moreover, in situations of uncertainty and ambiguity, facts and numbers are scarce, and always prone to being contested by some recalcitrant stakeholders. So one has to work with opinions that are based on values and emotions rather than objective facts.

When one is attempting to convince people about something that depends on values rather than facts, the words and language constructs one uses are all important. That’s where rhetoric or the “art of debate” comes into its own. According to Wikipedia:

Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.

Of course, glib talkers (expert rhetoricians!) are often wrong, so it would be unwise accept rhetoric uncritically.  One has to subject rhetorical arguments to scrutiny just as one would with any argument. The value of rhetoric, however, is that it gets people thinking along lines that they may not have considered otherwise.

In the present day, rhetoric has acquired a negative connotation because it is often used for dubious ends – for example, demagogues use it to whip up emotions and (some) politicians to vilify others. But conversely it might also motivate people to come up with creative ways out of difficult or even impossible situations. Some of the most inspiring and world-changing speeches in history are masterpieces of rhetoric (Martin Luther King’s, I have a dream being one that comes to mind)

…and so, to conclude

Most of us don’t want to change the world, we just want to get on with our jobs.  My aim in this essay was to suggest the mode of communication that we have been programmed to use may not always be appropriate There is an alternative  that may sometimes be better.  Rhetoric isn’t just for lawyers and politicians; it has its place in the day to day work of managing projects. The  “complete” project manager– if such a person exists –knows that there is no contradiction in this and, more important, tacitly recognizes when a particular mode of communication is appropriate.

…and in case you are wondering what on earth this has to do with Zen philosophy, the answer is:  quite possibly, nothing at all.

Written by K

November 20, 2012 at 8:29 pm

The cloud and the grass – a business fable

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Once upon a time there was an expansive lawn that was of the lushest shade of green you can possibly imagine. It was so because it was tended by gardeners who took pride in the health and appearance of their lawn: they mowed it when it needed mowing and watered it when it needed watering. Moreover, they did so because they loved their work and got immense satisfaction out of seeing the beautiful results of their handiwork.

So spectacular was the lawn that people would come from far and wide to admire the green expanse – children would frolic on it  while their parents watched indulgently as they munched their way through the huge hampers they brought to picnic on. The children would tire themselves out playing while their elders did the same eating. They would all then lay themselves out on the velvety verdant-ness and drift away into dreamland, aided by the perfect afternoon sunshine.

As they drifted away into sweet slumber, many of them would think, “If there is a paradise, this must be pretty darn close to it…”

One day the owners of the lawn, the folks who paid the gardeners a not insubstantial sum per month were looking at their monthly accounts. They realized that their financial standing was not as healthy as it was prior to the GFC (Yes alas, even owners of paradise have been affected by the mess caused by the erstwhile Masters of the Universe). Their financial advisers suggested that they outsource the tending of the lawn to professionals who were experts at that  sort of thing.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” said the Adviser in Chief, “We know some consultants who are experts at this sort of thing.”

The Adviser-in-Chief was as good as his word – the next day, the owners got a visit from a guy in a suit who, for reasons of privacy, we shall call The Consultant.

The Consultant told the owners  not to worry, he had just the solution to their problem. “Forget these expensive and slow gardeners,” he said, “what you need is The Cloud.”

Now anyone who is anyone at all has heard of The Cloud  – and so had the owners. “The Cloud!” they exclaimed, “Yes, we have heard of The Cloud, but pray, tell us: how will it solve our problem?”

“It’s simple,” said the The Consultant, “The Cloud will water the lawn and thus tend to its wellbeing. You don’t need gardeners, The Cloud will look after your investment. But what’s really interesting for you is that The Cloud will cost you a fraction of what the gardeners cost.” Then, pulling out a slickly produced dossier, he continued, “Here’s an analysis done by an Independent Analyst.”

(As a pointless aside we note that the Independent Consultant’s name happened to rhyme with word “Gardener”).

The owners read the analysis and were duly impressed. They decided that this Cloud business was a great idea. It  would help them cut costs and maintain (hey, even improve!) the quality of their lawn. It sounded like a winning proposition.

There was a downsize though (editor’s note: I think he means downside):

The owners soon realized they would have to let the gardeners go. This would not be easy as the gardeners had been in their employ for many years. However, the owners prided themselves on being pragmatists – they had, after all, overseen a successful venture for many years. Now, to maintain it, they would have to change with the times. This was, after all, The Age of The Cloud.

Many Difficult Conversations ensued and eventually the gardeners were shown the gate (paradise has no doors, I’m told, but it does have a gate…of a somewhat pearly appearance.)

The Cloud thus took over the tending of the lawn. And as they say, all was well in paradise: the lawns were regularly watered and the grass grew…

…and it grew, and it grew. It grew to such an extent that visitors no longer found the lush greenness as welcoming. From kids perspective, it hard to frolic in grass that’s to tall and from a grown-up’s view, it is impossible to picnic in.

The owners complained to The Consultant. The Consultant brought along a legal expert who knew all about the services the owners had bought and (more importantly) those they had not. The expert affirmed that the package the owners had bought did not include any mowing services…only watering was included. The owners had not read the fine print.

(One can’t blame them – tell me, is it easy to read last two words of the previous line.)

Understandably, many acrimonious arguments ensued – words were said that shouldn’t have been said, things were thrown that shouldn’t have been thrown (although, at people who ought to have a few things thrown at them).

The owners thought about the good old days when the lawn was being looked after by people who had a stake in it, and who cared about it. The Cloud was an entity that was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Why would it care for a piddly patch of green?

The owners realized that the survival of the lawn was at stake. If they wanted the lawn to return to it original state of perfection, they would have to swallow their pride and admit they had made a mistake.

The question was: would they?

…and there I have to leave the story because I know not what they did.

There is a moral to this tale, however, and it is that clouds don’t give a damn about grass.

Written by K

November 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm

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