Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Zen and the art of project communication

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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

2 Responses

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  1. Well said, again. As always :-). Can you imagine if rhetoric was actually back in vogue? Along with critical thinking? That it could replace glibness? Be still my heart. I confess that as a project and program manager and business unit leader I have thought a lot about the nature of all this…

    I think that Project Management, with the ‘academicization’ and ‘credentialization’ of it has morphed into a cult that for sake of simplicity I’ll call the Cult of the Silver Bullet using Templates and Checklists and has added a silo or a level within the business world, rather than eliminating one and has set up another case of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’.

    Facts and stats are changeable, representing a snapshot in time, and can be subject to misuse. All too often decisions come down to individual values and beliefs, regardless of the facts, the stats, the reality. Bringing decision makers along to see what you as project manager see and know is part art and part science. In the absence of facts and stats there’s a greater need for those important neglected soft skills: political acumen, great people skills, exceptional communication skills (not the glib kind), together with problem solving, flexibility, honesty, and a good dash of common sense and strategic thinking — and there aren’t templates for those.

    Having said that, Zen is a good training ground for the mind to muddle through and not get caught up in the insanity that is magnified through people and projects in organizations. Zen mind can assist with cultivating the ability to be dispassionately compassionate which is helpful when you realize that a very high percentage of projects go off the rails in one way or another because the paper process of project management is not the actualized practice of project management because lo and behold, people — individuals and groups — are doing the translation of paper to process and there are so many hidden internal mazes to navigate. Maybe project management works best for warfare, and moving logistics and special events, and hard tangible things like putting up buildings. In the invisible world of knowledge and technology with the invisible tentacles deeply connected to people and personality and changing business environments, we need something a little more effective and less divisive.

    I think it was Jung who said something to the effect (when talking about science) that understanding a species doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the individual. Seems to me that it’s always important to know the individuals and groups you’re working with and to know them as individuals and a group.



    November 21, 2012 at 11:01 pm

  2. Hi FS,

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    I like the way you put it – “In the absence of facts and stats there’s a greater need for those important neglected soft skills: political acumen, great people skills, exceptional communication skills (not the glib kind), together with problem solving, flexibility, honesty, and a good dash of common sense and strategic thinking — and there aren’t templates for those..”

    Indeed, on most projects – particularly in the early stages – there is a dearth of facts of stats, but lots of opinions. Navigating these opinions can be a treacherous business. Among other things, it is never easy to empathise with an opposing point of view; yet one often has to do it. My instinctive reaction when confronted with such a situation is to go into defensive/offensive mode, wherein I try to convince the other person of my point of view instead of really trying to understand what they are saying. Over the years I’ve become more conscious of this, and have (I hope!) tempered it somewhat. It is, as you put it, a matter of knowing the individual to know the group, and templates and checklists are worse than useless for this.

    The important thing for project (and other) managers to understand it that debating diverse opinions openly can lead to more enduring decisions because they have commitment from all concerned. Of course, it can be a major challenge to create the conditions for this to happen in a typical, modern-day corporate environment. Nevertheless, it is still something worth striving for, even if only within one’s limited sphere of influence.

    I have to admit my knowledge of Zen philosophy is minimal, but from the little I know, it seemed appropriate to allude to it obliquely as a means to highlight the paradox at the heart of project and other management communication.

    Thanks again, as always, for your thoughtful comments.





    November 22, 2012 at 8:45 pm

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