Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for September 2013

What project management means to me – a metalogue

with 22 comments

Salviati: Hello Simplicio, I haven’t seen you for a while. Where have you been?

Simplicio: Salviati!  It is good to see you.  I’ve been busy learning about project management.

Salviati: That is good news indeed, Simplicio.  How are you learning? Are you working on a project?

Simplicio: No, of course not; I’m still learning. I don’t think  my boss would let me work on a real project until I’ve completed my certification.

Salviati: Certification? Now I’m really curious.

Simplicio: Oh yes, and as a part of it I’m reading this wonderful book that is the authoritative guide to project management. I’m also attending an  evening discussion group twice a week where I get to  explore the finer details of “The Book”. It’s great! We have some experienced project managers in the group who tell us stories.

Salviati:  That’s good, and I would pay more attention to their stories than the tools and techniques in “The Book”.

Simplicio: Really? Why would I want to listen to a bunch of stories about old projects? Surely it’s the tools and techniques that are more important. Stories are….well, just stories.  Half of them are probably embellished anyway.

Salviati:  May be so, but the fact is, project managers often make sense of their work by constructing stories about it.

Simplicio: What do you mean “make sense of their work?”

Salviati:  Well, despite project managers’ best efforts, things never quite go as planned: team members fall sick or leave the company; vendors do not deliver on time; users change their requirements on a daily basis…I could go on.  When these things happen, project managers need to  understand  what has happened so that they can devise appropriate responses.   They often do this by building narratives of what happened or, in simple terms, by telling stories.

Simplicio: To be perfectly honest I think the real reason things go wrong is that people  do not   follow processes properly. It seems to me that storytelling is just a means to cover up the truth, a rationalisation.

Salviati: Ah, truth. You see, Simplicio, truth in such situations is often a matter of opinion. Different stakeholders will have different views on what happened. Say a vendor is late in delivering something – the customer may see it as gross incompetence whereas the vendor will, no doubt, have a perfectly reasonable explanation. So, whose truth is the truth?  And even if you were able to answer that, does it really matter? As a project manager, you’re on the spot; you have to move ahead despite the setback. The truth doesn’t help you here, and neither does process. In fact trying to get to the truth and insisting on process may only end up exacerbating the problem.

Simplicio: Hmm, OK, you may have a point there, but are you suggesting there is nothing of value in “The Book?” Is it all just impractical theory?

Salviati:  Oh don’t get me wrong, it is necessary to know the stuff in that’s in “The Book”. But it is also important to remember that there is a gap between theory and practice.

Simplicio:  Gap between theory and practice?

Salviati:  Yes there is a significant gap between what is taught in business schools (or written in “The Book”) and the way managers actually do their jobs. The former is called espoused theory and the latter, theory in use (Editor’s note: see this article for more on espoused theory vs theory in use). Espoused theory works in an ideal world where cause-effect relationships are unambiguous, and uncertainty can be predicted and planned for. This is the sort of world that is depicted in those pretty process diagrams that people draw on a whiteboard. In the real world, however, causes aren’t always apparent and best laid plans often go awry. Managers have to deal with this. When doing so, they often improvise on what they have learnt through experience. What books and project theorists tend to overlook is that planning and improvisation are complementary facets of project work. Indeed the most compelling project management stories are about improvisation; about what people did when theory or process was no help at all.

Simplicio:  So you’re saying that theory is incomplete…

Salviati:   Absolutely! Theory cannot teach you what experience does. You see, many project management skills are tacit, they can only be learned by doing. Would you pick up a book about guitar and music theory and expect to play like a virtuoso in an afternoon… or even a month or a year?  .  So it is with project management.   But, look,  tacitness is not the only issue. Another major shortcoming of project management, as it is taught, is that it overlooks the fact that every project is invariably part of a larger system: namely, the hosting organisation and its environment. Understanding this is critical to the success of a project.

Simplicio:  I’m not sure I understand  what you mean by “a larger system”.

Salviati: Consider  the question of project failure. Many experts will tell you that the top causes of project failure are things like “lack of executive support” or “lack of user input” or even “incomplete requirements.” What these experts do not understand is that these are  symptoms rather than causes.  The true causes of failure invariably lie in the hosting organisation, not the project. For example, “lack of user input” often occurs because users typically work on projects in addition to their normal duties. It is but natural that they will therefore view projects as  burdens rather than initiatives that might benefit them in the future. The fault here lies beyond the project. These kinds of issues need to be negotiated through open dialogue between all affected stakeholders rather than via top-down decrees .

Simplicio:  OK, I understand the importance of taking a system-based view, but what is “open dialogue”?

Salviati:   Ever worked for a team or organization where there are some things  that can never be discussed? Ever had bosses who only want to know the good news? Most projects have many different stakeholder groups, each with their own view of the project and motivations. Sponsors, managers, project teams and users – all have their own view on a project’s objectives. As strange as it may sound, these viewpoints are  often divergent, but are never reconciled until its too late. …

Simplicio:  [interrupting] That’s crazy! Why would project managers allow themselves to get into a situation where they are managing  projects in which  stakeholders hold different views on things like scope? That is completely against what “The Book” says! According to it, things such as scope  issues should not be ambiguous at all.

Salviati: Ah, now we get to the heart of the matter! Yes, it is crazy when you think about it, but we are dealing with office hierarchy and politics, as well individual rationality. Many organisations have a blame culture – and as a result, people tend to position themselves for blame avoidance. This creates all sorts of dysfunctional behaviours, and makes it very difficult to discuss things openly. The trick – and why you need to listed to the stories – is to break down these barriers so that a group can engage in open dialogue that will bring such issues out into the open. There are ways to do this, a couple of guys have even written a book on it. (Editor’s note: Perhaps he’s referring to this book?)

Simplicio: OK, I see your point, but what about the unknown unknowns – issues  that no one can foresee at the start.

Salviati:   That’s where trust comes in. The point is, if key stakeholders have a relationship based on trust, they will feel comfortable about informing each other of potential uncertainties as they emerge. They can then work together to address the uncertainty without the usual finger pointing and blame shifting that typically occurs in organisations. They will be no better than anyone else at predicting the future, but they will be able to deal with whatever comes up because they will face it as a group.

Simplicio: Sounds good, but how does one get stakeholders  to trust one another and discuss issues openly?

Salviati:  Well, as I mentioned earlier, much of present-day project management practice operates within a cause and effect paradigm…do this and that will happen. Instead the focus  ought to be on creating the right  conditions or environment in which a group of people can collaborate and work together as a genuine team.   There’s a ton of interesting work on this – some of it dating back to the 1950s

Simplicio: Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this in our discussion group? This is really important!

Salviati: The conditions over causes argument is yet to make an impact on mainstream practice – particularly in project management. Unfortunately,  those who wrote  the “The Book” (and those who update it) seem to  be unaware that conditions are more important than causes. It is a completely different way of looking at projects, so it may take a while for aficionados of “The Book” to make the change. That said, I’m an optimist so I believe that it  will eventually catch on; it is just a matter of time …

[ Salviati’s watch alarm goes off, cutting him off mid-sentence. He  glances at it]

Speaking of time, we’re all prisoners of time, it seems. I’ve got to go; I’m late for a meeting. We’ll continue our conversation later.

Simplicio: Thanks Salviati. I’d very much like that as I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on this.

Salviati (turning to leave): Sure, I’ll be delighted to chat about it. Let’s meet on the weekend. Catch you later.

Simplicio: See you later.

[The two depart, going their separate ways]



metalogue is a real or imaginary conversation whose structure resembles the topic being discussed. This piece is inspired by Gregory Bateson’s metalogues in Part 1 of his book, Steps To an Ecology of Mind.

The characters in the above metalogue are borrowed from Galileo’s  Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems in which the character Salviati is a proponent of the Copernican “heresy” that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe whereas Simplicio favours the Geocentric view proposed by the Greek philosopher Ptolemy.

This post is a part of the first ever  #PMFlashBlog initiative which involves over 70 bloggers from  Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA, all posting a piece on “What Project Means to Me” on their blogs @ 01:00 GMT on 25th September 2013. A complete list of participants can be found here


My thanks go out to Shim Marom for coming up with the wonderful idea of a project management flashblog  and for  the opportunity to participate in it.

I’m indebted to Paul Culmsee  for feedback on a draft version of this post and for countless conversations  over the years on  the philosophical and practical aspects of projects, organisations and systems.   Be sure to check out his blog, in particular his PMFlashBlog post which provides a practical (and very entertaining!) perspective on the “conditions over causes” principle mentioned in this metalogue.

Written by K

September 25, 2013 at 8:00 am

Desperately seeking reason(s): Franklin’s Gambit in organisational decision-making

with 3 comments

In his wonderful book on obliquity, John Kay tells of  a famous letter in which Benjamin Franklin describes a decision-making method. Here is a description of Franklin’s method, excerpted from his letter:

…my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Modern decision making techniques often claim to do better than Franklin because they use quantitative measures to rate decision options However, as I have pointed out in  this post, measures are often misleading. There are those who claim that this can be fixed by “doing it correctly,” but this is a simplistic view for reasons I have discussed at length in this post.  So, despite all the so-called “advances” in decision making, it is still pretty much  as Franklin wrote: “the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities” .

With that for background, I can now get to the main point of this post. The reader may have wondered about my use of the word gambit rather than technique (or any of its synonyms) in the title of this post.   A quick look at this online dictionary tells us that the two words are very different:

Technique (noun): the body of specialized procedures and methods used in any specific field, especially in an area of applied science.

Gambit (noun): a manoeuvre by which one seeks to gain advantage.

Indeed, as Kay mentions in his book, Franklin’s method is often used to justify decisions that are already made – he calls this Franklin’s Gambit.

Think back to some of the recent decisions you have made: did you make the decision first and then find reasons for it or did you weigh up the pros and cons of each option before reaching your decision? If I’m honest, I would have to admit that I have often done the former. This is understandable, even defensible. When we make a decision, we have to make several assumptions regarding the future and how it will unfold. Since this is based on (some times educated) guesswork, it is only natural that we will show a preference for a choice that we are comfortable with.  Once we have settled on an option, we seek reasons that would enable us to justify our decision to to others; we would not want them to think we have made a decision based on gut-feel or personal preferences.

This not necessarily bad thing. When decisions cannot be rated meaningfully, any choice that is justifiable  is a reasonable one….providing one can convince others affected that it is so.  What one should guard against is the mindless use of data and so-called rational methods to back decisions that have no buy in.

Finally, as we all know well from experience, it is never a problem to  convince ourself of the rightness of our decision. In fact, Mr. Franklin, despite his pronouncements on Moral Algebra understood this. For, as he  once wrote:

…so convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.

Indeed, “reasonable” creatures that we are, we will desperately seek reasons for the things we wish to do. The difficulty, as always, lies in convincing other reasonable creatures of our reasonableness.

Written by K

September 12, 2013 at 8:50 pm

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