Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

What project management means to me – a metalogue

with 21 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]

—-

Postscript

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

Acknowledgements

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

21 Responses

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  1. Kailash, your use of metaphors originating from other authors and books is outstanding. I wish I had half the capacity you have to refer so eloquently to things I’ve read in the past. Many important lessons to be learned from this – what did you call it? – metalogue. Intellectualism at its best.

    Like

    Shim Marom

    September 25, 2013 at 11:12 am

    • Hi Shim,

      Thank you! I’m honoured and humbled by your very kind words about my post.

      The project management community owes you a super-sized thanks for coming up with the brilliant idea of a flashblog. It’s generated a terrific buzz within the PM community; I’m having a great time going through some very high quality writing.

      …now go enjoy a beer or three, you’ve certainly earned it!

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      September 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      • Here, here! A toast to Shim.

        Strange, he’s the same one who recommended your book to me.

        Better watch out, he may become an influencer.

        Like

        TobyElwin

        September 26, 2013 at 6:20 pm

        • …Indeed, I think he’s one already. Thanks for supporting the book!

          Regards,

          Kailash.

          Like

          K

          September 26, 2013 at 9:11 pm

  2. Kailash

    What must come first in managing a project successfully? Is it ‘tools and techniques’ or a working space where there are able people, collaborative organisation, leadership and resolve? It is of course the latter. This expressed in another way, is the extent to which conditions exist conducive to venture and progress, including the capacity for adaptation.

    Does your blog indicate this as the priority? I’m not sure. There are few excuses for project practitioner who when assessing their regime’s capability, restrict themselves to an examination of the tool set. I argue that a project, at its core, is a social venture. In managing a project, there are options to be considered and decisions to be made and I know that you would agree that there are tools that can assist in this activity but none that can do them.

    I celebrate your blog’s value to the project management community.

    Martin Price

    Like

    Martin Price

    September 25, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I absolutely agree that “the right space” is more important than tools or techniques – indeed, that is what “conditions over causes” is all about. Any tools / techniques, including decision-making tools such as IBIS, will work only if the conditions are right. The question then arises as to how one can create the right conditions. Paul and I have discussed one (rather specialised) way to do this in our book and in this paper, and he explores it further in his recent series on Sharepoint maturity. There is a fair bit of research on this, some of it dating back to the 1940s and 50s, but it is scattered all over the place and is not all consistent. We’re thinking of piecing the main parts together into a coherent narrative…but it remains to be seen if (and how) that will work out.

      Thanks again for your comment and kind remarks!

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      September 25, 2013 at 9:27 pm

  3. Really enjoyed reading the post:

    > the space between theory and reality;
    > systems theory;
    > open dialogue (incidentally, even reading your book, I wondered if you have come across Appreciative Inquiry); and
    > a bit of Conway’s Law

    Thanks for the sources too.

    Now we need to get this turned into a movie, the scene? some French cafe?

    Like

    TobyElwin

    September 26, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    • Hi Toby,

      Thanks for reading and for the feedback, much appreciated!

      That’s a very astute observation you’ve made re Conway’s Law – organisations replicate their communication structures, not just in systems but in everything they do…including project governance structures.

      Personally, I’d like for the movie to be set in one of those meeting rooms in which standards committees do their thing, but I think we may have to settle for the cafe🙂

      Thanks again for stopping by and for commenting.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      September 26, 2013 at 8:10 pm

  4. Hi Kailash.
    Fantastic, I really like your post. It’s great. It remembered me of Douglas R. Hofstadter. He wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach, an eternal golden braid. That book talks about symbolic logics, artificial intelligence and metamathematics. There he also made use of dialogues between Achilles and Tortoise.
    During training classes I explain my students the seventh principle of PRINCE2 which is about tailoring by showing them the official PRINCE2 book. If you do exactly what is written in this book you are NOT running this project as a PRINCE2 project. Your story gives me much more flesh for this discussion. thanks!

    Like

    hennyportman

    September 28, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    • Hi Henny,

      Thank you very much for reading and taking the time to comment! It’s good to know that the dialogue format works; I was not at all sure that it would.

      I think you and I have very much the same approach to standards – the key to successful implementation is (often extensive) tailoring; so much so that the customised methodology becomes more or less unique to the implementing organisation.

      Thanks again for reading and for your appreciative remarks.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      September 28, 2013 at 2:59 pm

  5. Kailash, an insightful post and containing some great advice. I think it will take some time to change “The Book” as it has become so institutionalised and self serving. Why is it after 15+ years of “The Book” that a significant number of projects are failing? (In fact, more projects fail than reported because project success is not measured in business outcomes). Maybe we are “looking in the wrong place”. Peter

    Like

    trewinpa

    September 30, 2013 at 9:08 am

  6. Kailish, …and a metalogue is a great way to convey the message. Peter

    Like

    trewinpa

    September 30, 2013 at 9:15 am

  7. Kailash, sorry I spelt your name incorrectly in my previous comment. Peter

    Like

    trewinpa

    September 30, 2013 at 9:17 am

    • Hi Peter,

      No worries at all; thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Indeed, as I’ve written in my post on the systemic nature of project failure, I do believe we are looking in the wrong place. You are also right in noting that project failure is probably under-reported for reasons for political reasons.

      I wasn’t sure at all about whether the metalogue format would work for this post, so your feedback is hugely appreciated!

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      September 30, 2013 at 4:54 pm

  8. […] 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.  […]

    Like

  9. Wabi Sabi project management of transience and imperfection. I have often thought about this, the use of Bateson to describe the narrative is a great tool. You have somehow sidestepped the dialectic arguments and uncovered the asymmetric nature that resounds with how I see Project Management.

    Like

    Robert Higgins

    October 30, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for reading and for introducing me to this wonderful term, Wabi Sabi, which is such an apt description of the world of project management.

      I’d been thinking about experimenting with the metalogue format ever since I first read Bateson some years ago. The flashblog topic presented a perfect opportunity to try it.

      I wanted to steer clear of the usual hard/soft skills debate that these kinds of discussions usually end up in. To be sure, such a debate is exactly what a real conversation between people on different sides of the chasm would end up becoming…but writing has its privileges, one can direct the conversation where one wants it to go🙂

      Thanks again for reading and for your insightful comment.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      October 30, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      • It is interesting that you used Bateson. As an anthropologist he was cross disciplinary, in the sense of Hard Science and Soft Science. Have you read Bredillets article “Blowing Hot and Cold on Project Mangement”? It is academic, and your metalogue is covering some of the topics, I am just wondering if it has influenced this article.

        I mashed it up “Blowing Hot and Cold” with some Anthropological research A “Critical Review of Epistemological and Methodological issues in cross cultural research” by Yaganeh in a Prezi, and added some of my own notes. http://goo.gl/3YDFgB.

        Like

        Robert

        November 1, 2013 at 9:51 am

        • Hi Robert,

          Thanks for pointing out Bredillet’s paper – I wasn’t aware of it and it definitely seems worth a read. I had a look at your presentation too: a great summary of the differences in the two worldviews, put together in an interesting way.

          We should chat sometime…

          Regards,

          Kailash.

          Like

          K

          November 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm

  10. […] break the rules. That kind of stuff can never be captured in the processes, manuals or procedures. One of your pieces highlights this beautifully – it’s one of the parables you’ve written I think, where an […]

    Like


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