Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for January 2014

On the inherent ambiguities of managing projects

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Much of mainstream project management is technique-based – i.e.  it is based on  processes that are aimed at achieving well-defined ends. Indeed, the best-known guide in the PM world, the PMBOK, is structured as a collection of processes and associated  “tools and techniques” that are categorised into various “knowledge areas.”

Yet, as experienced project managers know, there is more to project management than processes and techniques: success often depends on a project manager’s ability to figure out what to do in unique situations.  Dealing with such situations is more an art rather than science. This process (if one can call it that) is difficult to formalize and even harder to teach. As Donald  Schon wrote in a paper on the crisis of professional knowledge :

…the artistic processes by which practitioners sometimes make sense of unique cases, and the art they sometimes bring to everyday practice, do not meet the prevailing criteria of rigorous practice. Often, when a competent practitioner recognizes in a maze of symptoms the pattern of a disease, constructs a basis for coherent design in the peculiarities of a building site, or discerns an understandable structure in a jumble of materials, he does something for which he cannot give a complete or even a reasonably accurate description. Practitioners make judgments of quality for which they cannot state adequate criteria, display skills for which they cannot describe procedures or rules.

Unfortunately this kind of ambiguity is given virtually no consideration in standard courses on project management. Instead, like most technically-oriented professions such as engineering,  project management treats problems as being well-defined and amenable to standard techniques and solutions. Yet, as Schon tells us:

…the most urgent and intractable issues of professional practice are those of problem-finding. “Our interest”, as one participant put it, “is not only how to pour concrete for the highway, but what highway to build? When it comes to designing a ship, the question we have to ask is, which ship makes sense in terms of the problems of transportation?

Indeed, the difficulty in messy project management scenarios often lies in figuring out what to do  rather than how to do it.  Consider the following situations:

  1. You have to make an important project-related decision, but don’t have enough information to make it.
  2. Your team is overworked and your manager has already turned down a request for more people.
  3. A key consultant on your project has resigned.

Each of the above is a not-uncommon scenario in the world of projects. The problem in each of these cases lies in  figuring out what to  do given  the unique context of the project. Mainstream project management offers little advice on how to deal with such situations, but their ubiquity suggests that they are worthy of attention.

In reality, most project managers deal with such situations using a mix of common sense, experience and instinct, together with a deep appreciation of the specifics of the environment (i.e. the context).  Often times their actions may be in complete contradiction to textbook techniques.  For example, in the first case described above, the rational thing to do is to gather more data before making a decision. However, when faced with such a situation,  a project manager might make a snap decision based on his or her knowledge of the politics of the situation.  Often times  the project manager will not be able to adequately explain the rationale for the decision beyond knowing that “it felt like the right thing to do.” It is more  an improvisation than a plan.

Schon used the term reflection-in-action to describe how practitioners deal with such situations, and used the following example to illustrate how it works in practice:

Recently, for example, I built a wooden gate. The gate was made of wooden pickets and strapping. I had made a drawing of it, and figured out the dimensions I wanted, but I had not reckoned with the problem of keeping the structure square. I noticed, as I began to nail the strapping to the pickets that the whole thing wobbled. I knew that when I nailed in a diagonal piece, the structure would become rigid. But how would I be sure that, at that moment, the structure would be square? I stopped to think. There came to mind a vague memory about diagonals-that in a square, the diagonals are equal. I took a yard stick, intending to measure the diagonals, but I found it difficult to make these measurements without disturbing the structure. It occurred to me to use a piece of string. Then it became apparent that I needed precise locations from which to measure the diagonal from corner to corner. After several frustrating trials, I decided to locate the center point at each of the corners (by crossing diagonals at each corner), hammered in a nail at each of the four center points, and used the nails as anchors for the measurement string. It took several moments to figure out how to adjust the structure so as to correct the errors I found by measuring, and when I had the diagonal equal, I nailed in the piece of strapping that made the structure rigid…

Such encounters with improvisation are often followed by a retrospective analysis of why the actions taken worked (or didn’t). Schoen called this latter process reflection-on-action.  I think it isn’t a stretch to say that project managers hone their craft through reflection in and on ambiguous situations. This knowledge cannot be easily codified into techniques or practices but is worthy of study in its own right. To this end, Schon advocated an epistemology of (artistic) practice – a study of what such knowledge is and how it is acquired. In his words:

…the study of professional artistry is of critical importance. We should be turning the puzzle of professional knowledge on its head, not seeking only to build up a science applicable to practice but also to reflect on the reflection-in-action already embedded in competent practice. We should be exploring, for example, how the on-the-spot experimentation carried out by practicing architects, physicians, engineers and managers is like, and unlike, the controlled experimentation of laboratory scientists. We should be analyzing the ways in which skilled practitioners build up repertoires of exemplars, images and strategies of description in terms of which they learn to see novel, one-of-a-kind phenomena. We should be attentive to differences in the framing of problematic situations and to the rare episodes of frame-reflective discourse in which practitioners sometimes coordinate and transform their conflicting ways of making sense of confusing predicaments. We should investigate the conventions and notations through which practitioners create virtual worlds-as diverse as sketch-pads, simulations, role-plays and rehearsals-in which they are able to slow down the pace of action, go back and try again, and reduce the cost and risk of experimentation. In such explorations as these, grounded in collaborative reflection on everyday artistry, we will be pursuing the description of a new epistemology of practice.

It isn’t hard to see that similar considerations hold for project management and related disciplines.

In closing, project management as laid out in books and BOKs does not equip a project manager to deal with ambiguity.  As a start towards redressing this, formal frameworks need to acknowledge the limitations of the techniques and procedures they espouse.  Although there is no simple, one-size-fits-all way to deal with ambiguity in projects,  lumping it into a bucket called “risk” (or worse, pretending it does not exist)  is not the answer.

Written by K

January 30, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Objectivity and the ethical dimension of organisational decision-making

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When making decisions, some people follow a structured process that involves gathering data, identifying options and analysing them to arrive at a decision. Others prefer an approach in which they seek to understand the diversity of perspectives on the issue and then attempt to synthesise a decision based on their understanding. To be sure these are stereotypes and, like all stereotypes, are somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, most decision-makers in organisations fall into one of these categories, at least as far as their preferred decision-making mode is concerned.  Of course, people may change from one mode to another, depending on the situation. For example, a person who is predominantly an objective decision maker in his or her professional life  might not be so objective when it comes to making personal decisions.

The differences between the two approaches roughly mirrors the divide between those who believe in an objective reality and those who believe that reality, or at least our perception of it, is a subjective matter.  This is akin to the difference between CP Snow’s Two Cultures: the scientists and the artists.  At the risk of making a gross generalisation, those who have a scientific or technical background tend to fall into the first category whereas those who lean towards the arts or humanities tend to fall into the other. Like all generalisations this one is, again, not strictly correct, but I think it is fair to say that a person’s training does have an influence on what they deem as the right way to make decisions.

The physicist and polymath Heinz von Foerster  summed this up nicely when he noted that the difference between the two types of decision-makers is akin to the differences between discoverers and inventors.  The objective decision-maker (the discoverer) attempts to discover the objectively correct decision based on what he or she believes to be true. On the other hand, the subjective decision-maker (the inventor) constructs or creates the decision based on facts and opinion (or even emotion) rather than facts alone.

The conventional view of decision making in organisations – that decisions should be made on the basis of facts – does not recognize this difference.  To be sure, matters that can be decided based on facts should be made on the basis of facts.  For example, a decision regarding the purchase of equipment can (often) be made based on predetermined criteria.The problem, however, is that most important decisions in organisations do not fall into this category – they have wicked elements that cannot be resolved by facts because the “facts” themselves are ambiguous. Unfortunately, decision-makers often do not understand the difference between the two types of decision problems.  A common symptom of this lack of understanding is that when confronted with a wicked decision problem, many decision-makers feel compelled to clothe their reasoning and choices in a garb of (false) objectivity.

The above is not news to observers and scholars of organisational life – see this post, for example. However, a not-so-well-appreciated dimension to the objective/subjective debate on decision-making is that wicked decision problems invariably have an ethical dimension. I elaborate on this briefly below.

In a paper on ethics and cybernetics, von Foerster noted that the objective approach to decision making is but a means of avoiding responsibility. In his words:

…objectivity requires that the properties of an observer be left out of any descriptions of his (sic) observations. With the essence of observing (namely the processes of cognition) having been removed, the observer is reduced to a copying machine with the notion of responsibility successfully juggled away.

Objectivity…and other devices [such as rules and processes] are all derivations of a choice between a pair of in-principle undecidable questions [See Note 1] which are:

“Am I apart from the universe?”

or

“Am I a part of the universe?”

Although von Foerster may be accused overblown rhetoric in the quote, he raises a critical question that we all ought to ask ourselves when confronted with an undecidable issue:

When making this decision, am I going to avoid involvement (and responsibility) by hiding behind rules or processes, or am I going to take full responsibility for it regardless of the outcome?

An honest answer will reveal that such decisions are invariably made on ethical grounds rather than objective ones. Indeed, the decisions we make in our professional lives tell us more about ourselves than we might be willing to admit.


[Note 1] 

An undecidable question is one that cannot be decided on logical grounds alone – a wicked problem by another name. See my post on wickedness, undecidability and the metaphysics of organizational decision making for more on this point.


Written by K

January 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm

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