On the inherent ambiguities of managing projects
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:
- You have to make an important project-related decision, but don’t have enough information to make it.
- Your team is overworked and your manager has already turned down a request for more people.
- 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.