“That’s only 10%…”
One of my mentors who is mentioned in the book I wrote with Kailash (Darryl) is a veteran project manager in the construction and engineering industry. He has been working as a project manager more than 30 years, is a fellow of the Institute of Engineers and marks exams at the local university for those studying a Masters Degree in Project Management. His depth of knowledge and experience is abundantly clear when you start working with him and I have learned more about collaborative project delivery from him than anyone else.
Recently I was talking with him and he said something really interesting. He was telling some stories from the early days of alliancing based project delivery in Australia (alliancing is a highly interesting collaborative project governance approach that we devote a chapter to in our book). He stated that alliancing at its core is the application of good project management practice. Now I know Darryl pretty well and knew what he meant by that, but commented to him that when you say the word “project management practice,” some would associate that statement with (among other things) a well-developed Gantt chart listing activities with names, tasks and times.
His reply was unsurprising: “at best that’s only 1/10th of what project management is really about.”
Clearly Darryl has a much deeper and holistic view of what project management is than many other practitioners I’ve worked with. Darryl argues that those who criticise project management are actually criticising a small subset of the discipline, based on their less than complete view of what the discipline entails. Thus by definition, the remedies they propose are misinformed or solve a problem that has already been solved.
Whether you agree with Darryl or not, there is a pattern here that occurs continually in organisation-land. Fanboys of a particular methodology, framework model or practice (me included) will waste no time dumping on whatever they have grown to dislike and swear that their “new approach” addresses the gaps. Those with a more holistic view like Darryl might argue that crusaders aren’t really inventing anything new and that if a gap exists, it’s a gap in the knowledge of those doing the criticising.
As Ambrose Bierce said, “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of things we don’t know.”
From project management to systems thinking…
Now with that in mind, here’s a little anecdote. A few weeks back I joined a Design Thinking group on LinkedIn. I had read about Design Thinking during its hype phase a couple of years ago and my immediate thought was “Isn’t this just systems thinking reinvented?” You see, I more or less identify myself as a bit of a pragmatic systems thinker, in that I like to broaden a discussion, but I also actually get shit done. So I was curious to understand how design thinkers see themselves as different from systems thinkers.
I followed several threads on the LinkedIn group as the question had been discussed a few times. Unfortunately, no-one could really put their finger on the difference. Eventually I found a recent paper by Pourdehnad, Wexler and Wilson which went into some detail on the two disciplines and offered some distinctions. I won’t bother you with the content, except to say it was a good read, and left me with the following choices about my understanding of systems and design thinking:
- That my understanding of systems thinking is wrong and I am in fact a design thinker after all
- That I am indeed a systems thinker and design thinking is just systems thinking with a pragmatic bent
From systems to #stoos
Like the Snowbird retreat that spawned the agile manifesto, the recent stoos movement has emerged from a group of individuals who came together to discuss problems they perceive in existing management structures and paradigms. Now this would have been an exhilarating and inspiring event to be at – a bunch of diverse people finding emergent new understandings of organisations and how they ought to be run. Much tacit learning would have occurred.
But a problem is that one has to have been there to truly experience it. Any published output from this gathering cannot convey the vibe and learning (the tacit punch) that one would get from experiencing the event in the flesh. This is the effect of codifying knowledge into the written form. Both myself and Kailash were fully cognisant of this when we read the material on the stoos website and knew that for us, some of it would cover old ground. Nevertheless, my instinctive first reaction to what I read was “I bet someone will complain that this is just design thinking reinvented.”
Guess what… a short time later that’s exactly what happened too. Someone tweeted that very assertion! Presumably this opinion was offered by a self-identified design thinker who felt that the stoos crowd was reinventing the wheel that design thinkers had so painstakingly put together. My immediate urge was to be a smartarse and send back a tweet telling this person that design thinking is just pragmatic systems thinking anyway so he was just as guilty as the #stoos crowd. I then realised I might be found guilty of the same thing and someone might inform me of some “deeper knowing” than systems thinking. Nevertheless I couldn’t resist and made a tweet to that effect.
The decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge…
(At this point I discussed this topic with Kailash and have looped him into the conversation)
Both of us see a pattern of a narrow focus or plain misinterpretation of what has come before. As a result, it seems there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel and slap a new label on claiming it to be unique or profound. We wonder therefore, how much of the ideas of new groups or movements are truly new.
Any corpus of knowledge is a bunch of memes – “ideas, behaviours or styles that spread from person to person within a culture.” Indeed, entire disciplines such as project management can be viewed as a bunch of memes that have been codified into a body of knowledge. Some memes are “sticky,” in that they are more readily retained and communicated, while others get left behind. However, stickiness is no guarantee of rightness. Two examples of such memes that we covered in our book are the waterfall methodology and the PERT scheduling technique Though both have murky origins and are of questionable utility, they are considered to be stock standard in the PM world, at least in certain circles. While it would take us too far afield to recount the story here (and we would rather you read our book ) the point is that some techniques are widely taught and used despite being deeply flawed. Clearly the waterfall meme had strong evolutionary characteristics of survival while the story of its rather nuanced beginnings have been lost until recently.
A person indoctrinated in a standard business school curriculum sees real-life situations through the lens of the models (or memes!) he or she is familiar with. To paraphrase a well-known saying – if one is familiar only with a hammer, every problem appears as a nail. Sometime (not often enough!) the wielder of the metaphorical hammer eventually realises that not all problems yield to hammering. In other words, the models they used to inform their actions were incomplete, or even incorrect. They then cast about for something new and thus begin a quest for a new understanding. In the present day world one doesn’t have to search too hard because there are several convenient corpuses of knowledge to choose from. Each supply ready-made models of reality that make more sense than the last and as an added bonus, one can even get a certification to prove that one has studied it.
However, as demonstrated above with the realisation that not all problems yield to hammering, reality can truly be grasped only through experience, not models. It is experience that highlights the difference between the real-world and the simplistic one that is captured in models. Reality consists of complex, messy situations and any attempt to capture reality through concepts and models will always be incomplete. In the light of this it is easy to see why old knowledge is continually rediscovered, albeit in a different form. Since models attempt to grasp the ungraspable, they will all contain many similarities but will also have some differences. The stoos movement, design thinking and systems thinking are rooted in the same reality, so their similarities should not be surprising.
Coming back to Darryl – his view of project management with 30 years experience includes a whole bunch of memes and models, that for whatever reason, tend to be less sticky than the ones we all know so well. Why certain memes are less successful than others in being replicated from person to person is interesting in its own right and has been discussed at length in our book. For now, we’ll just say that those who come up with new labels to reflect their new understandings are paradoxically wise and narrow minded at the same time. They are wise in that they are seeking better models to understand the reality they encounter, but at the same time likely trashing some worthwhile ones too. Reality is multifaceted and cannot be captured in any particular model, so the finders of a new truth should take care that they do not get carried away by their own hyperbole.
Thanks for reading
Paul Culmsee (with Kailash Awati)