The eXtreme Project Management™ Series: No. 11
Based on the forthcoming book:

eXtreme Project Management:
Using Leadership, Principles & Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility

by Doug DeCarlo, Principal
The Doug DeCarlo Group

For the eXtreme Project Manager, it's the ConteXt. Not the Content

Principles and Practices for Influencing Others

(This article has been adapted from the forthcoming book, eXtreme Project Management: Using Leadership, Principles & Tools to Deliver Value in the Face Of Volatility, to be published by Jossey-Bass, October 2004)


The difference between the word conteXt and content is just one letter of the alphabet. Yet, for the eXtreme project manager, it can spell the difference between success or failure.

In their book, Surfacing the Edge of Chaos, Richard Pascale et al. tell the story of a couple who inherited a cottage from their aunt. In redecorating one room in particular, they went through several gyrations changing the upholstery and color scheme to get the room to their liking, but to no avail. Then one day the light bulb in the ceiling fixture burned out. When they went to change it they noticed that the bulb's color was yellow. They finally got it. The yellow bulb was casting an unpleasant hue over the entire room and altering the color scheme and the effect they were trying to achieve. No matter what they would do to manipulate the color scheme, it would always be influenced by the color of the light bulb.

In Pascale's story the context -- the yellow hue -- had more to do with a satisfactory result than did the content -- the fabric and wall coloring -- of the room. In fact, manipulating the room's content wasted time and money and got the young couple nowhere.

In project management terms, success requires the integration of the business and political aspects with the technical aspects of the venture. The technical aspects deal with the project's content, namely the product or service to be produced. The business and political side has to do with the context -- the surrounding environment -- within which the product or service is being developed. Context management boils down to managing the expectations of stakeholders. In other words, relationship management.

Think Of Your Project As a Flower Garden
Another way of making this crucial distinction between context and content is to think of your project as a garden, an ecosystem made up of flowers, soil and weather conditions. In this metaphor the flower is the content. The soil as well as the surrounding weather conditions constitute the context. Both the soil and weather are critical for the survival, growth and quality of the flowers. If the soil is toxic, and/or the weather is foul, your flowers won't live no matter how much they are pruned or watered. This helps explain why palm trees won't grow on the streets of Alaska.

A project's context is made up of the internal and external environment that surrounds the project. The external environment is comprised of the business conditions, namely, the competition, government regulations, third party suppliers, etc. The internal environment consists of the thoughts, emotions and interactions that surround and consequently shape the project content (the thing being developed). This takes the form of stakeholder expectations and opinions including the politics of the project and the level of cooperation and support that's given to the project. The internal context also includes the organization's systems and policies.

All of the internal variables interact to form an overall attitude about the project. If the prevailing attitude (context) about the project becomes negative, any resultant flower will be perceived as a weed to be avoided or destroyed, with all the blame going to the farmer (also known as - you guessed it - the project manager.)

A major challenge to succeeding on extreme projects is that they live under turbulent conditions. Not only is the weather unpredictable and changeable, it's usually bad. Competition is disrupting plans, the political climate can shift, new government regulations impact your project, technology can change midstream, outside vendors can leave you stranded. The role of the eXtreme project manager is foster a positive attitude (conducive internal context) and to enable the project to continually adapt to volatile external and as well as internal circumstances.

With the possible exception of the Irish wake, the energy of a typical funeral is noticeably different than that of a bunch of people celebrating their team's superbowl victory. The energy is palpable. So too, a project's energy field is also palpable. Commitment energy is palpable. Everyone feels something about the project. You can put this to the test right now. Think of one or more current projects you are familiar with. Imagine the project were a person. How would you describe that person's energy field or mood? Upbeat, depressed? Positive, negative? Confident, fearful? Happy, doom and gloom? Vibrant, bogged down. So, is your project in a good mood or in a bad mood?

A positive energy field enables the project to move ahead with speed and confidence and creates a success-minded mentality. Perceived success begets success. Perceived failure begets failure. This is important because the perception of success or failure infuses the project's energy with that quality, just like the intake of nutrients and light determine the health of the plant.

Managing the project's energy field is accomplished by managing the project context.

And this means that �

The job of the project manager is to manage the project's energy field by facilitating and managing the flow of emotions, thoughts and interactions in a way that produces valued outcomes.

A key word in my definition of project manager is "facilitate." Facilitate, according to the dictionary, means to make it easier to get things done. With respect to project stakeholders, the role of the project manager is to make it easier for them to resolve their own conflicts regarding scope, quality, and other business considerations. In this sense the project manager is a catalyst in making things happen but doesn't get burned up in the process.

The context of an extreme project has significantly more to do with project success than does the content, just like the soil and weather conditions have much more to do with the success of the plant than does the pruning. eXtreme projects rarely fail due to a lack of technical know-how in being able produce a project deliverable. More often than not, we find a way to do it. Rather, extreme projects fail because the context defeats the ability to execute the technical know-how in a way that the deliverable solves the intended problem. And this is why extreme projects require a dedicated project manager and a separate manager responsible for product or technical development. The development or technical manager is the subject matter expert.

The role of the eXtreme project manager is to till the soil. The role of the technical or development manager is to attend to the plant. This represents a major difference between the extreme project manager and the traditional project manager whose emphasis is heavily oriented toward pruning plants rather than managing the farm to ensure good conditions for growth.

Your job as extreme project manager is to detoxify the soil. Let the technical manager cultivate the plant.

A major reason extreme project managers fail is that they neglect to manage the project context, namely by responding to the weather conditions surrounding the development effort: stakeholder emotions, thoughts and interactions. In the energy field model, the role of the technical or development manager is akin to that of a horticulturist. Her job is to transform stakeholder thoughts (ideas, needs, objectives) into physical form.

Even if you are expert in the product or service being developed, you need to get off the case and ensure this function is placed in the hands of another expert. Your job is to manage the energy called "commitment," and not meddle in the content. You need just enough knowledge to understand the technical issues and be conversant about the technology.

The Context / Content Distinction

The Domains of the Project Manager and the Development Manager
Context: Managing the flow of thoughts (decisions, facts, information, ideas, etc.) emotions and interactions. Shared: A common understanding of the collective vision for the project. Content: Transforming stakeholder needs into a valued product or service.
Project Manager's focus Components held in common Technical or Development Manager's focus
Project Management Objectives, deliverables, business outcome Technical or Product management (Engineering, Research, Technical side)
Overall project leadership Project mission statement Technical team leadership
Relationship management Requirements  
Emotional well-being of the project Project boundaries Design
Stakeholders and Politics Critical Success Factors Specifications
Dependent Projects Requirements Development/ testing
Business Value, Benefits and Costs Win Conditions Prototypes, working models
Risks   Documents
Status reporting    

In practice a project manager who also happens to be a subject matter expert for the product being developed, may be called upon for technical advice. That advice is best given as input for the technical team to consider and decide upon. When there is a change in scope and the business owner adds another requirement, the project manager's job is to look at the impact on cost/benefits, dependent projects, risks and timeline. The technical manager focuses on design, development and other engineering and research implications. Both, of course, would work in concert, but each within his and her expertise.

Enlightened pharmaceutical companies, software development and new product development organizations have made the context/content distinction and employ a separate project manager and development manager.

If yours is an extreme project that is organizationally complex (many stakeholders with conflicting requirements, opinions and expectations), this would be a good time to take inventory of how you spend your time. In my experience, if you are working both sides of street -- managing stakeholders as well as product development -- chances are you are too diluted to succeed. You will likely deliver a product or service that is not embraced by the target audience and/or fails to deliver the expected business value. You need to convince your project sponsor to have you serve in one capacity or the other.

If after you make the case, you are still in a position of having to be both context and content manager, the next best thing is to segment your time. Say, work mornings as technical manager and devote afternoons to relationship management. And if this is not feasible, then you are heading a deathmarch venture. Consider resigning the project.

eXtremely yours,


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