Is There a Madness to Your Method?

By Doug DeCarlo

There are coaches who spend 18 hours a day planning the perfect game and then lose because the football isn't round and they can't control the bounce.
- Bud Grant

From one extreme to another
While having lunch in the serene and sylvan setting of the Sterling Farms Golf and Country Club in Stamford, Connecticut, my stomach started to knot up. My chicken Caesar salad ended up mostly untouched. It wasn't the creamy dressing that was getting to me. It was the scenario being described by Tammy my luncheon guest. Tammy (not her real name) was and still is the head of software application development for a high-flying and very visible dot.com company. We were talking about project management when I had asked her to tell me about the major challenges they faced in running projects in a dot.com environment. She described a "typical" project environment, one that would make chaos seem like a snooze in the shade on a quiet beach.

The order of the day: unbridled change
Marketing, sales, finance, application development, customer support, network services, data base management, senior management and eight outside vendors were all interacting with one another, mostly in an ad hoc way. On top of that, the technologies they were working with were also in a state of flux. Moreover, this dot.com wasn't the only game on the net. So on top of it all, Tammy's application development group had to react to what the competition was up to. Change was frequent and relentless. Timeframes and budget didn't mean anything. And management wanted accurate forecasts. The impact of these dynamics made for a stress-filled workplace and an unfulfilled workforce.

I was sure that all this frustration had to overflow into everyone's family life as well. A toxic scenario. It was ruining my lunch and I didn't even work there.

From country club to cafeteria
Six months later I again had lunch with Tammy. This time there was no time to go enjoy a sylvan setting. So we ate in the employee cafeteria. Since the day of our first lunch together, the company had gone public and there was heightened pressure for accountability and predictability. To help get things under control and to establish some project management standards, a new software tool had been brought in, along with a time reporting system. Tammy related that the training on the software tool was thorough, and that the vendor provided a support person who had been on site for the last three months. An experienced project manager was also recruited to head the project office and to establish best practices.

From Linear Lunacy to Newtonian Neurosis
Yet, this was not a happy place. There was little dot.calm at this dot.com. In fact, the increased project reporting structure was making things worse. It was alienating people and beginning to cause defections.

Why? The new scheduling tool was based on the old Newtonian mindset and model of the world. The Newtonian model assumes a linear (cause and effect-like) relationship among tasks and events. In project management terms, we recognize this as the waterfall model. That model reflects the time-honored plan and control approach to getting results. The waterfall model is useful for certain kinds of projects, but not well suited for what might be called extreme projects: those characterized by high velocity, high change and high uncertainty. Those nice, rounded, sequentially flowing Gantt charts with eight levels of detail, so easy to produce in Microsoft Project, fail to capture the dynamics of the dot.com world of projects. In the dot.com world the Gantt chart looks more like a spider web, a network with many parts interacting simultaneously.

To apply the linear and classical (plan and control) approach to an extreme project is crazy, which is why Tammy's organization was going nuts. The good news is that organizations that do this, sooner or later recognize that "it's not working." But the bad news is that they typically pick the wrong cure. It usually begins with the observation that not everyone is on board with the newly released software tools and the requisite project methodology. At this point, Newtonian minded management leaps to the conclusion that if everybody were following the same rules, then, we'd finally see consistent and predictable results. Therefore, we need to bring in more discipline. The prevailing management philosophy is: "If it's not working, let's do more of it." I refer to this syndrome as Newtonian neurosis, an advanced form of insecurity that ultimately leads to "totoolitarinanism".

Totoolitarianism: from Russia with love
Totoolitarianism manifests itself in the form of heightened "project governance" through which tools and rules from above are substituted for spontaneity and decision-making from below. This neurosis often manifests it self as the Project Office which exists to set project policy. As Margaret Wheatly, author of Leadership and the New Science, points out, the only difference between the word "policy" and "police" is one letter of the alphabet. People intuitively know this. As a result, the term "project office" which sounds too control-oriented in some circles is being replaced by a more project-friendly name such as Project Support Group, or the innocuous-sounding Project Management Organization (PMO).

eXtreme projects require a new definition and a new mindset I just received an e-mail from a former client that I bumped into a few weeks ago at a workshop on project management. We started to talk about the need for a project management approach that is better suited for "extreme" projects. In remembering our conversation and some material I had sent her, she provides this unsolicited comment about her extreme project environment:

This is the kind of project management that I am engaged in, and the very reason that I have drifted away from PMI, with their base in traditional approaches.
- SMK, Program Director for a drug industry company

SMK is telling us: " If it's not working, don't do it." The classical (read "Newtonian") approach to project management doesn't work in today's extreme project environments. Applying the classical approach in these environments can be hazardous to your project and to your personal health and well-being.

Here's my working definition: An eXtreme project is a complex, self-correcting venture in search of a desirable result.

And here are some things I've learned.

Both classical and extreme project management start out with a goal and a path. But, unlike classical project management, the goal and the path are merely speculation when managing extreme projects. Both are being made up as the project goes along. It's Jazz, not classical music. The prevailing attitude is that we will discover the true goal (desired result) as time goes by. This means lots of trial and error. Tom Peters calls it, "fast failures." In extreme project management, the team and sponsor are wed to what's possible, and not so much to sticking to the original baseline.

Mindset first. Methodology second
Conclusion: what we need is a new methodology. Wrong! The temptation is to jump to the Newtonian conclusion and reason that the solution to managing extreme projects is to invent a different methodology, one that's better suited to chaotic project environments. This is a trap. It's the methodology trap, another form of Linear Lunacy.

I think that we first and foremost need to adopt a new mindset. By a mindset, I mean a set of core beliefs or assumptions about how the world works. I see this "mindset" as being the fertile soil in which any new methodology might take root. Classical project management (CPM) and eXtreme PM (XPM) have their roots in two different mindsets. The methodology is an outgrowth of the mindset just like the plant or the tree is a by-product of its soil: palm trees don't grow in Alaska.

Here are a few contrasting examples of the two mindsets. Which mindset best represents your worldview? And, what is the prevailing mindset of your organization at large?

Newtonian Mindset
Quantum Mindset
Stability is the norm Chaos is the norm
The world is linear and predictable Uncertainty reigns
It's controllable Murphy's law rules
Minimize change Welcome change
Increase the feeling of security by adding rigor Increase the feeling of security by relaxing controls

Different mindsets or worldviews lead to vastly different approaches to managing projects. If you are the PM for an eXtreme project, which hat are you wearing?

Newtonian Hat: Strive for efficiency
Quantum Hat: Strive for effectiveness
Deliver on the planned result Discover the desired result
Planning drives results Results drive planning
Aim, fire Fire; redirect the bullet
Establish procedures and policies Agree on guidelines, principles and values
Control the process Keep flexible and adaptive
Correct to the baseline Correct to what's possible
Be a task master Be a relationship manager
Get it right the first time Get it right the last time

In the world of eXtreme projects, once the Quantum mindset is in place, I see four Critical Success Factors (CSFs) that must be present in order to have an environment that is conducive to successful projects.

  • CSF # 1: Flexible Project Process
  • CSF # 2: Leadership by Commitment
  • CSF # 3: Real Time Communication
  • CSF # 4: Self-Mastery

If any one of these CSFs is systemically (culturally) absent in an organization that is undertaking eXtreme projects, I believe you have the makings of a project wasteland, one that has these hallmarks:

  • low overall success rate on projects
  • drained, stressed and demoralized staff
  • high turnover at all levels in the organization
  • strained personal and family life

In future articles, I will build on each of these CSFs. My hope is that together, interested members of the ProjectConnections community can collectively create a mindset, framework and critical mass that will transform how project management is accomplished in this new, exciting and expanding world of eXtreme projects. And by doing so, we will impact not only the success rate on projects, but more importantly, improve the overall quality of life at work and at home for ourselves and for others. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, this could be our opportunity to make a dent in the universe.

eXtremely yours,


©Copyright 2000-2018 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail info@projectconnections.com
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy