Traditional Project Management vs. Extreme Project Management
An Apples and Cumquats Comparison

By Doug DeCarlo

As with anything new, there are a lot of mythconceptions out there as to just what the new thing is. Extreme project management is no exception. Some people "get it" while others mythconstrue it.

In certain situations, extreme project management (XPM) will increase the likelihood of success, where if you were to apply traditional project management (TPM) you would increase the probability of a project failure. The reverse is true: Applying XPM to a traditional (waterfall-like) project can create chaos.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Visual Definition

A traditional project looks something like this.

An extreme project looks more like a despondent strand of cooked spaghetti.

Extreme project defined

If you are a word person (rather than a visual), here's my favorite all time definition of an extreme project, the one that I happened to come up with myself.

"An extreme project is a complex, self-correcting venture in search of a desired result."

The main difference between a traditional project and an extreme project has to do with the level of predictability surrounding the undertaking. Extreme projects live in turbulent environments: high speed, high change and high uncertainty. In other words, requirements are constantly changing throughout the project in response to environmental factors that include competition, technology, shifts in customer needs, regulatory requirements and/or economic conditions.

For an extreme project, since change is constant (and stability is the exception), yesterday's plan is about as current as last month's newspaper. This suggests that we apply a different approach to planning and managing the project, one that is lite, adaptable, or as some pundits like to say, "agile".

But, applying an "agile" project methodology alone will not work. Project Sponsors and managers don't often realize this, which is probably why they got promoted. They think you can take heavier, traditional methodologies - such as those found in the Capabilities Maturity Model by the Software Engineering Institute and also in PMI®'s PMBOK -- and simply put these on a diet. This is big mythtake.

It's jazz, not classical music

Musically speaking, extreme projects are like jazz. The players are given a lot of room to improvise inside of an agreed-upon framework. Although improvisational, jazz is not ad hoc, which is another myth about extreme projects. Traditional projects, on the other hand, are more like classical music: well orchestrated, directed and you stick to the score or the conductor will give you the evil eye.

If you scale down a classical composition by leaving out the percussion section and violins, it's still classical music because the mindset and rigor remain in tact (just on a smaller scale).

Mindset plus method

Fundamental to success on an extreme project is to apply both the appropriate method and the appropriate mindset.

Mindset has to do with one's own mental and emotional programming. I refer to "mindset" as the default settings on your internal computer. These default settings determine how we perceive the world, and as a result, how we act in our worklife and in our personal life.

Self-diagnostic Tool

Take this quick assessment. Which is your predominant view of the world? This is another way of asking you to take a look at your internal programming: "Which of the two mindsets - Newtonian or Quantum -- represents the default setting for your brain?

Newtonian MindsetQuantum Mindset
Stability is the normChaos is the norm
The world is linear and predictableUncertainty reigns
It's controllableMurphy's law rules
Minimize changeWelcome change
Increase the feeling of security by adding rigor to the processIncrease the feeling of security by relaxing controls

As a project manager who is running an extreme project, or a customer, sponsor or senior manager of an extreme project, which of the two hats do you typically wear? Be honest with yourself.

Newtonian HatQuantum Hat
Deliver on the planned resultDiscover the desired result
Use the plan to drive resultsUse results to drive planning
Aim, Aim, fireFire. Then, redirect the bullet
Establish stronger procedures and policiesAgree on guidelines, principles and values
Keep tight control on the processKeep the process loose
Correct to the baselineCorrect to what's possible
Be a task masterBe a relationship manager
Get it right the first timeGet it right the last time

If your own mental default settings are at odds with the world around you, you are most likely suffering from Newtonian Neurosis. Newtonian Neurosis is the ego-based compulsive need to bludgeon the world to conform to your project plan. The fact that the project plan was fiction in the first place does not seem to deter the Newtonian Neurotic who finds him or herself in the unenviable position of trying to retrofit reality to agree with fiction.

Of the two, the quantum mindset and hat represent the more compatible temperament and management style for running an extreme project.

What can you do if you are handed an extreme project?

If you have the right temperament - mindset and management style -- then take it.

If not, here's some advice from a couple of project managers I know.

"Drink heavy and often." Anthony Cavallaro, Sun Microsystems

"Call in sick." Joe Gallagher, Project Office Group

eXtremely yours,


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