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Am I Being Managed by the Project or Do I Manage the Project?
By Peter Rappange

or ……. the love for rules

In the past I used to work on a regular basis with some project members who jokingly said to me every time we started another project:

‘Let’s have a schedule because the sooner we have a schedule the faster we can get behind’.

The cynics in the team of course immediately took this statement to their advantage to advocate that we did not need all these rules and structure. For me, however, it was a constant reminder that methods are needed but have an inherent risk. Before you know it you are busy trying to satisfy the system by following a pre-defined course, filling in your reports etc., sending them to the correct people defined by the system but failing to observe the signals that the ecosystem in which the project operates is changing. A colleague of mine (Tjibbe vd Zeeuw) shared an interesting article with us about research done at a Dutch university (UvA) around creative thinking in projects. The conclusion of the research is that Project Managers seem to have issues with stimulating complexity and –instead – like to go straight to their goal.

In a way I understand this attempt to reduce complexity in a project to manageable components. Every Project Manager wants to be able to explain to his sponsors in the most simplistic way how he wants to achieve his objective. Let me put it to you differently.

What would appeal to you more as customer? A new Plane described to you as: a marvel of the newest technology with the latest safety standards and comfort …………….. or the same plane described to you as: the first attempt of radical new thinking in airplane design coupled to never before tried manufacturing technology, constructed out of 200.000 parts all purchased at the lowest possible cost from the cheapest supplier and assembled at the cheapest price………………….

Both are probably true but the first looks far more appealing to me than the second. That one being probably more close to the truth where it daunts on us how complex the concept of designing and building a plane is.

Therefore, my claim that yes I agree that Project Managers perhaps do have a tendency of trying to simplify complexity, but not only because they can’t handle it, but their surrounding often demands it to help make difficult choices.

Simplified complexity or complex simplicity. Which one do you prefer?

So let me for a brief moment pay tribute to my profession and try to simplify my challenges as a Project Manager. If I do this than I could sum up my world as follows.

  • Project results need simplicity and a way of helping to achieve this objective is applying project standards and standardized ways of working.
  • People love complexity; it provides them the space to do their own thing. Because projects are the result of interaction of people, complexity gets thus injected in projects.

  • Organizations demand both complexity to deal with the world around them and simplicity to chop up the complexity in manageable pieces and ensure success.

This is the challenge: you want simplicity to be successful but the need to complexity to grasp all possible options. As Project Manager you need to understand and deal with this. But there is a pitfall… just because you are in charge of a project is no guarantee you can therefore deal successfully with the above. It requires true leadership to cope with complexity by trying to make complex things look simple, so others can understand and act upon it accordingly.

A recent blog written by Jan Dirk Hogendoorn from finext reinforces this believe by stating that just because you lead the project does not mean you are the born leader. Flexibility is a necessity to be successful. There is one relief though… We –Project Managers- are not alone. This also applies for most leaders in organizations, thus making projects no different from day to day operations.

There is no one size fits all

Many see the answer to simplified complexity by introducing Project management frameworks such as Prince2® or PMBok® . It helps the Project Manager to put in place a set of common processes that in a structured manner explain what needs to be done. In most organizations I know this is the first step to maturing the project management discipline. Relentless effort is put in place to train staff in the use of these methodologies and apply them consistently.

In recent dealings with a Dutch government organization I have seen this phenomena as well. Looking closer we see that by trying to simplify the complexity of project work they started to build a complex set of ‘simple rules’ which no one understands anymore.

At the end they run the risk that people simply apply a tool or template because the methods dictates it, without understanding (or worse caring) what good it can do. So the solution is not to swamp the organization with tools and templates but to teach people how to best apply a method or a set of tools in such a way it works in their advantage.

So why is it that frameworks alone don’t do the trick. We all know that structure is good for a project. It provides a framework people can relate to. Nobody working in a project will argue that fact. But frameworks have also the risk of stifling creativity and making projects weak in their response to deal with change. So what makes the difference? For me it has to do with leadership. Good Project leaders have natural leadership and can provide direction and focus. They will not simply follow protocol but use the framework in their advantage, allow step-outs to obtain flexibility in the decision making process and create focus in the team to ensure objectives are realized. This you cannot learn from methods or textbooks. It comes with the person.

Does that mean I am not a fan of methods. The answer is no. I do believe in the use of methods and tools as a way to create a common language and help simplify project outputs by becoming predictable in the quality of the work. But standards and tools can never do away with complexity of the environments in which project operate. They are nothing else than a guide for the Project Manager to try and create some structure in the complexity he is surrounded with. The key to success is how to apply them and deal with the unexpected. That requires a combination of experience and leadership by knowing what to do, when to do it and who is best equipped to do it.

If you are able to make those choices well then you truly manage the project and are not being managed by the project.

Peter Rappange is responsible for Portfolio & Programme management in a small enterprise firm – Qhuba – . He is interested in everything to do with improving organizations’ capabilities to deliver projects. You can read more from Peter on his blog.

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