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In Defense of Project Instability

Doubtlessly, many of us have experienced project(s) that seem to have been the direct opposite of the prescribed organizational and/or well-heeded PMBoK methodology we have been duly trained in.  When describing the project environment of a  relatively recent experience (aka project assignment) I was involved in, it would be more accurate to suggest the project footings were as steady as typing on a tablet while riding a unicycle.  In many respects, designing/architecting (a sort of planning) gave way immediately to execution, and the operational steady state was an interesting afterthought.  The focus of the article  (setting aside the issues of management decision making, project happenstance, and project processes) is to underscore the great lesson learned of how brilliantly people can excel and collaborate in an extraordinary fashion in the absence of commonly accepted documentation and governance practices.  The rarity of this project team interaction points out, for all its process faults, project instability can lead to successful projects.
Adaptability is one of the Emotional Intelligence (EI) competencies that Cherniss and Goldman (2001) define as being “open to new information and can let go of old assumptions and to adapt how they operate. Emotional resilience allows an individual to remain comfortable with the anxiety that often accompaniesuncertainty and to think ‘‘out of the box,” displaying on-the-job creativity and applying new ideas to achieve results” .   In this project’s circumstance, Adaptability wasn’t as much a corporate decree or desire as it was an implicit understanding we could fulfill our individualistic intrinsic drives of meaningful work, being empowered to make meaningful  decisions, and individually contributing  to form the project team’s collaborative identity. 

The de-emphasizing of the familiar project process moorings seemed to be softened by accelerating levels of trustworthiness within the project team’s every day interaction.   As it turned out, the many very high project risks may have been surmounted by the project management’s innovation of the project’s team Adaptability.  Business thinker and strategist Hamel (2012) points out “[t]o thrive in turbulent times, organizations must become a bit more disorganized and unmanaged – less structured, less hierarchical, and less routinized.”. 

Once the obvious became apparent, creativity at macro and micro levels, seemed to flow from everyone’s direction thereafter.  Although each of the project team members had their subject matter skills, their formal roles were often brushed away as their keen willingness for their personal and the project team’s success became an over-arching tangible outcome.  For example, a system architect would labour for hours, late at night on a client’s crashed laptop, or skilled desktop technicians found themselves newly immersed in a learning curve of an Audio/Visual communication system.  In short, other members of the project team filled in the critical delivery gaps without hesitation.

Our project governance was matrix-based with no noticeable hierarchical construct.  Project information flow was totally transparent, detailed as necessary, and critical communications were largely informal.  That is not to suggest formal communications were absent or neglected; far from it.  It is only to suggest, decision points were distributed quickly and trusted as fact within the project team’s social cohesiveness.

Hamel provides “A Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work” that may give us the understanding of what may have taken place during the project’s seemingly unstructured success.  Hamel (2012), on a twist of Maslow’s hierarchy, identifies six levels that may have a profound impact on individuals and team performance:

  • Level 1: Obedience (required for large-scale organization growth)
  • Level 2: Diligence (the individual’s work is the individual taking personal responsibility for their efforts)
  • Level 3: Expertise (the individual and collective skills and functional competences standards)
  • Level 4: Initiative (individual and/or collective drive is initiated to engage in an opportunity)
  • Level 5: Creativity (occurs when unconventional insights and pattern are brought into play challenging orthodox workflows)
  • Level 6: Passion (where the distinction between vocation and avocation become inseparable)

Hamel (2012) makes the astute observation that “obedience, diligence, and competence are becoming global commodities.  You can buy these human capabilities just about anywhere in the world, and in places like India and China, they can be bought for next to nothing.”    The real turning point in a project team’s acceleration occurs when the three higher orders of human capabilities are ignited.  The paradox of engaging the higher levels of human capabilities in a project environment is the diminished emphasis on functional restrictions, greater acceptance for mistakes, and a strong social adherence to each other’s success to occur.

A considerable amount of literature has been generated describing how societies and emerging technologies have shaped our social and economic development.  This revolution has transformed our agrarian society into an industrial era and we are currently undergoing a digital/technological transformation.  In short, Moore’s Law, when applied to a social and behavioural setting seems to be a powerful force creating great upheaval in our daily lives. 

In parallel, much of the world has evolved from physical toil to analytical work effort and is migrating swiftly toward a demand of social intelligence competencies.  According to Florida (2010), the highest pay gap is found with those professions and people who have developed the social intelligence vs. those where physical or analytical abilities have traditionally dominated.

Project Management finds itself straddling the world of a greater process definition and a profession that is capable of providing a catalyst for our collective creativity and project innovation to flourish.   Project Managers should consider the following few steps as we enter the creative age:

  1. As a project begins to mature, pay less attention to task completion and focus more on the social behaviour of the project team.
  2. Apply tools and techniques (organizationally legitimatized or otherwise) that assist the project team to accelerate their collaborative learning and thereby allowing the team’s Emotional and Social Intelligence to escalate.
  3. Tolerate a wider range of mistakes and solutions.  The individual(s) and the project team will find its own path to success.

The avoidance of over-committing to traditional process is a march towards entropy’s dungeon for yourself, our profession, and your organization.

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Cherniss, C., & Goleman, D. (2001). Emotionally Intelligent Workplace: How to Select For, Measure, and Improve Emotional Intelligence in Individuals, Groups, and Organizations. (p.98). 35.  New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Florida, R. (2010).  The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.  Toronto, ON:  Random House Canada.

Hamel, G. (2012).  What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation. (pp. 98 and 141).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass Publishing.