The Myths That Rule Our Projects

by David Schmaltz

Are your projects high on frustration and low on fulfillment? How you think your projects should work may be the source of your misery. Consider these common myths, then start to debunk them on your projects.

Book Excerpt

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
ISBN 1-57675-253-4
Paperback Original, May 2003

Wicked. If one word echoes through today's workplace, it's wicked. We speak of being blindsided by wicked projects, as if each project somehow had it in for us. We complain of death marches and blame the usual suspects—unreasonable customers, clueless decision-makers, and unwieldy technology.

Yet even a cursory examination into the source of this wickedness leaves us holding more of the blame than we probably think we deserve. Why? Traditional project management focuses more on reinforcing a persistent blindness than on opening our eyes to the myths that rule our projects.

Projects have always been difficult. Building the pyramids was certainly a death-march wicked project. Materials had to be transported across hundreds of miles and shaped by backbreaking toil, using only the most primitive methods. Work was completed by thousands of slaves who labored under the threat of death.

To manage these projects, resistant multitudes had to be directed across decades of time, so the overseers understandably employed methods that any modern manager would consider wicked. Yet the Egyptians succeeded in achieving their goals.

On the other hand, we know that most modern projects don’t achieve their goals. We explain that today's projects are much more complicated than even the most daunting civil engineering projects of the past. But while architecture and engineering have progressed, the methods we employ to manage projects might be mired in ancient myths.



Myths Rule the Methods

Six ancient myths influence projects today. These myths were truths in the ancient world, but today's world is a different place. Are you holding these myths as fact, even while your experience reveals that they are quite obviously false?

If you answer "yes" to even one of the following six questions, ancient myths are influencing your projects. Unless you become aware of these myths, you will unconsciously doom yourself to a future of continuing wickedness. Worse, you will remain unaware that you have the keys to your own liberation.

Why? Because these myths encourage certainties that cause you to continue engaging as if wickedness-inducing methods could somehow create delightful results.

  • Do you focus so intently on your project's objective that you lose your own purpose for engaging?
  • Do you follow plans like a good soldier?
  • Do you consider people to be generally untrustworthy?
  • Do you try to follow "cookbook" recipes?
  • Do you spend a lot of time trying to motivate others?
  • Do you usually organize your projects into tidy bureaucracies?

The Myths Revealed

Myth No. 1: Project workers are slaves.
You would never say that project workers are slaves. But consider how you manage them. Do you populate your projects by assigning roles and responsibilities according to the needs of the project, without considering what's in the assignment for each individual? If so, your methods mirror those of the ancient slave drivers.

Psychologists emphasize the necessity of finding meaning in work. Without it, work becomes self-sacrifice when it could be self-advancement, which benefits the project no less than the individual. If every individual sacrifices himself, who is left to do the work?

Discovering purpose takes little time, but it is the single most cost-effective activity you can initiate on a project. Yet the myth persists whenever you prioritize slave-appropriate planning, scheduling, tracking, controlling, and even "team-building" activities far above this essential foundation.

Myth No. 2: The plan predicts the future.
You can catch yourself engaging in mythical practices whenever you hold predictability as your primary planning goal, promising to deliver your project on time, on budget, and on spec—so often touted as the sole measures of modern project success.

Why do the majority of projects fail to arrive on time, on budget, and on spec? No one can accurately map a territory without surveying it first.

Prediction renders you less able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. It encourages you to “stay the course” rather than take new readings and set another heading. Whenever you plan to predict, you encourage rigidity in the face of uncertain futures, and your rigidity contributes to the wicked results you experience on your projects.

Rather than predicting the future, use your plan to propose it—cataloguing intentions, beliefs, and, above all, your naiveté.

Myth No. 3: Better safe than sorry
The ancient Egyptians had every reason to believe that their pyramid-building slaves were untrustworthy. Given half a chance, any self-respecting slave would escape from his overseers' endless despotism.

So your ancestors adopted a better-safe-than-sorry ethic. Are you continuing this myth today, even though it creates a distrust-based sorry kind of safety?

Whenever you assume the worst of another, human nature will try to satisfy your expectation. Extending trust seems foolhardy in a world filled with potential defectors. But if you aren't prepared to risk trusting to discover another's trustworthiness, you encourage the myth. Doesn't your trust seem like a small price to pay to discover another's trustworthiness?

Myth No. 4: The methods work.
Do you follow a set of cookbook processes while your projects pursue objectives no one has ever achieved before? How could this strategy work?

Myth leads whenever you follow well-worn paths. The past can at best be a point of departure for the future. Your projects can be informed by experience, but can never be properly defined by them.

No one has any experience with what comes next. Insisting that yesterday's recipes should apply to tomorrow's work ignores this simple fact. Mistaking the rear-view mirror for the windshield can't help but create wicked results.

Myth No. 5: The manager motivates.
In ancient times, a whip and the threat of death were ample motivation for any slave. You might have exchanged the whip and threat for the carrot and stick, but are your motivation methods otherwise unchanged?

Do you promise payoffs and threaten termination? Promises and threats can transform even the most liberated individuals into slaves, creating compliance when your projects need performance.

No one is apathetic except in pursuit of someone else's goals. Promises and threats can create obligations, but never the juicy personal experience that accompanies every exceptional contribution. Most give more than required when that juiciness is present.

Attempts to motivate merely get in the way. Each assignment, no matter how difficult, can become the medium for individuals to discover their own personally juicy project within their assignment.

Myth No. 6: Tidiness matters.
Ancient project managers organized their projects into small, independent units of work, focusing each specialist on his tiny piece of the larger whole. Only the overseer understood how the whole would eventually connect.

Do you create tidy, out-of-context-subcontractor organizations? Are the points of convergence, where one subcontractor's piece must connect with another's, places where everyone learns how differently they understood the problem? Do you organize your projects as if you could minutely define the connections, when your results show that you cannot?

This myth persists because organizing any other way would render the project unmanageable by traditional methods. Organizing the project as a community of peers blurs the boundaries that project managers have relied upon through the ages to control their projects.

Even though messy democracies have been shown to be more robust than bureaucratic regimes in the face of uncertainty, do you persist in organizing bureaucracies as if the resulting orderliness could effectively cross-communicate? If so, you might never see what you are losing.

Moving Beyond Your Myths
The ancient Egyptians’ project-management techniques, while unquestionably wicked by today's standards, were well-suited to their environment. You cannot say this about their techniques in today's world.

Do your myths create the wickedness you deplore? Can you break the insane cycle of repeating your dissatisfying past and expecting different results? Better choices—well adapted to the here and now—are available and are yours to embrace.

  • Discover and hold on to your own purpose for engaging. You are never a slave unless you agree to be one.
     
  • Subvert the system so the system can work. You can't predict the future, but you can still create a delightful one.
     
  • Trust others. Your trust is the price of entering the game and can only be rewarded if you extend it.
     
  • Toss the cookbook. Your methods might fail, but your own good judgment, along with the judgment of those around you, can ensure that your projects succeed anyway.
     
  • Drop the carrot and stick. Motivation takes care of itself when you help others find their own juicy reason to engage.
     
  • Forget tidiness. Organize your group into a "messy" democracy built on a community of peers.

You cannot escape the wickedness you create by employing mythical techniques. Your projects insist upon techniques better adapted to the here and now.

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David Schmaltz is a writer, teacher, and consultant with a quarter-century’s experience in the field. Founder of True North project guidance strategies, Inc., he shows individuals and organizations engaged in project work how to escape tradition's cages to create more fulfilling project experiences. His book The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work focuses on the practical considerations that make projects successful and personally meaningful. His Mastering Projects Workshop graduates are among the most innovative people working on projects today. He hunts elephants from a Victorian home on a tree-lined street in Walla Walla, Washington. Contact him at David@projectcommunity.com (www.projectcommunity.com)

©2003 David A. Schmaltz, True North pgs, Inc. All rights reserved.

 
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