Complex projects – exploring and learning

Back on to the theme of exploration in project management, I came across an article from Ralph Stacey on strategy as order emerging from chaos – I think its a fairly old article from 1993 or so – which included an eight ‘step’ framework for managing in organisations drawing on complexity science. While the framework was based on the practices of strategy management, it resonated for me in terms of those rare, extreme exploratory projects where the aims, objectives and outcomes are unclear as are the methods and approaches that might be used – think pure research projects, trying things out in high velocity environments etc…. where project management is really all about small learning steps (ie, see here but I’m not talking about projects operating in more ‘certain’ circumstances, if the project is all about product delivery, then what follows is possibly a recipe for failure). The eight steps are:
1. Develop new perspectives on the meaning of control. Learning in groups encourages a self-organising form of control. Encourage managers to let go. This is clearly echoed in Lynda Gratton’s work on ‘hot spots‘ and in Gary Hamel‘s Future of Management – managers tend to like control and control limits learning

2. Design the use of power. Too strong an application of power will restrict open questioning and the public testing of assertions. In other words, project management should be about supporting and inspiring team members to be contrary, to avoid group think and keep options open not close them down through fear of scope creep, etc…but also to keep pushing the team to do better

3. Encourage the formation of self-organising groups. (See step 1) Which means recruiting people to the project who will be comfortable with this.

4. Provoke multiple cultures. Move people around the organisation (project roles) and introduce new blood. Can really unsettle people but can also produce new ideas and perspectives through asking all those non-expert questions. Personaly, I’ve found this to be really effective in shaking a project team out of complacency, in creative project work and when trying to generate ‘deep’ organisational change.

5. Present ambiguous challenges or half-formed issues. All about the sort of projects I’m talking about.

6. Expose the business to challenging situations. Innovation depends on chance and managers must be prepared to compete with the most challenging competitors. Making projects really challenging, not in Tom Peters‘ notion of ‘wow projects‘ but in terms of always pushing – but also embracing that 95% failure rate of change. In this situation, you can’t expect to reach your wildest aspirations, the value is all in the learning journey that takes place.

7. Give explicit attention to group learning skills. I understand this to be a concern with developing and nurturing competences in how to learn, rather than domain specific/ technical knowledge, skills and understanding – the ability to reflect on, and learn from situations as they arise, shift and change.

8. Create resource slack by the provision of additional management resource. OK, I’m less convinced on this one – yes to resource slack and having the opportunities to try, test and explore is critical, but management resource?

All very interesting, but taking project teams out of their individual and collective comfort zone may well not be a sustainable way to do business. Or, its the only way to keep organisations flexible and adaptable in which case, is the current way organisations are set-up (single organsiations, permenant staff, annual budgeting etc) in need of a rethink?

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