Principle-based Project Leadership

shutterstock_183592751So many project failures and impairments, which I’ve covered in detail in the article called “Why do Projects Fail?”. (Please review that article before reading this one).

So what’s wrong? Our business environments have become more complex, but the more we see complexity, the more we seem to want to try to control it. We introduce new tools, techniques and methodologies but it isn’t working. There is ample evidence that rule-based prescriptive processes are a bad way to shape people’s behavior. But we are still trying to use these methods in project management. What else should we do?

Stand Outside, Simplify and De-Clutter

There is a mathematical theorem that says (immensely simplified) that no system can ever be sophisticated enough to describe itself, and that it is always incomplete. I think this applies to methodology-driven project management practice: no process definition can ever be defined so well as to describe how it should be used. The methodology relies on human interpretation to provide it with context.

We have spent so much of the past 50 years attempting to disprove this concept, by continually expanding the processes by which we mandate that projects should be executed. What is clear is that we need to take a different approach.  I see there are three things that we need to do:

  1. Take guidance from a place outside of any methodological process definition: some place which is anchored in more fundamental principles and that can help us navigate better: to redirect us should we lose our way in the detail. This cannot happen within a methodology.
  2. Declutter and simplify the process of project management. Flexible project teams, centred on a goal, driven by strong action-oriented principles, can rapidly evolve their own pathways to success.
  3. Leverage more of the human capabilities that exist within each person in a team.

People have many native capabilities that drive them innately to excel in the right circumstances, including problem-solving, teaming, self-direction and learning, adaptation, drive and commitment.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery 

Successful project management in uncertain environments needs a different driver of behavior, which leverages these innate capabilities more deeply and less prescriptively. Teams need to react more quickly and less prescriptively. They need to find solutions and fix problems organically and instinctively, not wallow in processes that can ultimately take longer to reach the solution.

“In our experience, complexity can only be addressed by people using their judgment in the moment”. Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman 

This says to me that it’s right, as leaders, to use people’s judgment, but that we need to provide it with guidance.

Project Action Principles

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Additional Resources