In complex and dynamic projects, it’s hard to filter out the noise and focus on just one element. You might want to diagnose some particular problem with a temporary narrow and deep perspective.
In the film “Predator”, the alien’s helmet has an enhanced viewport with filters to look deep into different parts of the human body: vascular system (swipe), skeletal system (swipe) nervous system.
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to look deep inside the project “body”? For diagnostic or monitoring purposes or to identify remedial action.
The Predator helmet may be fiction, but I’ve found some mental models that may be the next best thing: a set of nine project “schools of thought” about projects as the basis for future research (Ref 1).
If reframed as “mental models”, these schools can be used as “mental filters” for project managers to focus on those project elements that the filter reveals. Check them out below.
1. Optimisation Filter
Perspective: shows project elements that operate as a system or a machine. Once mathematically defined and analysed, you can predict and optimise its performance.
Use: understanding and optimising the performance of those elements of a project that are concrete.
Key Topics: Critical Path Methods (CPM), Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), Operations Research, Resource Leveling, Critical Chain Scheduling, Monte Carlo Simulation, Earned Value Management, PMBOK
2. Modelling Filter
Perspective: extends the Optimisation filter by including “soft” components and their interactions. This filter shows the complete system model of the project. Soft systems require clarification and making sense of the project and its environment.
Use: understanding the dynamics between “hard” and “soft” systems is critical to understanding your project’s overall complexity and dynamics. While relying on the more concrete “hard” systems perspective may be tempting, it has limited validity for projects staffed by humans.
Key Topics: Soft Systems Methodology, Sense-making, Optimisation of multiple objectives under multiple constraints, Lessons-learned
3. Governance Filter
Perspective: shows the project as a temporary organisation or “legal entity”. This entity has relationships with other parties. For example, each project has a “principal/agent” relationship with its hosting or client organisation. Every organisation, and thus every project, is subject to power and decision-making outside its control. In projects, we are subject to Financial/Investment Governance, Audit, Legal and Regulatory Governance and more.
Use: Every good project manager understands that they must manage Governance decision points very explicitly and carefully. This filter enables you to see those governance points clearly and make plans to have them in place not to delay your project.
Key Topics: Contract management, temporary organisation, project governance, principal-agency relationship, transaction costs
4. Behaviour Filter
Perspective: exposes project elements that act as a social system made up of people who interact together. A project is dependent on how people think and work naturally together, both individually and in teams. It also includes how people: communicate, create and share knowledge, manage conflict, deal with cross-cultural issues and develop leadership capabilities.
Use: Separating behavioural dynamics from system dynamics and dependencies enables you to identify and apply the types of remedial action specific to human behaviour, cognition and interaction.
Key Topics: Organisational behaviour (OB), Leadership, Communication, Team building, Human resource management, Conflict management, Virtual project teams, Project team diversity.
5. Process Filter
Perspective: shows the project elements that act as a set of structured processes. Seeing these processes alone is like reading a road map to the future. If you follow the map, you should end up in desired end state in which a vision of the future becomes a reality.
Use: Identifying broken or misdirected processes that will prevent the project from achieving the future state.
Key Topics: Process methodologies, Process frameworks, Process audits, Structured processes.
6. Contingency Filter
Perspective: exposes project elements that are unique and that require a tailored approach. Every project is different so that no pre-determined strategy will guarantee success.
Use: Finding the project’s unique settings to determine the management approach that best suits each project. We can reuse project tactics on those elements that are not unique.
Key Topics: Contingency theory, Project categorisation, Project tailoring, Capability mapping for different project types.
7. Success Filter
Perspective: shows project elements that relate to its results (either success or failure) and how success/failure is defined. This filter includes predecessor components that can affect the way the project is conceived and executed.
Use: Identifying success factors and criteria from different stakeholder perspectives and understanding the relationship between project practices and successful outcomes.
Key Topics: Success factors, Success criteria, Risk Management, Collaborative teams, Stakeholder management, Stakeholder satisfaction.
8. Decision Filter
Perspective: highlights the decision chain from project initiation to conclusions about success or failure. Each decision impact projects’ conception, execution, and completion.
Use: Identifying where and how to make more “good” decisions that increase the chance of success.
Key Topics: Decision-making, Decision criteria, Uncertainty reduction, Investment decision making
9. Marketing Filter
Perspective: reveals the web of relationships between project stakeholders. This network of power and interest must be navigated and optimised to ensure delivery success and perceived success.
Use: identifying stakeholder power and interest, communicating project objectives and progress to satisfy stakeholders need for information and helping form a readiness to view the project as successful
Key Topics: Stakeholder management, Strategic goals, Internal marketing, Project initiation, Project communications.
The Bottom Line
Of course the “Predator Helmet for PM’s” doesn’t exist: it’s just a metaphor for how we should be able to step outside our projects and view them objectively from different perspectives.
These filters represent specific models of projects that have stand-alone validity, even if they don’t apply to your project.
The models behind these “filters” will prime your thinking and make you look more critically and selectively from each perspective.
You may disagree that all projects have all elements revealed by these “filters”. But I’m sure you agree that projects are complex beasts
Anything we can do to help us understand their dynamics is potentially useful.
Turner, J.R., Anbari, F. & Bredillet, C. Perspectives on research in project management: the nine schools. Glob Bus Perspect 1, 3–28 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40196-012-0001-4