"As a tool for understanding psychological maturation, learning theory
is straightforward, clear, remarkably simple, and wrong."
Clifford Anderson, MD
The Stages of Life
I've become increasingly interested in the curious interpretations
people make of the term "maturity." The project management certification
associations seem to subscribe to the Learning Model, believing that maturity
is created by the accumulation of information. The behaviors associated
with maturity in the accumulation of knowledge model seem more like the
behaviors a compulsive adolescent might adopt to appear mature rather than
the behaviors mature adults adopt. What behaviors might a well-adapted,
psychologically mature project manager engage in?
I believe a key to real maturity is the ability to incorporate disparate
experiences into a coherent whole, not the ability to build barriers to
What I'm up to is helping people better cope with the essential crises
common to all projects. These crises are not problems because they have
no discrete solution (they may have many solutions, no solution, or some
number of partial solutions). These crises are essential because the project
connects to its real mission by wrestling these to the ground. Avoiding
these crises yields some form of poor adaptation, what I call incoherence,
such as when a team interprets the same information in disruptively different
The classic project crises are:
The Context Crises:
This is first where the project manager comes to grips with their own
roles and responsibilities on the project. It is also where they discover
"what's in it for me." Next, it is where the project manager comes to grips
with the nature of the project. Finally, it is where the project manager
comes to grips with the nature(s) of the sponsoring organization. Answering
these three questions: Where Am I?, Where's The Project?, and Where's the
Organization? define the project's context. Failing to deal with these
crises leaves the project out of context, in that the manager is likely
to be managing "as ifs" rather than what's really there.
The Identity Crises:
This is where vision, scope, critical success factors, and high-level
risks are identified, where the initiating bright idea is transformed into
a reasonably manageable set of objectives. Failing this will leave the
project without target and/or boundaries. Also resolved is the who's-us/who's-not-us
question, what I refer to as the identification of the project community.
Also resolved here is the initial schedule, what I call the shared project
model. These three elements, the target, the community, and the shared
model create the project's "identity."
The Mid-Life Crises:
These are the "Oh my God, everything's falling apart" experiences that
occur at times as the project unfolds after the original context and identity
are set. These are merely echoes of the project learning more about its
mission - or its possibilities - but these experiences usually feel like
bad things, like somebody screwed up. Typical mid-life crises include:
The Requirements Crisis, where it's acknowledged that the requirements
translate into a really different project than the vision suggested, The
Design Crisis, where the design conflicts with some aspect(s) anticipated
in the requirements or the vision, and so on. Each of these force a revisit
back to the project's context and identity, which is a painful process-
made even more painful if these experiences are interpreted as "problems"
rather than as "normal dilemmas."
I guess the bottom line is that you get better projects not by avoiding
these experiences but by getting better at recognizing them, acknowledging
them, and adapting to them. Since they offer previously unimagined possibilities,
they hold great potential within them when we can use their emergence as
a choice point instead of a cue to punish ourselves for "not guessing that
this would happen." This is what I mean by adaptive project management.
It's also what I mean by real maturity. Maturity does not bring fewer choices-
it probably brings more. We can't get smarter if we can't embrace this
natural process by which the world teaches us.