"We have the potential to discard the dysfunctional notion that projects
work best when controlled by a strong, buggy whip-wielding hand, embracing
instead the belief that projects work best when managed by a powerful,
congruent community. It can be no one person's responsibility for success.
If we want to move at speeds exceeding that of a walking horse, which has
been our maximum potential for most of human existence, we must set the
buggy whip aside."
David A. Schmaltz
I have a client who does business out of a renovated buggy whip factory.
They are in the market research business. The buggy whip folks left decades
ago. Looking at the outside from a distance, I might still be able to believe
that buggy whips were being manufactured inside. The building is brick
and boxy. On the inside, however, only some massive beams and a few enormous
windows remain of the former situation.
I remember reading in some business policy class that the buggy whip
manufacturers were particularly hard hit by the introduction of automobiles.
The best of them held on to the conviction that this new technology was
merely an eccentric form of the traditional which would not threaten their
markets. Most embraced this belief until few of their markets remained.
This stuckness in the patterns of the past seems to be a human trait.
We are model-building and model-seeking organisms- we easily, insistently
imprint on patterns, eventually mistaking them for very different situations.
Some call this denial, but I see no evidence that this is conscious or
deliberate. In fact, I see this trait persist even in those professing
My workshop participants have taught me about this pattern-making behavior.
When given the assignment to create a pattern, they hop right to it. When
given the assignment to change the pattern, the original organization persists
through many iterations. What changes first is the story about the pattern.
Increasing variety is relegated to the non-pattern threatening periphery,
and the story gets richer. The story explains how this obvious difference
is similar, when the pattern clearly demonstrates that it is not.
The first locomotive looked like a horseless wagon with a steam engine
mounted on it. The first automobiles were called "horseless carriages."
No wonder the buggy whip manufacturers were fooled! The first iteration
of every innovation looks more like its predecessor than it's future. I
think this is true for project management, too.
We are operating in a world as different from the world that spawned
project management theory as the market research firm's world is different
from the buggy whip manufacturer's. Viewed from a distance, from the outside,
"predict and track and placate the sponsor" seems like a reasonable perspective.
But step inside. Inside you'll see only remnants of some beams and a few
large windows and nothing else in any way like the context within which
the buggy whip of "predicting and tracking and placating the sponsor" worked.
Like the buggy whip manufacturers a century ago, the project management
orthodoxy has yet to recognize the difference horselessness makes. What
is the missing horse in project management? The missing horse is predictability.
In a world working within more certain boundaries, we would have been foolish
not to have taken advantage of our ability to predict and then track against
those predictions. In this world, too, we could placate the sponsor, knowing
that if we were clever, we could make the project look like it satisfied
original expectations, even when the original expectations had become absurd
in the process of delivering them. When predictability goes, so goes the
whole premise for manufacturing its buggy whips.
Certain quite inevitable results occur when applying buggy whips in
the absence of horses. The whipping exhausts the driver, it tarnishes the
hood ornament, and it ultimately has none but an encumbering effect on
the operation of the automobile. "All hat and no horse," is how Lyndon
Johnson used to describe big city "cowboys," and I might similarly describe
those trying desperately to manage their projects to please their sponsors
by traditional means. The horse left, folks, and it will not be back.
What has the horse left us? Look around you. Shifting objectives. Cross-functional
and constantly changing teams. Unfamiliar technology. We are in a tenaciously
unknowable and therefore unpredictable context. The horse has left us with
an elephant and each of us, each blind, arrayed around it. How can we ever
hope to manage the elephant and ourselves like we managed the world when
it was so comfortably contained in the wagon, back when the horse actually
came before the cart?
Projects are no more managed today than cars are buggy whipped. Project
management has become an oxymoron, a buggy whip in a world with increasing
numbers of "horseless carriages." This is not reason for despair unless,
of course, you're long in buggy whips.
What goes on today inside the buggy whip manufacturing building does
not need buggy whips to succeed. This company is in the business of building
communities, where researchers and clients and executives and suppliers
and, yes, even clueless sponsors circle around the elephant before them;
each acknowledging their own blindnesses and each trying to testify to
their own truths, however curious these might seem to the others arrayed
equally blindly around this individually unimaginable beast. Their projects
routinely turn out different than originally envisioned. The sponsor is
best served when they become a part of this morphing community and able
to engage in the delicate, unpredictable dance that often makes sense only
when the music stops. Surprises are a necessary part of doing research,
so no one should be shocked at being surprised. You might say the purpose
of these projects is not to be predictable but to create what could not
have been predicted.
Of course I'm not arguing against setting objectives and budgets. I
am arguing against using these as the sole measures for success. I am also
arguing strongly against the idea that the project's job is to please the
sponsor. The project's job is to coequally engage with and sometimes surprise
and sometimes delight the sponsor, not to placate her. We have now the
potential to engage as humans in these endeavors, rather than as masters,
servants, or slaves. We have the potential to discard the dysfunctional
notion that projects work best when controlled by a strong, buggy whip-wielding
hand, embracing instead the belief that projects work best when managed
by a powerful, congruent community. It can be no one person's responsibility
for success. If we want to move at speeds exceeding that of a walking horse,
which has been our maximum potential for most of human existence, we must
set the buggy whip aside.
No one creates community. We can each nurture the preconditions for
community but no one can be charged with creating it. Which part of the
horseless carriage is responsible for making it move? No one part is responsible-
or ever could be responsible. All pieces working in concert replace the
buggy whip-motivated horse. With such community, all things are possible.
Without it, few things are.
This is why I declared a few weeks ago the death of project management.
It occurs to me now that I was merely arguing the suddenly obvious well
after the fact.