Project Community
Deep Thoughts

Buggy Whips

"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 innovation.

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.

david
6/6/99
Portland, Oregon

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