ProjectManagement101.4-TheInvisibleWhole

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"The object might not be to know better but to get better at not knowing."

Nobody ever sees (or really understands) the operation of the 'project' as a whole. Some mug as if they did understand. The most dangerous of these firmly believe themselves meta to the effort, occupying the objective observer role while also contributing to the cause. Most identify with some aspects without concerning themselves about others. Asking after the purpose of the 'project' can spark theological skirmishes since everyone inescapably perceives their 'project' quite differently than anyone else. This situation qualifies as a case of the normals without an ounce of pathology, with the possible exception of the perception held by those characterizing themselves as objectively meta to the effort.

'Projects' might be best described by employing metaphors.
Scientists routinely employ metaphors to describe whatever it might be they're investigating, since the specific details so often serve to obscure rather than usefully describe their intentions. While it's unarguably true that these metaphors materially misrepresent their efforts, typically omitting much more than they ever include, the alternatives tend to obfuscate more than inform. Yes, this situation amounts to a paradox. Have I mentioned that 'projects', those things that are not actually things, tend to spawn paradoxes like a Canadian cold front sparks thunderstorms? These things that are not things seem best explained by not finely explaining them.

Early in my 'project' career, I imprinted on The Blind Men and the Elephant, a poem written by Vermont satirist John Godfrey Saxe. The work recounts an ancient Asian subcontinent fable which described the experience of six blind men encountering an elephant. Each concludes that the elephant can be adequately described according to their personal experience with it. The blind man who concluded the elephant a fan when touching the ear, like the one who fancied the beast most like a rope after touching the tail, and, indeed, like the other four who firmly believed the elephant most like a wall after touching its side, a tree after touching a leg, a spear after touching a tusk, or a snake after being touched by the trunk, grew only more firmly convinced of the correctness of his personal impression. The resulting disagreements produced a tussle which Saxe characterized as a theologic war, battling firm beliefs only more firmly held following disagreement.

I still believe that 'projects' exist like that fabled elephant surrounded by blind men, each experiencing whatever they experience, convincing themselves of their own correctness and, without reflection, everyone else's poor judgement. I don't believe that each 'project' comes fated to produce another theological war, but naive engagement seems determined to produce some, and this personal conviction fueled my early engagement as an eventual authority on project work. I was the guy who, reciting Saxe's poem, could go on to help contributors better cope with their inevitable blindnesses, mostly by helping them accept this inability as perfectly normal. The chief difficulties facing every project might just be the curious certainties they seem to encourage in each of us. The object might not be to know better but to get better at not knowing.


Even I understood that this notion amounted to heresy. I named my first web presence The Heretic's Forum and encouraged other blind men to contribute their experiences for mutual benefit. I'd attend 'Project' Management conferences and find what generations of conference attendees found in their time, that the most productive conversations occurred between sessions when the authorities were safely out of earshot. I found remarkable convergence there, just as if everyone already understood but had been hiding out lest their heresies be harshly judged. I for years contributed to the Projects@Work webzine until The 'Project' Management Institute (PMI) purchased it and instilled a policy claiming permanent ownership of anything published there. Now, of course, a fresh approach, labeled Agile, has made inroads as the newer heresy on the block, though proponents find themselves whispering between sessions at Agile conferences, too, confessing that the method never works as advertised. The 'project' field remains just a tough as it ever was.

I blame the blind men, among which I count myself. PMI fancies that they possess the definitive Body of Knowledge® of the field, a laughingly absurd claim from any blind man. It's a difficulty that faced every practice and profession in the history of the world so far, The Invisible Whole. Neither strictly science and certainly no closer to art, these professions belie definite description, rather like our beleaguered 'project.' Better described in metaphor which materially misrepresents and perhaps better explained in parable, the sort of explanation capable of shifting over time and circumstance. The Blind Men might be the very most important understanding to carry into any 'project' work. So many aspects of every engagement will prove to be not merely wrong but wrong in ways that might well reassure at first, as if determined to goad everyone involved into betting against inevitables. The inevitable insists that we will not know until the end, and even then, individual experiences will have varied enough to leave questionable even collective experience.

We can carry our stories between engagements. Some cautionary, others presumed instructive, none true in any scientific sense. We engage as we engage, each example and counter-example coexisting with no One Best Way. The ambiguity can feel disabling. I seriously doubt the existence of any enlightenment at the end of any inquiry into the true nature of 'project' work, only wonder. Of course we still try to emulate what we firmly believe to be best practices only to later learn that those practices were no more than blessed by yet another blind man certain of the righteousness of his perspective. So we muddle through, as we've always done, following roadmaps produced without the benefit of first surveying the territory, more or less making it up as we go along. We fortunately never see the territory we traverse, certainly not the enormity of it. We quite often manage to make it through anyway. Whether these excursions satisfy anybody might be the point. What if the universal purpose of 'project' work was to create high quality experiences for everyone engaged?

Next: The Ethical Responsibilities of 'Project' Work.


©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved









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