Sly-entific Management 9 - Activity Poisoning

I recognized the symptoms immediately. A really smart guy shut down in the face of a seemingly simple request. His charge? Just fill in his activities on this master program plan. The framework had been lovingly pre-determined by the program management office, the structure seemingly straightforward. The request, trivial. Yet after weeks of fretting and fussing, his task was still not complete. Worse, the obligation had thrown his rhythm off. He was working longer, increasingly frantic, making little headway.

"Activity poisoning," I declared. "A classic case!"

In looking back at the founding of Scientific Management, one of my huge mysteries was the nagging question, "Why the focus on tasks?" A couple of weeks into the investigation, I stumbled upon a possible answer. What Gantt called tasks, we would probably refer to as outcomes. He claimed that "men" (it was always "men" in those days) worked more effectively if they had the end result in mind. He claimed that this focus was far superior to maintaining attention on the physical effort to be expended.

Now, it's common to characterize projects as networks of activities. This curious focus is difficult for humans. Why? Activities are verb forms. Our language is nominal, in that it attempts to construct a world of things (nouns). As I've confided to a couple of generations of would-be project managers, the fundamental understanding one must carry into project work is the clear acceptance that there's no such thing as a project. It's NOT a thing.

How does one describe a verb? Usually with long strings of inadequate nouns.

How does one describe a project if not by long hierarchically-arranged strings of activities? Ask the scientist suffering from Activity Poisoning. He's translating what was passed to him as an activity template into something quite different—an outcome network.

This strategy more closely mirrors Gantt's intent when he first proposed his now famous charting technique. More recent theorists have counseled to "start with the end in mind."

The early focus on time and motion studies was an interesting idea, but they never worked out. This due to one of the principles of General Systems Theory, the principle of equifinality. This principle claims that there are an infinite number of ways to produce any finite outcome. It implies that how you travel is a whole lot less important than clearly understanding where you're traveling to. The time and motion studies demonstrated this by showing that, while they believed there would be a reducible One Best Way to accomplish any task, the same person would not always do the same things twice.

So, our hero is painstakingly translating the verb-form template into something he can sink his teeth into. What it blithely refers to as analysis, for instance, he recognized as an ill-formed attempt to describe the means to produce some undefined end. Once he decides what the end result of this blithering ambiguity might be (and it is a choice), he can state what he intends to produce, then position this outcome in space and time.

Had the master planner stooped to display the mastery of planning, by which I mean engaged in conversation with everyone involved in the effort before deciding on THE framework, most of this translating would have been unnecessary. What was efficient (another meaningless nominalized verb) for the program office, tangled up dozens of individual contributors and frustrated the program management staff. Result: planning deadline ultimately missed.

Small misinterpretation, huge mistake.

Previously in this series: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth.




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