Chaos and Complexity #11: The soul of a Project

by Gary Monti on November 23, 2010

What is the soul of a project?  The answer to this question is both central and pivotal for project success. It reflects the spirit of the situation along with the focus the project represents. For example, when at parties and asked what I do “adult daycare” conveys the most context and information. It strikes a cord within an experienced listener that usually brings laughter and spontaneous responses as to what the questioner goes through at their work place.

More scars and gray hair than I care to recount were earned over the years to get to that distillate. It serves as a statement of character as well as a statement of work. That last sentence sums nicely what is required for a project to have a soul, i.e., a reflection of the people, commitment, and capability along with what is being attempted.

It is empowering. People resonate with the statement. It gives them permission to tell their story – the ups and downs experienced on a daily basis just trying to get things done.

Connection

So what is the secret? Why does talking this way and having the experience to back it up work so well?  Why does it help establish the much-needed connection?

First, it opens the door for two-way communication and support. When having a down day myself, contact with people who care about the soul of their project provides energy and encouragement to get back on track. I do best when returning the favor in kind. This back-and-forth creates a bond out of which project structure appears.

Second, in complex and chaotic situations no one has a lock on life. Team diversity contributes to a multi-faceted view of any situation. Options and possibilities appear.

The Project Mirror

Connecting the dots is rooted in connecting the people. To expand on a previous statement, project documentation and execution is a reflection of the team, stakeholders, and the quality of their relationship.

The progression from statement of work to scope to functional specifications to design specifications to work packages to schedule is a form of code, an abstraction of something much richer flowing in the organization. The execution is a reflection of this code similar to a developing body unfolding from DNA. If a pathologic gene exists in the organization it will show in the project. If all is healthy, the project will thrive.

Vulnerability and Flipping the Organization

The tone so far might give the impression this process is linear and top-down. It is anything but that (see the previous two blogs regarding the limits of best practice and the use of political spin). To the uninitiated what works appears a bit loony.

Complex and chaotic projects only thrive in the presence of connection. Let me explain. At project initiation, the best way to proceed is publishing the goal and leaving people alone to form as they see best. “Intimidating” is too small of a word. Think “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” It takes a lot of character to trust and remain self-actualized when the situation is free form, which is especially true when the focus is conditional (more on that later).

Top-down approaches and the associated boundaries must be relaxed for the soul of the project to begin to take shape. Initially, the best results are bottom-up. When workable rules begin to surface then top-down can be considered. In other words, leaders must have a keen sense of when to relax control and let the team tell them what is needed for the project to take shape (humility) and when to tighten controls and insist on conformance to the newly created project structure (commanding).

Surrealistic Focus

What about the conditional focus? It would be nice to believe a hard focus is present to which everyone can refer. This is rarely the case. Customers typically have a sense of what they want. However, like everyone else they are influenced by what is going around them. So, their sense of what they want can be vague and shifting without them having full awareness they behave this way. Or, they can expect that you are the expert and should tell them what the hard realities of the deliverables should be.  While this can be an opportunity for building a relationship with the customer it also can be unnerving since firm limits are usually placed on the team in terms of time and money.

This brings us back to the vulnerability mentioned earlier. For the project to have a soul the customer needs to commit to riding the project roller coaster that takes them through the organizational flipping (humility/commanding). How crazy is that!? Very. The focus can shift in a very surrealistic manner. However, that craziness is essential for success.

Projects by definition are temporary endeavors providing a unique product or service. That word “unique” is crucial.

It means a degree of unhinging is present for better and worse. The better is freedom to grow. The worse is freedom to collapse. The surrealistic roller coaster ride can be exhilarating and wicked.

The reward for the customer and team is the creation of the project’s soul and establishment of a relevant, elegant focus that gets to the heart of the matter and is implementable. The ride ends by arriving at best practice where the discipline of project management can be enforced and the deliverable forged.

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