Project Reality Check #24: Scope and Gamesmanship

by Gary Monti on May 31, 2011

Students from around the world list starting the project without clear requirements as their #1 problem. Last week, in a workshop addressing this issue an interesting response surfaced in about a third of the students. In a word, discomfort. Why would this happen when something that benefits the PM and team is being developed? Let’s explore.

Some background about the method will help. It teaches simultaneous development of a scope of work and determination of a possible political path providing a high probability of successful implementation of the proposed scope of work. No small feat, just ask any project manager!

Scope and Politics

Developing scope in a no-scope environment entails using a method developed by the astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky. It is called Morphological Analysis. The short version of how to use it goes something like this: using the variables associated with the project think of all possible scopes in the situation. Go through and eliminate those that have contradictory requirements, e.g., simultaneously tall and short. This will reduce the list of possible scopes dramatically.

Now, switch to game theory. List the stakeholders (players) who can impact the development of the project and its execution. By stakeholder, list the way they are playing their particular game (strategy), and the reward (payoff) they want. Generate a 3 dimensional grid, comprising player, strategy, and payoff. Now the fun begins!

Map the list of possible scopes into the strategies and payoffs.  List the scopes that have the highest probability of surviving the games being played. This typically leaves a very short list of possible scopes. Pick one and start promoting it. Keep the other scopes as possible backups should a shift in plans be needed.

Seems straightforward enough and, for many it was. So why would some attendees experience discomfort?

Fear and Honesty

In her classic book, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron states:

“Fear is a natural reaction to getting closer to the truth.”

In the workshop confusion, discomfort, fear, and some anger arose. The class was paused and a chart session was used to find out what was happening. Students gave a range of responses. Here are a few:

“Looking at gamesmanship so directly pushes on me. I have to go into my unconscious incompetencies and decide what to do about the politics. This is good.”

I made a career-altering decision 8 months ago and things have been tough ever since. This class, though, is validating I made the right decision and will continue implementing it.”

“I work with a nice guy who isn’t pulling his weight. We have the same boss, whom I like, and she wants him to do better but nothing gets done. I am feeling a lot of pressure. This class is getting confusing!”

“Why this game stuff? We have technical work to get done and I just don’t see where politics applies.”

“I don’t see where any of this is relevant! Just how am I supposed to use this?”

That first respondent is very self-aware. She stayed with her discomfort and did quite well with the material. Prima fascia, she would make a good team member. The last respondent left in anger at the next break.

But the other respondents, what about them? There isn’t enough space to go into them right now. Instead, it would be better to close with a list showing a few responses people may choose in a no-scope situation. Having this list may help you profile your own situation and determine how far you could get with a given scope based on the stakeholder population, time, money, and resources present. Here are a few of the possible positions people can take:

  1. Is a natural in this situation and is on board;
  2. Has a fear of dealing with politics and reacts by actively work against the project;
  3. Can see benefit but is afraid to go to those uncomfortable spaces where politics is addressed and stalls;
  4. Is afraid but sees the benefit of pushing on themselves and working through the difficulties and is willing to push through;
  5. Only likes working in defined situations and goes blank in no-scope environments.

Maybe by keeping the above in mind and looking at your own power, authority, time, and resources you can gauge just how far to push with which scope. Ideally, you’ll do reasonably well and live to see another day and manage another project.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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