Posts Tagged ‘control’

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.


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.

We left off in the last blog with the tribe being very practical and safely bringing the sun back from the eclipse through ritual drumming.  The Chief, Shaman, and members of the village saw the need for executing the ritual – cause and effect. The idea of not drumming is so terrifying simply talking about it could have serious repercussions. The Chief could land very hard on anyone foolish enough to talk about modifying, let alone abandoning, the ritual.

This brings us to the third purpose of myth – social order – or more simply, sociology. As seen with the village sociology can tie very closely to the second purpose of myth, cosmology. This co-mingling can lead to a very thorny issue, i.e., the use of power. Before looking at power directly some background is needed.

Dirt and Mothers

The phrase “human being” has its roots in the Latin word “humus” meaning “rich earth.” It’s all about establishing roots, being accepted and nurtured, and eventually striking out on our own. It’s the Circle of Life. This reality is reflected in earth-based religions by the primary god Mother Earth. (Father Sky is the other primary god but we’ll save him for a later blog.) How the world moves (cosmology) and the rules for being in it (sociology) are intertwined and taught from the moment of birth. The weave can be so tight they appear as one. It is good for stability but can create an obstacle for change. Vision can be clouded. Let’s see how that can affect business.

Obi Wan, Darth, and Case Studies

Imagine during the eclipse the Chief turns to a village and says, “The drumming is not enough, you must sacrifice all you have so the sun returns!” How much pressure does the villager feel? Are the situation and feelings any different than when a boss (being practical) tells a subordinate to unquestioningly produce more? Like the Chief the boss can consolidate his investment in power by keeping the social directive (sacrifice and productivity) tightly bound to the cosmology (business processes and goals).

The boss could also work like the brave Chief who separates the two and does the equivalent of allowing Newtonian mechanics to be embraced. Doing this, though, could put his power base at risk. He could lose his grip and no longer be the keeper of the rules of the universe. It would no longer be His cause or His effect. And while like the villagers employees would be free to expand their lives the boss has to find another reason for the employees to respect and follow him. A more entertaining version of all this can be found in the Star Wars saga with the struggle between Obi Wan and Darth. With the best of intentions Darth believed life is a case study. Cause and effect could be audited and projected into the future and the social structure controlled. Obi Wan was much wiser. He saw that there are guiding principles and a (business) leader earns the trust and following of others. In other words, in a changing situation power is let loose and the leader leans into the situation and lets a new social order arise as the cosmology changes.

Helping Clients Change

If you are having difficulty with your light saber or simply need to address the challenge of change send me an e-mail at or visit

Are you feeling helpless?

by Vijay Peduru on February 15, 2010

Many times in our life, we feel stuck or helpless when we encounter a situation.  We would have encountered this same situation before but when we tried to control it, we couldn’t, so we accepted that it cannot be controlled.  When the situation occurs again we think we are helpless and are resigned about it. This is called “Learned Helplessness” i.e we have learnt to be helpless and we get depressed. As grim this might sound, there is a silver lining to it – Since we have learnt to be helpless we can also unlearn it and come out of it.

Martin Seligson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books including “Learned Optimism” did some interesting experiments on Learned Helplessness. They took a few dogs and divided them into two separate groups. The first group was given a electric shock and if they pressed a lever the shock stopped.  The second group was wired parallel to the first group. i.e when the shock was given it goes to both the groups at the same time,  but for the second group their lever didn’t stop the electric shock. It stopped when the first group pressed the lever.  For the second group, the shocks appeared to start and end at random and they  learnt that they cannot do anything to control the shocks and learnt to be helpless.
They took the same set of dogs and this time placed them in a different setting, This time, instead of a lever, they put a low partition in front of them, so they can jump out. When they gave the shocks the second group which learnt to be helpless simply lay down passively and whined even though their escape was just in front of them.
This is the same with humans. We can be trained to be in “Learned Helplessness” mode… How do we get out of this?

There are 2 ways.

1. Recognize this mindset: Whenever you are feeling helpless, remember that this may be “Learned Helplessness”. Many times we are not aware of this at all. It all happens unconsciously. Now you know what “Learned Helplessness” is , you can recognize this in yourself when you encounter it.
2. Be Optimistic : Once you notice “learned Helplessness” in yourself, the way to come out of this is learn to be optimistic. Martin Seligson in his experiments found that in the second set of dogs, Some dogs did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. This characteristic was found to correlate highly with the human character .. optimism.

Recheck your attitude and be optimistic..