01 Aug

Project Management – a Circus or a Symphony?

By in Tips & Guides on August 1, 2012

This post was co-created by Bryony Cole and Matt Partovi.

The art of Project Management relies on coordinating people, tasks, strategies, deadlines… In our minds this process is a delicate dance, seamlessly bringing together different parties at critical points to make an organization’s goals a reality.

As managers, we see ourselves as masterful conductors, rhythmically influencing the orchestra to create the symphony.

In reality however, it’s more a circus than a symphony. Today’s hyper-connected environment has led to an abundance of resources, people and complexity. Project management can feel especially chaotic if we try to hold on to the old ways of doing things. The fine art of coordinating isn’t as polished in this information-saturated world. Project Managers seem instead like Ringmasters: herding clowns, taming lions and redirecting random firecrackers as they propel the troupe toward a final deadline.

These challenges are presenting gamechanging opportunities for the Project Manager. How can we take advantage of complexity and abundance of information to deliver more successful projects?

1. Involve and engage people around the world like never before

You can’t ‘make’ people become engaged in a change you’re leading. However, if you give them a voice and the opportunity to get involved, they may become engaged as a result; they will be engaged because they wanted to, not because you made them. It has previously been too logistically challenging and too expensive to involve people from different locations  in a meaningful way. It’s rather impractical to fly people from all over the world during every stage of the project. But if one-off focus groups make a difference, imagine the potential if that involvement could be throughout the project…

Social networking creates opportunities we never had before. Everyone is given a voice and the opportunity to be involved. Physical location and position in the organizational chart no longer need to be barriers. Leaders can share their vision and objectives, and people can be invited to input. This is not to say decisions are made by everyone; rather decisions can be informed by everyone. Guidance and support can be offered by not only ‘the center,’ but also by employees ‘on the ground.’

2. Value isn’t based on volume

Typically, organizational departments are seen as — and often see themselves as — the creators of materials in their subject matter expertise. For example, the Marketing department creates Marketing collateral and materials, the Communications department creates guidance on internal and external communication, and the Sales department makes — you guessed it! — sales. These divisions were created during the Industrial Age, because it was easier to organise people in departments performing a similar function. It became the accepted workflow.

The Internet Age makes everyone a creator. There’s oftentimes more potential value to be created from outside the department than in it. We’re seeing the role of departments shift towards identifying, coordinating and tapping into ideas, expertise and energy — irrespective of where contributors are located. The role of any project manager then becomes to ask the right questions and create environments that encourage participation. From the inception of the project, you must design it for openness so others can continue to contribute and enhance the original creation.

The good news is that as traditional hierarchies are being replaced by more loosly-structured non-linear self-organizing systems, you have a larger potential group of people to work with.

3. Instant feedback and continuous improvement – what is perfect today won’t be perfect tomorrow

Project Managers have become accustomed to the concept of an end-point – a fixed point in time where the project is complete. After the end-point, the team transitions to a ‘business-as-usual’ mindset and people move onto the next project.

However, we are living in a world of constant change, where ‘business-as-usual’ means fluidity and evolution. This requires a radically new approach: rapidly design and roll out initial stages of the project, measure the results, and adjust your approach. For example, instead of ripping and replacing your HR Policy every three years, the policy can live and evolve with the company. Social and collaborative technologies allow people to constantly feedback and improve upon the original creation. This can initially feel frustrating to those of us who are used to a fixed end-goal. We may feel like we are constantly updating a project, policy and calendar without moving forward. However, by constantly adjusting and refining a project while it’s on course, we will continue to deliver a better experience – one that adapts with the organisation.

As you adjust your mindset and way of working to support today’s communication paradigms, the important thing is to not do away with process completely. A completely free-flowing project will soon descend into madness, even if it has a Ringmaster.

The challenge is to critically evaluate your objectives, create only as much process and structure as you need, and let people do what they’re best at.

So how would you conduct your orchestra?

About Bryony Cole: Bryony is passionate about inspiring people to harness the power of social media, technology and community. She currently works for Yammer, helping enterprises transform their culture through their own social network. Bryony is based in Yammer’s New York office, and is a board member of The Awesome Foundation, a global micro-patronage movement. You can find her musings on Twitter at @bryonycole and on her blog; you can also connect with her on LinkedIn.


About Matt Partovi: Matt is part of Yammer’s Customer Engagement team based in London. Matt helps business leaders create the conditions so that people do things because they want to, not because they’ve been told to. You can find him on Twitter at @matthewpartovi and LinkedIn.

One Response to Project Management – a Circus or a Symphony?

  1. PM Hut says:

    I think it depends on the project manager and the company – some project managers are able to maintain PM as a symphony, others just co-exist with it as a circus – some lucky ones run the circus successfully.

    Project management is about getting this done – on time on schedule and on budget – regardless of the means and regardless of the methodology.

    It can be a circus, a symphony, or anything else – but it must always be about getting things done.

    Thanks for sharing!

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