Monday, October 13, 2014

The Flies and the Bees: Tailoring Project Processes to Project Context

Peter Drucker argued that since the study of management began in the 1930s, several assumptions regarding the realities of management must be unlearned. One of these assumptions is that: “there is (or there must be) ONE right way to manage people.” Drucker further noted: “In no other area are the basic traditional assumptions held as firmly—though mostly subconsciously—as in respect to people and their management.” More importantly, “In no other area are they so totally at odds with reality and so totally counterproductive.”[i]
The following experiment demonstrates one possible “counterproductive” consequence of clinging to the “one best way” when at odds with reality:    

If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle horizontally, with its base (the closed end) to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an opening through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side.…  It is the bees’ love of light, it is their very intelligence, that is their undoing in this experiment. They evidently imagine that the issue from every prison must be where the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in too-logical action. To bees, glass is a supernatural mystery.… And, the greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear. Whereas the featherbrained flies, careless of logic… flutter wildly hither and thither, and meeting here the good fortune that often waits on the simple… necessarily end up by discovering the friendly opening that restores their liberty to them. [ii]

Indeed, the “featherbrained” team that employs a random search (like the flies) may perform better in a dynamic environment than the “too-systematic team,” which completely lacks sensitivity to variations in project context (like the bees). The challenge is to transform the “too-systematic team” and render it context-sensitive, that is, a team which applies expediently proven principles, practices, and processes as general instructions that must be tailored to each unique context of the project (e.g., project size, stability of objectives, speed, task complexity, organizational culture, extent of top management support, and team members’ experience and skills).

Following is a brief example of how the different contexts of two information technology projects affect the working culture and work processes. The first project involves the development of control software for an airplane. The proper behavior in this case is highly technical. FAA regulations must be followed. Anything you do — or don’t do — would be evidence in a lawsuit 20 years from now. The development staff shares an engineering culture that values caution, precision, repeatability, and double-checking everyone’s work. In contrast, the development of a word processor that is to be used over the web requires a different approach. “Correct behavior” is whatever woos a vast and inarticulate audience of Microsoft Word users over to your software. There are no regulatory requirements that matter (other than those governing public stock offerings). Time to market matters — 20 months from now, it will all be over, for good or ill.[iii]
Unfortunately, the prevailing project management paradigm still advocates context-free processes and practices, rather than tailoring them to the unique context of the project.  Thus, the emphasis in most projects is still placed on the “standard” or the “common” rather than on the “unique.” Melgrati and Damiani eloquently make this point: “Project management ideology is paradoxical because it focuses on repetitive aspects and ‘marginalizes’ the uniqueness and originality that should instead characterize the project.”[iv]

[i] P.F. Drucker. 1999. Management Challenges for the 21st Century. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 9, 16.  
[ii] T. Peters and R.H. Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 108.
[iii]  The Seven Basic Principles of the Context-Driven School. 2007. Retrieved September 1, 2014, from
[iv]  A. Melgrati and M. Damiani. 2002. Rethinking the Project Management Framework: New Epistemology, New Insights. Proceedings of PMI Research Conference, Seattle: 371-80. A. Laufer. 2009. Breaking the Code of Project Management. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 97-100.