Friday, January 15, 2016

Leadership: The Key for Project Learning and Unlearning

(pond at Apalachicola National Forest in Florida)

When we began this blog in early 2014 we explained the name of the blog, “Living Order,” this way:

It was the French Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson who a century ago proposed a concept of order that today may help us better understand project reality. In the 1907 book Creative Evolution, Bergson claimed that there is no such thing as disorder, but rather two sorts of order: geometric order and living order. While in “geometric order” Bergson was relating to the traditional concept of order, in “living order” he referred to phenomena such as the creativity of an individual, a work of art, or the mess in our offices.

All projects aim to reach a perfectly functioning product with geometric order. At the start, they may face great uncertainty—living order—that does not completely disappear over the entire course of the project. 

Gradually, some parts of the project approach geometric order, though in an era of “permanent white water,” the project as a whole does not assume geometric order until very late in its life.

In working with NASA 15 years ago, Alex found that these two types of order were helpful in developing project management knowledge. He used a story as the basis of his first article as editor-in-chief of NASA’s Ask Magazine.* To summarize that story:

Alex was presented with nine elements of project success by Jim Carroll, a respected and highly regarded person in the construction industry. At the time, Jim was leading a Construction Industry Institute task force in creating a handbook for practitioners that explained each of the nine elements. Jim steadfastly stood by these nine elements, and asked Alex to write a handbook chapter on project strategy.

Alex just could not do it. He could not accept the nine elements for project success for two reasons: 1) they were too limiting, and 2) they were stated as the “one best way” to proceed which ignored the rich context in which projects and people interact.

After several hours of heated debate and discussion between Alex and Jim, Alex realized he would not be able to convince Jim of the weakness of the nine elements and was about ready to give up. Lastly, Alex asked Jim to consider whether applying the nine elements could explain the success or failure of seven projects with which Jim was involved during his career. Jim agreed to put the elements to the test.

As it turned out, there was little correlation between project success and the nine elements. This proved a revelation for Jim, and he was willing to reflect on the experience and to learn from it. And, more accurately in our case, he was willing to unlearn from it and admit that the nine elements could not provide the complete answer.

Feeling Comfortable Only in a World of Certainty

There were other problems with the task force. A year later, Alex submitted the research report to the task force: the results, based on an elaborate study in 11 highly successful companies, were quite shocking to task force members. The findings showed that in most capital projects, uncertainty is not resolved early in the life of the project; for example, by the end of the design phase. Even more troubling was the finding that in most capital projects, not only are the “means uncertainty” (how to do it) resolved late in the project life, but so are the “end uncertainty” (what to do).

Most task force members could not accept that capital projects suffer from uncertainty, and definitely not from “end uncertainty,” so they adjusted the presentation of Alex’s findings. Instead of portraying project planning as a gradual process of lessening uncertainty, they portrayed it as a gradual process of increasing certainty.

Task force members felt comfortable in only a certain world of geometric order, and so they denied uncertainty, even in the face of empirical data from within their own organizations. Most members were not interested in learning, even when leading a research activity. They did not formulate research questions, only research answers. It could be that the mix of contractors and clients put everyone into marketing mode. Marketing starts with an answer; research with a question. They hired “researchers” not to find out or understand reality, but to confirm their own beliefs.

Alex’s story demonstrates our ability to learn by reflecting on our own experiences, and our inability to learn by favoring “answering” over “questioning”. Learning starts with a question, a problem to be solved, a dilemma to be resolved and a challenge to be met. Managers who treat questions as annoyances and regard them as signs of ignorance are not learning. Questions force deep thinking and reflection; they are an invitation to open a conversation whereas ready answers are a prelude to shutting it down. Breakthroughs come from fresh questions, not ready answers.

Providing a ready answer ignores the power and potential of “living order.”  As we have tried to demonstrate in our monthly blogs during the last two years, ignoring the central role of “living order” can be damaging for today’s fast-paced, interconnected projects. During the last two years we have attempted to demonstrate that leadership is key for project success. Today, we highlighted that leadership is also the key for project learning and unlearning.

The study that Alex conducted, and especially the way the task force accepted it, demonstrated that many professionals still embrace only the geometric order. After two years of publishing monthly stories we — Jeff and Alex — still have a long way to go with the monthly Living Order blogs.

* “Arrogance: Number One Enemy of Learning”

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