Wednesday, March 12, 2014

To Become a Project Leader You Must Learn to Tolerate “Living Order”

by Alex Laufer and Jeff Russell

The Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile program was established to replace the cancelled Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile program, which had exceeded its budget estimates by record levels reaching an estimated cost of $1,600,000 per unit. The contractor, Lockheed Martin, was told by the US Air Force: “We don’t have the time, we don’t have the funds, and we don’t have the answers. We want a missile in half the time for half the price.” 

Larry Lawson, the project manager for Lockheed Martin, explains how in order to cut costs drastically, he had to enter an unknown territory. For example, he produced components of the missile at a small company that had been in the business of making baseball bats and golf club shafts. This company had never built a military product, but they knew how to weave carbon fiber and were open-minded. Their first prototype didn’t measure up and took a very long time to build. When they built the second one, they had learned what things they didn’t have to do or be concerned about. By the time they started working on the sixth prototype they understood exactly what to do in order to meet their objectives.  By the end of the project, Lockheed Martin reduced the cost per unit to $400,000.

Larry Lawson is one of the more than 150 successful project managers, affiliated with over 20 organizations, that we studied throughout the last two decades. We consistently found that these project managers were characterized by their ability to successfully cope with change and with incomplete information and knowledge.

About 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, argued that the only constant in our world is change. Today, the economic, social and political challenges of globalization and the rapid technological innovations make this statement as true as ever. Indeed, Peter Vaill, an American professor of management, explains that the complex, turbulent, and changing environment faced by contemporary organizations renders the leadership of these organizations like navigating in “permanent white water.”

In using the "permanent white water" metaphor, Vaill calls our attention to the fact that the external environment of contemporary projects is full of surprises, tends to produce novel problems, and is “messy” and ill-structured.  However, 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 his 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 a 1977 Harvard Business Review article, Professor Abraham Zaleznik of Harvard Business School was the first to pose the question “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Zaleznik answered resoundingly in the affirmative. He further explained that one crucial difference between managers and leaders lies in the conceptions they hold of chaos and order. Leaders can tolerate chaos and lack of structure, and thus are ready to keep answers in suspense, whereas managers seek order and control. Zaleznik added that the instinctive move of the manager to prematurely impose order on chaos is more problematic to the organization than the direct impact of the chaos.

Indeed, successful project leaders, such as Larry Lawson from Lockheed Martin, demonstrate that they do not rush to impose “geometric order” prematurely. They know that their projects will inevitably be affected by one of more of the following:
  • Changes resulting from the dynamic environment.
  • Surprises resulting from the unique, and often innovative, tasks
  • Difficulties of coping with challenging requirements and radical constraints, as well as with sudden changes in these requirements and constraints.
  • Numerous unexpected events and problems subsequent to the above difficulties.
  • Difficulties of coping with these problems due to the typical unique, temporary and evolving project organization, which is composed of heterogeneous units.
The stories which will be presented in our blog should help you embrace Bergson’s classification of two sorts of order. It should facilitate your ability to perceive reality as it is, to accept that you can’t avoid "living order" in your projects, and that you should expect and tolerate it.  

Reflecting on the concepts, stories, and practices that will be presented in our blog should enable you cope better with your dynamic environment, deliver better results, and accelerate your progress towards becoming a project leader.


The Lockheed Martin story and the “living order” description and discussion were adapted from our recent book, “Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management: Practices that Deliver Remarkable Results,” FT Press, 2012 (Alex is the author of the book and Jeff is a coauthor of three chapters in the book).