Well let's make the assumption that project management is about planning and delivering projects, and that those projects involve a set of identifiably constrained tasks and interconnected dependencies, and that projects do not manage themselves and therefore require interventions. This keeps some of us in work, and means that project management is essentially a dynamic system of actions and necessary interventions working through defined processes and constraints. Still with me on this? Great.
According to Eli Goldratt, there are various principles that govern the constraints on a system that include convergence (or 'inherent simplicity' in that the more complicated a system is then the easier it is to control or manage as there are less interventions required given the other intrinsic dependencies), consistency (or 'there are no conflicts in nature' meaning that where there are disagreements on the achievement of a given goal, then one or more of them must be wrong) and respect (or 'people are not stupid' that suggests that people do not do things irrationally, even if this may seem to be the case). And so what you might ask?
This leads to finding logical ways to solve potential conflicts and problems (known as thinking processes), and the theory suggests:
- Gain agreement on the problem
- Gain agreement on the direction for a solution
- Gain agreement that the solution solves the problem
- Agree to overcome any potential negative ramifications
- Agree to overcome any obstacles to implementation
Now we start to see the implications for project management, and the need for 'softer' skills and competencies to help in achieving successful outcomes. We just negotiate our way around the problems, gain buy-in from everybody, and agree to agree or to resolve everything. Easy ...
But it cannot be that simple can it? Theory is theory, and we live in a world where in practice some last minute 'distractors' throw themselves into the fray and wreak havoc. Or they create difficulties not necessarily aligned to the project but to individual personalities and perspectives, or they just come out of the blue and need to be 'managed'. So when was the last time a key resource was forceably taken from you to do something else somewhere else because somebody with bigger influence said this had to happen? Try putting that into your risk register a priori. Or when was the last time that a project team became noticeably less productive because there were internal conflicts of interest, political motivations, or reasons not to be cheerful?
I often get the line "Well, you should always expect the unexpected" which goes beyond the theoretical and practical and enters the realm of the downright annoying. Our job is arguably to try to anticipate the unexpected, and then find ways to ensure that this does not adversely impact on the project. So we use our built-in slack, we make use of our contingency plans and budgets, we handle or transfer the risks, and we raise our voices in meetings and telephone conversations to put it mildly. Logic does not actually feature too much when such idiotic distractors occur, and we have to drag ourselves through the red mist trying to focus on the objectives, watching as our constraints of time, cost, scope, quality and personal reputation are shattered, and we start to contemplate the consequences. In theory this makes our lives more interesting, and helps build character with useful lessons to be learned and experience to be gained aplenty, but in practice does this make such events any more desirable?