A project is a promise. It’s about coordinating unknowable future events to deliver something of value.
Showing up on time for a meeting is a project (airlines! traffic! weather!) and so is building a skyscraper. That next podcast you’re going to publish is a project, and so is cooking dinner for guests.
There’s always uncertainty because we’re dancing with the future, with random events and often, with other people.
And there’s a need for management because left to its own devices, a project isn’t likely to get done on its own.
The unpredictable nature of future events means that there will often be unexpected speed bumps. No project manager has a perfect record, because the cost of being completely perfect in the face of unknown is too high. And yet, there’s a huge gap between great project management and simply providing earnest effort. If unexpected events happen to you more than the average expected rate, if you’re often better at finding excuses than a way to avoid needing an excuse, it’s a sign that your next project could benefit from a more intentional approach to shipping great work on time.
It’s not a surprise that we’re all pretty unsophisticated at project management. We’re pushed to begin with our very first assignments and creations in first grade, and we make projects, with increasingly higher stakes, all through school. And yet, no one ever teaches us that this is a skill that can be learned and delivered with strategy and technique.
The hallmarks of earnest amateurism are:
lots of resources available for emergencies, shifting time away from planning and contingencies
embrace of a narrative that this particular interruption is unique and couldn’t be planned for
the thrill of getting close to failure and making it work at the last possible moment
The professional, on the other hand, invests heavily to be sure that none of these three exciting things happen. And when surprises happen, they expect them, accept them and simply shift to the other route.
The most exciting thing about professional project management is that it trades away excitement for systems thinking and intentional action. We make heroes out of people who show up with the last-minute save, but the real work is in not needing the last minute.
And it’s helpful to realize that it’s a skill, a choice, a set of tools to be learned, not something we’re born with. Very few successful organizations feel as though they’ve underinvested in project management. By the time a project is worth doing, it’s worth doing with intent.
If we know the answer to that, a whole bunch of time gets saved, and fear is reduced as well.
The labeling goes beyond which team, cadre, tribe or village someone is part of. It extends to the ways we demonstrate which box we’ve chosen–fashion, pro sports, even the tech we use or how we speak. The search for safe shortcuts becomes an end to itself.
And then it can get toxic. When we start dividing people by race or identity, by background or caste, we end up losing dignity and nuance for the false shortcut of putting someone into a box.
But in our quest to put everyone in a box, we leave a lot behind. We ignore the chance to interact with someone who can teach us something. We sacrifice the benefit of the doubt in exchange for what feels like security. And we take away the humanity of people who don’t make it easy for us to find a niche for them.
The first few moves of a chess game give the player almost unlimited freedom. There are countless legal moves, and nothing to constrain the choices that a player makes among them.
But as we add leverage to our culture and our organizations, the choices aren’t as easy.
Jerry Garcia couldn’t easily change the Grateful Dead’s touring regime, even if he wanted to. With a payroll of nearly 100 people, the organization needed to be on the road, playing ever bigger venues, to keep the machine moving. The same feels true for countless situations involving countries, organizations (big and small) and even individuals in a system.
The high school principal might be in charge of the school, but their degrees of freedom aren’t unlimited.
And one reason is that freedom and agency aren’t the same thing.
Freedom of choice implies that the repercussions of any given choice are mild. Freedom without responsibility feels like the goal.
But in fact, agency with leverage only works because it’s so difficult and comes with so much responsibility. The struggling small business owner can shut down a division, sell an asset or part ways with a partner. It’s not easy, it feels painful and fraught, but it’s still possible.
The easiest option is to imagine that we have no difficult options.
In the pre-media world, we bumped into fables, or news from across the village, but mostly, our role models and experiences were based on reality.
Now, when it’s not unusual to spend eight hours a day surrounded by media fueled by greatest hits (worst offender, breaking news, richest investor, evillest husband, funniest line of all the movies ever made) we start to imagine that only hyperbole matters.
Greatest hits, by their nature, are unusual. And if the media you’re absorbing is selected from a billion possible clips, don’t be surprised if you start to believe that the unusual is normal.
We often see problems through the lens that we’re used to using. The banker sees a solution around money, the activist might see an opportunity for social justice. The technologist figures that a computer and more data might help, and the bureaucrat is looking for a system to put into place.
If a lens is working, that’s terrific.
If it’s not, perhaps there’s a mismatch between the tool we’re used to and the one that will actually work.
Two useful approaches:
Name your lens. If you have an instinct that you rely on when solving a problem, naming it is a helpful way to bring it on when needed, and to set aside when it’s not.
Name the other lenses. If there’s someone else in the world who solves problems differently than you, perhaps you could bring their point of view to the table, even (especially) if it doesn’t come naturally.
Agreeableness is not the same as agreeing. In fact, they have little in common. Finding someone who’s only job is to agree with everything that is said is easy. On the other hand, agreeableness is the skill of having a contrary position and being pleasant about it. It’s the hard work of bringing professional work to people who expected something else–and have them still be pleased about the changes. Agreeableness is a skill and it’s a choice. Being contrary is a form of Resistance, a way to deal with our fear.
Receptivity is our openness to better. We’re here to make change happen, and the path forward can’t possibly be perfectly known before we begin. Receptivity combines curiosity, awareness and a desire for improvement. The receptive person asks good questions and says ‘thank you’ to useful feedback.
Enthusiasm connects the two, and it’s contagious. When the auditorium is half empty, with folks sitting in the back row with their laptops open, hesitant to ask questions–do you expect that the professor or speaker is going to do their best work? What happens in the hallways or the Zoom room is often a direct result of how much enthusiasm we choose to bring to the interaction.
While it’s likely that you own a bike, you probably don’t have a front-wheel recumbent bicycle in your garage.
Even though it’s more efficient, more comfortable and often faster.
How did that happen?
In 1933, a twenty-year old speed record was broken by a racer on a recumbent bike. Concerned, the leading manufacturers of upright bikes went to the UCI and persuaded them to ban recumbent bikes from competition.
Nearly a hundred years later, the ban continues.
Of course, most of us will never race in a sanctioned UCI bicycle race.
But, the fastest bicyclists are the ones that spend the most time and money on their bikes. They’re surrounded by a circle of other bicyclists that would like to be the fastest. And they’re surrounded by an even larger circle that is inspired by them.
And so the status roles are set, and thus affiliation roles as well. And then systems are built and technology platforms are reinforced and it becomes simpler and easier and more convenient to buy and sell the regular kind. All because of one race 90 years ago.
Consider what happens when one person (now lost to the clouds of time) decides to alter an algorithm at YouTube. That simple tweak starts to deliver more profitable results, and so others build around that change, codifying into code something that might not be in the long-term interests of users or creators.
Now that it’s built in, it changes what gets produced and that changes what gets watched.
The office that 5,000 people commute to every day is there because forty years ago, someone thought that it would be nice to work near home, and that four-person office is now a megaplex.
We cut the tails off of some dog breeds because thousands of years ago, someone mistakenly thought they prevented disease. But then it became a signal of adherence or status, and the system persists.
Little decisions compound and then anchor systems. Our commitment to defending sunk costs keeps those systems long after they’re no longer serving a purpose.
Until, one day, we look at our bicycle and wonder, “how did I end up here?”
We can tell from the words. “I’m just doing my job.” “Will this be on the test?” “Don’t blame me.” “It’s what everyone else is wearing.”
Keep your head down, do what you’re told, don’t stick your neck out, and most of all, pay attention to what everyone else is doing.
All of this comes from somewhere. From individuals and organizations that benefit from our compliance.
The alternative isn’t freedom. It’s responsibility.
The responsibility to show up, to care a bit more, to raise your hand and to make a difference.
Compliance is seductive because it comes with short-term prizes. If you fit in all the way, it might feel a bit less frightening. The center of the herd may in fact be safer, but the view is terrible.
We don’t spend nearly enough time celebrating responsibility. Our niche in the hierarchy is actually irrelevant, particularly for those you helped today. What matters is our willingness to see what’s happening and to sign up to do something about it.
It begins with figuring out just who is pushing so hard for you to comply.
June 13, 2023
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