Change and risks of the unknown are the primary challenges of modern projects — changes in our team, our understanding of our problem, our market, etc. Experienced project members know that the “best process” for our project doesn’t fall neatly into formulas. What was a successful strategy in one circumstance may fail completely in a seemingly similar circumstance. The relationship between our current situation and the best processes to deal with it are non-linear.
Lean thinking is one of the best starting points we have to systematically attack this problem with savvy about continuous improvement, shifting bottlenecks, systems thinking, statistical management, and respect for people on the front lines of the problem. And it’s been under-applied in getting us past the breakdown of traditional project management techniques in high-risk domains like software development.
But successful lean companies like Toyota have taken years or decades to build up institutional and cultural knowledge of where to start and how to evolve. Can we shorten this learning process for other companies or other domains?
Our unique circumstances and the changes around us require a kind of dance to make progress and stay balanced — sometimes steps forward, others to the side or back. This non-linear adaptation is very jarring for both our managers and our teams.
We need to find a way to empower people with the savvy to sense dissonance between the process we have vs. the process we need, give them the vocabulary to be able to discuss it, and the power to take action on that dissonance even if the solution is a step in a new direction or even a step back.
One of the best places to start is by attacking the belief that there is “one right process” for our teams.
Instead, we drive dialog around the spectrum of possibilities between any two poles or dualities: predictive vs. iterative management, larger vs. smaller batches, top-down vs. bottom up control, standardized vs. adaptative process, specialist vs. generalist teams, etc.
It’s not about choosing one or the other .. it’s about where you are on the spectrum.
As managers, we probe our teams, asking if they should be trying “more of this” or “less of that”. We can go forward or back on a spectrum, and we can step “to the side” by focusing our energies on a different duality.
What would help — in fact, what’s almost essential — is a pattern language to give names to abstractions and make dialog and discussion about where we are and where we’re going possible. Unfortunately, the PM pattern languages you’ll find today are based on absolutes (an assumption of one right process). We’re looking for one based on dualities — opposing forces or alternatives that we must balance to achieve the best-fit process for our circumstance, for this one point in time. We want terminology that ask us to think, adapt, and step in whatever direction our circumstance calls for.
Boehm (balance) and Cockburn (meta-methodologies) are wonderful starting points for this kind of thinking, at least in software developement. I’m sure there are others — please add a comment if you want to point out a resource.
Can we discover and build this pattern language of adaptive project management — and make it a an approachable, practical tool for today’s managers and project teams?