Actions Needed

There are several ways to approach acquiring contextual understanding.

One approach is to develop a systemic view of a project. For instance, a project manager might develop, either formally or mentally, a causal loop diagram that identifies what constitutes "the project" and key relationships among all its elements.

Another approach is to view a project in terms of its stage. In my book, The People Side of Project Management , I identify the five stages of a project: gestation, growth, independence, decline, and death. [13]

The gestation stage represents the birth of a project. It is at this time that a project will or will not become a viable entity. Often, a peeked interest arises because something is wrong, necessitating the project. At the same time, a struggle may ensue ” competition with other projects and other priorities. Even with good justification, a project may not survive because the competition and the other priorities may be too strong. Project leadership necessitates the ability to overcome this resistance by proving the project's worthiness. Project managers may find it very difficult to have people take ownership and be committed at this stage.

The growth stage is when a project has gained some legitimacy and respectability. In other words, it provides value to key stakeholders. Still, as in gestation, a project must compete to survive, only this time with projects of an equal or better stature. Project leadership requires a style that emphasizes the need to develop and implement an infrastructure that engenders a sense of "sturdiness" in its infrastructure while progressing.

The independence stage represents the self-supporting point of a project. It can now compete successfully with other contemporary projects and receive the necessary support to sustain itself. It is the "norming" point of a project. Considerable equilibrium exists in the overall performance of a project. Project leadership involves maintaining a sense of direction and focus.

The declining stage is that point when a project moves from being a going concern to nearing goal attainment . It is here that disequilibrium may begin to arise. As the work completes, people begin to focus on other matters, such as finding another project. It is also at this point that rising projects compete to receive attention. Depending on its progress, this stage can be rather euphoric, due to success, or negative, when some people feel the project was a bad investment of their time and effort.

The death stage is, of course, the final one. The project loses relevancy to all the stakeholders. In other words, it no longer can sustain legitimacy vis-  -vis other competing projects.

A project can move from the gestation phase to the death stage almost overnight, thereby bypassing the other stages. Or, it can progress through all five stages. The point is that project managers should have a good idea of the phase of the project. This knowledge enables them to make some key decisions and actions pertaining to cost, schedule, quality, and people.

Another approach toward attaining contextual understanding is to determine the category of your project. An excellent approach is the one developed by A.J. Shenhar et al. [14] that they described at the 2002 PMI Research Conference in Seattle, Washington. The idea is that different projects require different management. They developed a matrix that uniquely classifies projects and distinguishes them from one another, referring to the scheme as the strategic/portfolio classification. It consists of projects that are either operational or strategic in nature and the customers as internal or external. Product improvement projects are examples of projects that are operational and external; maintenance, operational and internal; new product development, strategic and external; and research, strategic and internal.

After understanding the classification of a project, the next step is to apply the uncertainty, complexity, pace (UCP) model. Uncertainty is highest at the beginning of a project and reflects scope; complexity consists of a combination of elements, e.g., size and interconnectedness; and pace is the time frame.

Next, identify the product/work distinction, once again reflected in a matrix. The product may be intangible or tangible , e.g., hardware or data, respectively. The work may be intellectual or craft oriented, either new or done earlier, respectively. The combination of two variables , e.g., intellectual and intangible, reflects the degree of risk associated with a project.

According to Shenhar et al., the result of all three models and matrices determines the interest certain stakeholders have in a project. In addition, it determines the overall project management style employed which reflects, in part, how a project manager leads people through the choice of strategies, organization, processes, and tools. [15]

So how do project managers get started in obtaining a contextual understanding? There are several actions or behaviors that they can exhibit; these actions should not be construed, however, as a step-by-step approach. Rather, all of them may occur concurrently and in different order, depending on the circumstances.

Perhaps the most important action to take is a systemic view. A systemic view requires that they look at the project from a particular frame of reference or mental map and identify all the elements and their relationships.

What works for me is an almost ecological systemic view. I identify what I consider all the elements, e.g., objects and relationships, and ascertain how they interact within the contemporary environment. I look for the explicit and implied factors, both within the boundaries of the project and its external environment, and look for linkage. I am particularly interested in the behavior patterns as demonstrated in similar projects from the past and the effectiveness of the processes. Armed with that knowledge, I have a better understanding of the potential risks and actions to take either now or in the future.

There are various ways to obtain this information. Project managers can review documentation, e.g., lessons learned, and data, e.g., earned value, from previous projects. This material may or may not be readily available. Unfortunately, what exists is either too much or too little, both quite paralyzing. If too much, project managers can review the material in a cursory manner to acquire a sense of the challenges, issues, and risks. If necessary, they can convert data into information by developing quality control type charts, e.g., Pareto charts, pie charts .

But if too little material, what can project managers do? The most important action is to meet with stakeholders, direct and indirect. By using effective listening and meeting skills, project managers can get solid insights to help them acquire a good contextual understanding. Remember, the goal is more than collecting data and information; it is to acquire a contextual understanding. In other words, the wisdom of Covey returns ” seek first to understand. To a larger degree, acquiring a contextual understanding is like a reconnaissance mission. Data and information may be available, but they may not be reliable or valid. The project manager has to conduct the mission to separate fiction from fact before engagement.

Whether or not the data or information are available, project managers must be critical, not applied, thinkers. Critical thinking, in a nutshell , means to apply judgment, e.g., accept or reject, to the data and information received. Applied thinking means to apply methods , tools, and techniques without really questioning their validity, e.g., calculate the critical path .

When applying critical thinking, project managers must be constantly cognizant that they are immersed in an environment and that obtaining a true objective perspective is impossible . However, this impossibility does not obviate the need for critical thinking but augments it.

There are so many "threats" facing project managers when they exercise critical thinking. These include how projects were managed in the past, group mores and norms throughout an organization, managerial style of superiors, "politics," oversimplification and overcomplication, and availability of data and information sources. If project managers recognize that such threats exist, they can better deal with impacts to their projects.

Naturally, this situation leads to the question of what constitutes critical thinking when trying to acquire a contextual understanding of a project. I think that it requires answering this question with questions like:

  • What is my frame of reference?

  • What are the frames of reference of other stakeholders?

  • Do the data and information reflect facts or assumptions?

  • How meaningful or significant are the data and information?

  • What are the standards of evaluation to distinguish between fact and assumption?

  • Is feedback clear and concise to avoid erroneous judgments ?

  • What are implicit factors influencing the performance of a project?

  • What are the inferences and conclusions drawn from the data and information?

  • What is the logical thinking behind inferences and conclusions?

  • How can the inferences and conclusions be verified to avoid basing them on inaccurate data and information?

  • Has judgment been suspended before the data and information are used?

  • What are the consequences of using data and information that are received?

  • What are some contradictions in the data and information received and the methods employed to seek clarification and resolution?

  • How will the data and information be compiled and organized to reduce bias?

Answering the above questions is not easy. However, they do provide project managers with the opportunity to get their bearings, especially during the early phases and stages. Too often, project managers fall into the same trap as other professionals. They treat assumptions and theories as facts and, even in some cases, as truisms. They rely on inaccurate or incomplete data. Many examples exist due to an inability to develop an accurate contextual understanding; assumptions, data, and information are often unreliable or invalid. This blind acceptance complicates leading a project because what was used and accepted up front permeates the life cycle, creating downstream challenges.

[13] Ralph L. Kliem, The People Side of Project Management , Gower, Aldershot, Hampshire, U.K., 1992. pp. 20 “26.

[14] A.J. Shenhar, D. Dvir, T. Lechler, and M. Poli, One size does not fit all, Presentation at PMI Research Conference 2002, July 15, Seattle, WA.

[15] A.J. Shenhar, D. Dvir, T. Lechler, and M. Poli, One size does not fit all, Presentation at PMI Research Conference 2002, July 15, Seattle, WA.

Leading High Performance Projects
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