My current work lives here: Oddball Empire - Rock on.
In a series called The Context Machine I will summarize three years of looking for answers to the following question:
“If you are a Project Manager that operates for a short period of time in a foreign organization, with a global team you don’t know, in a domain you would not know, using virtual communication, high uncertainty, limited authority and part of what you do out in the open on the Internet, how do you make it all work?”
Yes, I know, I tried to put as much difficulties as I know of into this question. But it’s the question we are dealing with.
The Medina Of Fes
It all started three years ago with my trip to the fabulous country of Morocco. When I was leaving the medina (Old City) of Fes through the gate I felt overwhelmed by this great illustration of human complexity.
Standing on top of a hill you have a great overview of the entire medina. It really consists of thousands and thousands of streets, but from above you just see one massive, silent brown and green landscape.
When entering the medina you get proper feel of how big and busy this maze actually is. People are crawling through every possible opening. These openings are called streets, but actually that is not the correct expression. A more appropriate description is space between houses. From the hilltop you have no idea what is going on in this enormous network of spaces between houses.
The city itself contains complete small eco-systems between houses. Out of sight from the street level, but visible from the roof gardens of surrounding buildings is this part of town dedicated to making leather from skin. It is a specialized small city within the larger medina.
These small specialized parts are not the only hidden secrets. All houses within the medina look very dull from the outside. Almost no way to look inside from the small streets. But when entering such a riad one has to be amazed by the size of the internal gardens that make up the center of these large houses.
The Connection With Projects
For me Fes illustrates that a society is multi-layered. Depending on which scale you are looking at you see different things happening. But all levels are connected. The streets make up the city. But the development of the entire city determines where streets are created or used.
If we are studying projects, we cannot do this without looking at the individual stakeholders and team members. We cannot do this without the organization where the project is conducted. We have a tendency to look at individual elements, and we know somewhere there are some connections, but mostly we treat every scale individually.
But all things are interconnected.
Interactions Between Members And The Project
Whatever your take is on projects, at the end of the day it is just a bunch of people working together to achieve a certain goal. During this endeavor to laugh, cry, pull pranks, play dirty tricks and have all other kind of behavior towards each other. If you are lucky they even work to reach the final goal. If you take everything away, and put people in the center of what a “project” is, you will see a group of stakeholders interacting with each other, just like any other group of people would do.
Just to make things easier on our lives, we call the result of all this behavior “the project”. In this sense it is nothing more than an abstraction. If we say “the project is late”, this doesn’t mean that some creature or entity from outer space showed up later than expected; it is the result of the project people working together that wasn’t finished on the time we predicted.
In this sense the word “project” is the same as “economy”. If our economy is improving, there is not some kind of energy force that is doing better than before. The whole system of people working, people buying and people living that is better off in some way than in the past. We need this kind of abstraction, just to be able to cope with it; it is easier to talk about the economy than about 100 million individuals.
But the interesting thing is that this abstraction influences the people that make up the underlying system; if the economy is doing better, people will spend more, if a project is late, people will work harder.
Influenced By Panarchy
How to analyze today’s complexity? I found my answer in Panarchy. Its origin is in ecosystem management, where it is used for assessment on how ecosystems, social systems and economic systems are interacting.
One of the essential part of this ecological framework is the notion of three system levels that interact. Let me illustrate the ideas with an example.
For a long time, firefighters used the wrong strategy to attack forest fires. The approach taken was to extinguish the fire as soon as possible, as small as possible. If a small tree is on fire, put it out immediately. By solving the problem at the “individual tree level” you didn’t have the issue on a larger scale, “the forest level”.
After decades of using this approach, it had worked overall pretty well, however, when a fire broke out, it seemed almost unstoppable. Once the fire was active on a larger scale, forest or landscape, it went on a rampage. Before the “put out before the tree is on fire”-policy was used, smaller areas burned once in a while. The burning of the smaller forest area made the newly grown trees more fire resistant. It also created more natural open spaces; areas that have no plants or trees, so the fire hits on a barrier.
Two lessons here:
- You can view a system on different scales or levels (leave, tree, forrest, landscape / person, team, project, organization, society), and
- The different levels interact.
In terms of Panarchy, three elements are considered: the focal system (in our case “the project”), the higher scales (e.g. the company, or professional group, or society) and the lower scales (e.g. individuals or teams).
Panarchy provides us a wide angle lens to look at projects. This powerful concept lets us capture the project, the individual team members and the embedding organization in one go.
We can look at three levels at once.
Although I think this actual model can help us further, I am using it for inspiration, as I think I have a better answer to the original question I started this post with.
But the notion to look at multi levels at once that interact, is a concept I will borrow happily as it addresses my main problem with alternatives.
A second concept I’ll borrow from Panarchy, is the idea that resilience in projects are determined by the diversity of individuals: resilience is in the interactions. Formulated in the framework itself (*):
“The resilience characteristics of any focal system are in large part determined by the interactions of scales across this panarchy, from the focal system to coarser scales and from the focal system to the finer scales.”
As explained at SustainableScale:
“Diversity is believed to be a key issue in restoring resilience – both biological and social diversity are important to the extent they contribute functional redundancy (i.e. similar services can be provided by some element in the diversity). But as biological diversity is lost, or as human systems and institutions become homogeneous and rigid, then the likelihood of restoring lost resilience declines.”
In the 2008 financial crisis, what you see is that all banks were using the same kind of strategies and constructs, and they are highly connected. So when a huge disturbance hits the banking system, they infect each other by the heavy dependencies and react all the same because of identical structures, lack of diversity.
Next up: The Essence Is Context.
[*] (“Assessing and managing resilience in social-ecological systems: Volume 2 supplementary notes to the practitioners workbook”, can be freely downloaded from the Resilience Alliance – bottom of the page).