It sounds like the title of a great movie, but it’s a battle that is played out every day in every organisation that runs projects. I read something this week that inspired me to write about this battle and what you can do if you are in the midst of it.

The battlefield

The battlefield is the project management environment, and the war is about how projects should be managed.

The robots believe that there is only one way to do things – the correct way. Follow the processes, fill in the templates, dot the i’s, cross the t’s, put it on the system, minute the meeting. Details are the very fabric of life and if they get missed nothing can be achieved or delivered. It takes as long as it takes, you do things step by step, and there are no shortcuts. The robots will tell you that if you don’t understand the consequences of not working that way, then frankly you must be stupid and clearly not realise the disaster that is about to unfold.

The heroes are sure of themselves. They know that the only way a project can be run is by someone with many years of experience and deep subject-matter knowledge. They have scars on their back, they are street-wise, and they can make anything happen. In the real world you need to cut corners, there simply isn’t time to mess around with all the niceties. Theory is fine but if we spent all our lives in meetings and doing paperwork nothing would ever happen. The heroes will tell you that if you don’t understand the consequences of not working that way, then frankly you must be stupid and clearly not realise the disaster that is about to unfold.

One minute you are sitting there listening to a robot explain their views, and the next minute you are sitting there listening to a hero telling you theirs. Great! Now what?

Humanise the robots

Robots tend to be task-focussed, and sometimes need reminding about people. They often think of things in fine detail rather than grasping the big picture.

Your job is to spend time talking with the robots, and encouraging them to talk – with people not at them. Create opportunities for people involved in the project to fully-engage. Kick things around at a lunchtime barbeque; go and try an outdoor activity which is fun for the team such as archery together; go for a bushwalk. Anything to avoid computers and meetings as the default means of communicating.

Ask them about the intent of the processes they love – the “why?” question. Ask if they can see any different ways to apply those processes. Ask them how the process could be followed if not a single thing could be documented.

Invite the robots to look at their perspective, not just from it.

Connect with the heroes

The trick with heroes is to establish your credentials with them, win their respect. If you can connect with them you’ll have their ear and that is your chance to remind them of what they probably already know deep inside.

Remind them that projects are delivered by teams, not individuals. Not everyone is as smart or as experienced as they are which is why they need to take the time to communicate. Not everyone knows intuitively what needs to be done, which is why we need common processes that everyone understands.

Remind the heroes that the most brilliant organisations in the world have processes and structure – the trick is ensuring they are used to guide and encourage creativity not stifle it.

Ask the heroes how best to share their experience so others can benefit from it.

Invite the heroes to look at their perspective, not just from it.

Sound familiar?

If you have robots and heroes in your organisation it would be interesting (and fun!) to hear your stories – and examples of ideas for helping them see the world of projects in a different way.

What inspired me to write this?

I am sure this will be a surprise to a few people, but the source of inspiration for this blog was actually the current version of the PRINCE2 manual. Here is a direct quote from the text:

“If PRINCE2 is not tailored, it is unlikely that the project management effort and approach are appropriate for the needs of the project. This can lead to “robotic” project management at one extreme (the method is followed without question) or “heroic” project management at the other extreme (the method is not followed at all).

The purpose of tailoring is to:

  • Ensure the method relates to the project’s environment (e.g. aligning the method to the business processes that may govern and support the project, such as human resources, finance and procurement) ;
  • ensure that project controls are based on the project’s scale, complexity, importance, capability an risk (e.g. the reporting and reviewing frequency and formality).

Tailoring requires the Project Manager and the Project Board to make an active decision on how the method will be applied, for which guidance is provided. When tailoring PRINCE2 it is important to remember that it requires information (not necessarily documents) and decisions (not necessarily meetings).”

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2” 2009 Edition, page 14, © Crown Copyright