One of the great things about speaking at a conference is the ability to attend the other sessions and use those speakers’ messages to reflect on your own thoughts. Recently, I had the opportunity to present the model that we developed for municipal collaboration at the Municipal Information Systems Association of British Columbia’s (MISA BC) annual Fall Conference in North Vancouver. As usual at these events, I had a great time (Dr. Strangelove played at the banquet. Awesome cover band! They can play anything and do it very well.) and I met some great people. However, from the whole event, I keep thinking about one slide from one keynote presentation.
It came in a keynote presentation by David Eaves on September 16th, 2015. It struck me so hard because it encapsulates all that has always bugged me about traditional project management. I took a picture because I didn’t want to forget it. (Not sure if this is stealing? Sorry if it is. All credit to Mr. Eaves!)
We have all been told that to run a good project you need a plan – defined start and finish, you need to spend the time up front – document those specs and for a project to be successful you need the 3 “on’s” – on time, on budget, on spec. I suspect that if you are building a house or a pipeline that makes good sense. We want predictability. We are bound by our reductionist logic that if I understand the components of a problem, the solution is predictable. If I don’t see the solution, I haven’t made the analysis granular enough. But in the world of public policy, and potentially application design, we may be missing the point.
I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that we don’t need to plan. A large part of my career has been developing strategic plans, business plans, project plans, plans to plan, but this is leading me to think that, while important, this is only part of it. In a complex space, solving complex problems we need to change our expectations and our thinking – problem solving by experiment.
The ‘Ah-ha’ Moment
Planning should be about setting direction and defining a description of success. And it should evolve through the course of a project so that we are able to learn, debate and adjust. Who should be learning, debating and adjusting? Obviously, the subject matter experts and technical experts that are delivering the project should be involved but what about the users? In a public policy context, the users are our citizens, our residents and they must be part of this experiment and the associated learning. Likewise for application users, we need more emphasis on design thinking, User Acceptance Testing (UAT) and reflection.
And above all, we need to stop binding the effectiveness of these projects with artificial or politically driven deadlines. Even when we meet these expectations, we need to be in it for continued development, constantly evaluating, learning and refining. Good project management principles still need to apply but let’s focus on phases using approaches like Stage Gating to manage risk and budget.
The Necessary Culture
So what are the cultural attributes that could pull this off? Obviously, inclusion. Get the users/stakeholders at the table and keep them there. Patience, senior managers have to look at workload and be realistic on what they can and cannot deliver. Courage, political leaders need to be in these initiatives for the long haul. It may be tough in a four year election cycle but that is the only way that we can change the mindset and meet these complex challenges.
Boy, that turned into a bit of a rant! Thanks David Eaves (@daeaves), I may have just learned something!