Two Project Management Metaphors

I recently got through the book, The Blind Men and the Elephant by David Schmaltz. The sub-heading of this book is "mastering project work". That, along with recommendations from others, prompted me to buy the book expecting to read about processes and techniques for managing projects. That's not quite what I got.

The book turned out to be quite philosophical and while there may arguably be actionable items, there certainly wasn't anything resembling a checklist or process description that I could apply the next day at work. Regardless, the book was thought-inspiring which is certainly a good thing. In particular, David described some metaphors to describe projects and project management.

First off is the description of projects as being a battle. A description that David doesn't like in the least.

"Predictable things happen when we start describing our projects as battles. People behave as if they are soldiers. Directions become orders. Work becomes fierce competition. Plans become immutable. Enemies emerge. We and our opponents become less than human, shrinking as individuals. Our Technicolor world fades into opaque wrongs and colorless rights, when our success requires a palette filled with the possibility."

I'm not sure that I've ever treated a project like a battle. However, there have been people connected to my projects that became enemies in my mind. I think that's a natural reaction and not necessarily a bad one. There will always be people that will stand in your way and some of those people will have malicious intent. So, shouldn't they be considered enemies?

The second metaphor David suggests is that of a tree.

"How are projects like trees? Trees are hierarchies branching both up and down from a central trunk. We see the trunk or the canopy and recognize a tree without seeing the part of the sustaining organism working silently below ground."

"Project organizations are hierarchies that seem to branch only down from a central point. But like trees, project organizations are more complex than they appear. When we see a team pursuing an objective, we recognize a project without ever detecting the invisible networks sustaining it. What soil supports this tree's roots? What nourishes it? What sort of photosynthesis sustains it?"

The tree metaphor obviously lacks the negative connotations that the battle metaphor has. It also captures the idea that a project has more going on with it than is readily seen. This last point is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. I've often said that a smoothly running project appears as if no one, project manager included, is expending any effort.

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2 Comments

  1. Marios Alexandrou

    David, You offer an optimistic perspective! Some people just don't want a project to succeed. So while understanding their perspective e.g. fear of change is certainly a worthwhile effort, it doesn't mean I'll be able to do anything about it. I have the additional advantage of being young and looking even younger neither of which are assets when the "enemy" is a veteran with the company. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Mario: Thanks for reading my book! As for the "enemy with bad intent," I've found that I can usually neutralize their negative influence by understanding their perspective. When I cast them as enemy, I seem to become less able to listen and try to understand their perspective. Often, they bring unwanted but needed information that will make my project different than I originally envisioned. Most projects go through several different-than-originally-envisioned transformations, mostly at inconvenient times, and thankfully so in retrospect. Seems I'm only really listening to the extent that I'm prepared to be changed by what I hear. Warmly, david schmaltz

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