We got to ‘virtually sit’ with Mel Bost, author of Lessons Learned: Taking Project Management to a New Level in a Continuous Process Improvement Framework.
The dates were 9 and 10 December, 2013. Our questions are in italics, Mel’s answers are – well they’re not.
Question 1: Mel, early on in your book, you discuss the idea of archetypes and list several, including “The Tragedy of the Commons”. As you may know, this concept is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, as well as in the debate over global warming.
Can you give a lesson learned specifically from that archetype since it finds itself at the intersection of PM lessons learned and sustainability?
Yes, Rich, I have been an avid student of organizational dynamics in project organizations such as Program Management Offices (PMOs) for a number of years. Organizational dynamics deals with understanding not only the surface events in an organization but the patterns of behavior, archetypes, mental models and vision which the organization exhibits. A good example in a corporate environment would be projects that have a Security component. Every project might assume they could use a person/resource from the Corporate Security or Infrastructure department on their project whenever they needed advice on security issues. The objective here was to use part time resources rather than dedicated full time resources to control project costs. Eventually a “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario would be activated. As more and more projects used these part time Security personnel, it always seemed to be the case that, when these resources were needed most on projects, the Security personnel were called into action with corporate security issues like breaches in firewalls, etc. Therefore, the Security personnel were not available so that the projects took more time and expended more resources for completion.
These “patterns of behavior” were identified over time and changes were made in the way these resources were allocated to projects. But it was both an inefficient use of resources and a poor project practice. The lessons learned from these patterns were very leveraging to future projects and the project environment.
Question 2: In Chapter 6, Mel, you highlight Integrative Thinking and encourage your readers to “look at other issues that might impact the project so that a holistic view of the project and its impact on all stakeholders and the environment is considered”. When you wrote that, were you thinking of simply the ‘project environment’, in pure project terminology, or were you thinking literally of the environment, as in the Earth’s ecosystem? Either way, can you say how thinking about the impact of the project’s outcomes (either project proper, or product of the project) on the environment can lead to better management of the project?
Rich, I have encouraged the readers of my blog MEL BOST PMO EXPERT and my book Lessons Learned to use “integrative thinking” in their projects to seek “win-win” solutions and outcomes. I have been a follower of The University of Toronto Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin’s “Integrative Thinking” concepts for many years. Roger Martin studied how successful people think in many different fields and disciplines to understand why the decisions of some leaders focused on “win-win” outcomes and others on “win-lose” or compromise outcomes.
I applied these concepts to projects and also talked with Dean Roger Martin about this approach. He was in agreement that this was sound for project decisions although he had not looked at projects before. Basically, he identified four factors that “win-win” leaders used in their decision making and termed it “Integrative Thinking.” These four factors were (1) consideration of more salient features (2) integrative holistic systems approach (3) architecture of the decision and (4) consideration of opposing viewpoints.
A good example of a project which utilizes “integrative thinking” would be current day urban traffic congestion and parking scenario. (See reference below) It has been estimated that approximately one-third of all cars moving around in major cities are looking for parking. The “parking” issue has not been addressed for about 30 years. The solution most offered in the past was to build more parking structures. However, if we apply “integrative thinking,” then more salient features of the project include the fact that many parking spaces are vacant at any given time but drivers are not aware of them. While drivers are looking for spaces, spaces are looking for cars.
If sensor technology was used to identify vacant spaces, then drivers could be directed to open spaces in existing parking lots and structures. An integrated holistic approach would be to use this “information” wisely. This would present a “win-win” solution for the cities and the drivers and address the traffic congestion.
Rich, in my mind one connotation of “sustainability” means keeping the operations of a system working for society while efficiently employing resources (both human and other) to get the job done. You may recall that in summer 2011, I conducted two Project Lessons Learned courses in Panama for the Panama Canal Authority Construction Division. It was during that visit that I began to learn of the rich history of lessons learned from the Panama Canal projects since it opened in 1914 that led to major improvements in canal operations.
An example emerged from a Lesson Learned in the Panama Canal project completed in 1914. It also represents a good example of “Enterprise Risk Management.” The Panama Canal project did not fully define or address the Requirements for water usage and conservation in the lock operations of the Canal. The lock operation drew water from the Panama lakes to fill the locks of the canal during ship transport. After usage, the water was discharged to the ocean. Panama has both periods of extreme dryness and excessive rainfall. In dry seasons, the lakes often did not contain enough water to fill the locks so that ship and canal traffic was stopped. This situation existed until about 1935.
Subsequent canal improvement projects built new dams and conserved the water for future usage. The Panama Canal Expansion Program which is slated for completion in 2015 has an extensive water infrastructure component in place to use water wisely.
Question 3: In Chapter 8, you make an observation that’s particularly poignant, one that perhaps explains why project managers shy away from both lessons learned collecting (and using) as well as their aversion to integrating sustainability thinking into their projects. And that is “overwhelmingly project managers want to get on to that next great assignment, that next great challenge, that next great project. Rarely do they want to pause and reflect…”
Do you agree with the premise that because we’re programmed to think about definitive beginnings and ends, and because we want to move on to that next great project that it does indeed take extra energy to think about (for example) the product of your project in the steady state?
Rich, I think there are several answers to this question. It does take additional “energy” to integrate “sustainability” thinking into the practices of a PMO. But where that “energy” comes from may not always be the same place.
I think there are some PMO “cultures” that incorporate the need for capabilities like sustainability (and another is “business continuity”) because they are part of a larger corporate environment and culture that embraces these capabilities.
Some PMOs require external “stimulus” to embrace sustainability and that is where the “energy” comes from.
It is a little like watching the old “Industry on Parade” TV film strips of the 1950’s. They are excellent for seeing “process” in action but they are sorely lacking any safety and environmental awareness and sensitivity. Watching them today makes engineers and project managers ask the question “Wasn’t safety and environment important in the 1950’s?” It is a question of “relevance.” These topics were not as “relevant” to overall ‘sustainability” in the 1950’s. It took decades of external stimulus and sometimes accidents and environmental disasters to create meaningful change and sensitivity.
Question 4: In Chapter 16, as you conclude, you have a list of evaluation points one can review to lessen the risk of project problems from the environment.
Numbers 7 and 8 are of the most interest to us. 7 says, to “Identify and monitor any cultural or business context issues that might play a major role in the project environment for your organization or industry. 8 says, to “continue to look at project LLs and to use the information to feedback to the front-end evaluation process”.
These are PMO roles and we’ve increasingly seen the PMO as “owning” sustainability thinking. Do you agree that a PMO truly owning this type of analysis and thought leadership is a sign of project management maturity, and can you offer any further ideas on how to increase that level of maturity in an organization?
This is a complex issue. In one sense, it is true that a sign of PMO maturity is the ownership of “capabilities” that the organization cannot handle in any other place. So “sustainability” is one of these capabilities. But, in another sense, true maturity comes when everyone in the organization thinks in terms of “continuous process improvement” at all times and seeks to look for feedback opportunities. So this question has two answers that are not incompatible. While the PMO assumes ownership for “sustainability” as a capability, it should be the personal responsibility of every member of the project organization to convert lessons learned into process improvements.
As organizations move toward true “learning centers” in the future, they will embrace capabilities like “sustainability” to enhance their ability to deliver outcomes that satisfy societal needs.
Mel, thanks so much for the time and insightful answers. I expected no less after readingyour outstanding book.
We encourage our readers to pick this book up – and read it – and keep it for repeated use. You can find it here.