Towards Coherent Project Management

Kurt A. Richardson, Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence Michael R. Lissack, Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence Johan Roos, IMD

Abstract: Project management is becoming more difficult. An obvious statement perhaps to the day-to-day project manager, but the changing operating environment is uncovering some genuinely novel challenges. Not only may project teams comprise members from different in-house sectors, but also from different organizations altogether. Furthermore, given the sometimes varied geographical locations of the various members, team members may never actually meet face-to-face. In the recent past such teams were rare, but they are rapidly becoming the norm. Given these additional, and non-trivial, complexities, how might a project manager develop a shared understanding within the team, thereby increasing the chances of producing the project deliverable(s) on time and on budget as well as to a high standard?

Shared understanding contributes significantly to coherence, and developing and maintaining coherence within a project team is key to the success of the project. This paper will briefly examine the diverse coherence literature in the aim of developing a conceptual model of how coherence might be encouraged and maintained.

There are a number of scientific fields where one might find useful definitions of coherence. For example, physicists talk of coherent light in lasers, and psychologists talk of coherent (or rational) decision making. Generally, when authors refer to coherence, they mean that the system is logically or aesthetically ordered or integrated. In this view of coherence there is an absence of context. Context, too, has a central role in the development of coherence. In exploring the definitions of coherence, links will be made directly to the implications for project management.

It will be argued that language plays a vital role in the development of coherence, in that it can be employed to build the common context in which the team operates. However, coherence is transient. As members’ views evolve and the operating environment inevitably changes, the project context needs to be reviewed, i.e. it needs to be ‘situated’. What might appear to be the appropriate context for action in a particular moment may be wholly inappropriate in the (short-term) future, such that coherence rapidly collapses into incoherence. Ten conceptual building blocks are introduced, and their benefits to the project team as well as the project manager indicated.


A revolution in project management?

Project management is becoming more difficult. An obvious statement perhaps to the day-to-day project manager, but the changing operating environment is uncovering some genuinely novel challenges. The modern organization should no longer be viewed as a group of loosely related departments with specific formal links, but as a series of highly interconnected business processes. The increased use of information technology, and the resulting interconnectivity, from local area networks, through intra-nets, the Internet, and now extra-nets of business-associated organizations, has increased the capability for individuals and groups to exchange information rapidly. This increased connectedness has meant that the identification of causal links, and where identified, the affect of such links on organizational behavior, is also increasingly difficult, making the ability to make informed decisions increasingly difficult. This is the complex organization. Rather than being an exception, the complex organization is becoming more prevalent given current trend in globalization and the associated increase in business fragmentation.

With this increase in complexity, derived from the increased connectivity between, and the growing personal autonomy of organizational agents, project management is increasingly becoming a game of chance. This is not the fault of the project manager but of the dated techniques and attitudes bought to bear in the management of complex situations. Whereas in the past a command and control approach to management was adequate given the less complex organizational forms, and the slower tempo of business activities, this bureaucratic stance is no longer suitable as it is unable to provide the necessary flexibility needed to confidently confront the many managerial challenges in modern organizations. This need for flexibility in the face of environmental complexity has resulted in a new model of the project team. Whereas previously it was common to have self- contained teams, i.e., they were in the same building, they had all the necessary subject matter expertise for the project at hand, and were probably of the same ethnic background, etc., this model is no longer appropriate. Today one is more likely to find teams that are not co-located in the same country let alone the same building, which means that different working cultures are brought together, each culture endowed with it’s own set of rules and guiding principles that facilitate action in different situations.

It is plainly apparent from the world of politics how difficult it is for given cultures to empathize with other different cultures. This is not necessarily a result of not wanting to understand each other, but the inability to recognize and appreciate the other’s point of view. It is no surprise that we are witnessing so much conflict in the modern world. And so the same occurs in multi-cultural teams though, one hopes, on a far smaller scale! Of course, disagreement is not absent from mono-cultural teams, but the more disparate the frames of reference represented in multi-cultural teams the greater the chance of misunderstanding. With the possibility of having members dispersed over the globe, life for the project manager is complicated further. Not only does the potential for misunderstanding increase, but the opportunities to limit such misunderstandings are also diminished through the low-dimensionality of the communication media available compared to face-to-face communications.

As well as the lack of co-location of the team members (though possibly of the same company) and the different cultures bought together, it is unlikely that an in-house team has all the necessary subject matter expertise – a direct result of specialization. In which case, expertise is brought in from other companies. This increases the complexity further. Not only does the manager have to accommodate the outside individuals’ agendas but also those of their employers. This introduces further resource dependencies and institutional pressures, all of which place restrictions upon the project manager’s ‘maneuverability’. By considering the resource dependency and institutional perspectives it appears that as the teams get more complex the manager’s behavior is increasingly limited. We have a paradox – at a time when managers need increasing freedom to promote coherence within their teams, there are resource and institutional pressures limiting their freedom - what has happened to strategic choice?

Aim of paper

This paper explores what is meant by coherence in the context of project teams. In doing so a number of definitions of coherence from a range of different disciplines will be reviewed, resulting in a descriptive definition of the term in view of project management. A conceptual model will also be proposed that, when utilised, will encourage and maintain team coherence, increasing the potential for successful team endeavours. Essentially, this model captures and relates the cognitive devices that are required in order to facilitate the creation of a project-based mental model for each of the team members, that in turn results in a project context which causes coherent, or situated, action.

What do we mean by coherence?

There are a number of different meanings associated with the concept of coherence that will be explored in this section. First though, let’s consider briefly the history of the word:

The word ‘coherence’ is derived from the French comhærère (16th century), which means to stick or put things together – i.e., it has to do with combining and cleaving. Cohèrent and cohesion have, thus, the same root. The Latin source cohærère indicates attachment, in the sense of sticking to, belonging to, or staying with. The word, as well as referring to an idea or argument being linked, or belonging together, alludes to social relations where people stick together or have a grip on one another1.

The different aspects to the meaning of coherence are illustrated by the following examples from physics and cognitive science. Firstly, in physics there is the notion of coherent and incoherent light. The difference between an ordinary household light bulb and a laser illustrates the concept well. A standard light bulb produces light waves or particles that spread out from the light source, bumping into each other and diluting the potency of the output. These waves are not all of the same frequency, i.e., a number of different frequencies are present, and they do not all have the same phase. Scientists call this incoherent light (which is necessary for the household bulb to serve its purpose – incoherence is not always a bad thing – creativity sessions often go through periods of incoherence before a coherent argument, idea, strategy, etc. is formulated). If, however, these light waves could be bought into coherence – in other words, made more focused and organized – a dramatically new level of power and effectiveness would be achieved. A laser produces a focused beam of mono-frequency light waves. This is known as coherent light and is the underlying principle behind what makes a laser so powerful. A laser produces coherent light waves that are highly efficient. The energy is ordered; it is not wasted and dissipated through bouncing into itself.

Another example of coherence from the realms of physics is magnetism. Again this idea of coherence relating to order is seen in the different patterns magnetic dipoles adopt in magnetized and demagnetized materials (see Exhibit 1). When a magnetic material is demagnetized the distribution of the orientation of the constituent dipoles is random, whereas in the magnetized material all the dipoles are aligned in a common direction (the direction of the applied magnetic field – which in the command and control context could be seen as the direction solely determined by the manager; the manager speaks and everything falls into place).

Figure 1

Exhibit 1. Coherence in magnetic materials

A third example from the domain of physics is known as ‘quantum coherence’. This involves multiple particles (electrons for example) that share a quantum state, which are governed by a macroscopic wave function. Or, in the words of Roger Penrose, “[Quantum coherence] refers to circumstances when large numbers of particles can collectively cooperate in a single [quantum] state…”. This is also known as a pure state, rather than a mixed (incoherent) state.

In all of these physics examples, the concept of coherence is synonymous with order, or purity. If a system displays intrinsic order then it is said to be coherent. So in terms of a project team, and in light of the above examples, coherence simply means that individual team members cooperate, or align, with each other in order to achieve a common goal. This is otherwise known as group cohesion. There exists a wealth of research concerned with the measurement of cohesion in groups. For example, in their attempts to measure cohesion Carron and Chelladurai2 used the following five aspects of cohesion to form a composite measure:

It is interesting to compare this list to the eight factors that emerged from Ingraham and Manning’s 1981 study of the ‘soldiers’ will’ in military units3 - the ‘soldiers’ will’ being seen as determining the performance of the individual within the group:

There are key differences between the two lists primarily because the concept of the ‘soldiers’ will’ is more than the construct of unit cohesion. Carron and Chelladurai’s five aspects of cohesion only consider the dispositions of the team members and how they are perceived to relate to each other, whereas the military study makes explicit the importance of leadership, and, more importantly, an awareness of the team’s operating environment.

Building cohesion within project teams is a challenge in itself particularly given the increasing diversity associated with modern teams. However, cohesion is not sufficient for coherence. The overall team effort must not only be concerted, but as indicated by the military studies, also be consistent with the environment in which it operates. The issue of project context must be considered.

Thagard and Verbeurgt take a different approach from those taken in the ‘hard’ sciences in defining coherence in that context becomes central. For them coherence can be understood in terms of the maximal satisfaction of multiple constraints, in a manner formally summarized as follows4:

  1. Elements are representations such as concepts, propositions, parts of images, goals, actions, and so on;
  2. Elements can cohere (fit together) or incohere (resist fitting together). Coherence relations include explanation, deduction, similarity, association, and so on. Incoherence relations include inconsistency, incompatibility, and negative associations;
  3. If two elements cohere, there is a positive constraint between them. If two elements incohere, there is a negative constraint between them;
  4. Elements are to be divided into one that are accepted and ones that are rejected;
  5. A positive constraint between two elements can be satisfied either by accepting both of the elements or by rejecting both of the elements;
  6. A negative constraint between two elements can be satisfied only by accepting one element and rejecting the other;
  7. A coherence problem consists of dividing a set of elements into accepted and rejected sets in a way that satisfies the most constraints.

In this model coherence is understood to be an issue of matching. This is how a coherent team strategy might be developed. Given the different goals, expertise, personalities, cultural attitudes, rules, etc. (i.e., elements), a coherent strategy can be adopted by following the above steps. Of course, identifying the pertinent elements and the coherence relations is not a trivial task - some are easier to ‘see’ than others - and much of the teams’ time might be spent on identification of the elements and their inter-relationships. The process of developing a strategy in this manner will undoubtedly uncover potential risks that result, for example, from an inability to match the strategy with all the constraints that will necessitate monitoring. Furthermore, as time passes the set of pertinent elements might change as well as the coherence relations so elements of one’s strategy might have to change in order to remain coherent, i.e., coherence is transient. Hence, there is importance to monitoring and being sensitive to such changes. The team’s strategy will necessarily change in light of the changing constraints. This change in strategy might simply result from the recognition of a team member’s struggling, or on a more grandiose scale, the customer changing his requirements.

In brief, coherence is concerned with ‘situated strategy’ – a strategy that meets the many constraints placed on the team from within and without. These constraints are sourced across spectrum levels from the individual to the super-organization, and neglect of any of them may result in the development of an incoherent strategy. Though, as commented earlier, the number of constraints is increasing, i.e., the business environment is becoming more complex; a shared appreciation of the project constraints can create more ‘space’ for maneuver, in facilitating effective (quasi-distributed) project management. The remainder of this paper considers a framework that facilitates coherent management, and is based on the framework presented in the book “The Next Common Sense,”5 by Lissack and Roos.

Mastering Project Complexity Through Coherence

Table 1 summarizes the different features that constitute the next common sense and compares them to how they are articulated in traditional management practices. In this section each element will be discussed in light of its potential to facilitate project coherence.

Use simple guiding principles

Project management is complex enough without making it more so. The guiding principles that work are those that are aligned around basic values. It works much better to help people work efficiently than to have a 20-page prescription on how. Prescription inevitably limits personal creativity in providing each team member with insufficient breathing space to take advantage of his own initiative6. If instead the team can first understand, then agree, with a simple phrase like “the customer is always right,” “keep on talking,” or “exploration is king,” then this will subtly underpin the teams’ attitude towards how it goes about its day-to-day business thereby providing a level of guidance. The ‘spirit’ of the prescription is captured, but the details of how it is realized are left to the individual. This necessary relaxation of detailed rules is articulated in the patchiness principle from systems theory which states that “rule-bound systems, stipulating in advance the permissible and the impermissible are likely to be less stable than those that develop pell-mell.”7

In the examples given “keep on talking” could be an attempt to promote group interactivity, or cohesion whereas “exploration is king” could be an attempt to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, or attune the team to it’s environment. There is no set guideline as to how many guiding principles are required – this is determined within the team, which improves teams members’ buy-in and commitment to such principles. For short-term projects, it might be seen to be impractical to spend time developing such universally (as far as the group is concerned) accepted guiding principles (which might not be necessary if the team has been brought together previously for other projects, for example). On these occasions the project manager will necessarily take the lead in articulating what he sees as the important principles, and in so doing quickly setting the tone and style of how he believes the team should function. Of course, the language used to articulate such principles is important, the same message requiring different presentation for different teams (see ‘use aligned words to fuel coherence’). However, once the essence of the concept is reflected in team behaviour, each member will adopt his own personal variation of the simple guiding principles, interpreting them through his own particular mental model.

Next Common Sense Old Common Sense
The World Complex. Complicated.
Management Guiding interactions. Leading entities.
Simple Principles Adopting a global viewpoint, allowing interactions to happen. Dealing with local situations and trying "sort things out.”
Mental Models Recognising that my model does not need to be yours, and things can still work. Giving lip service to difference, while giving incentives to conformity.
Landscape Metaphors Thinking about ecosystems. Thinking about a car race or a football game.
Combine and Recombine Asking about how parts can be combined into new and better wholes. Segregating parts to be treated as their own self-sufficient wholes.
Multiple Roles Allowing people to be themselves. Insisting that the company comes first.
Canyons not Canals Guiding viewpoints not controlling actions. Controlling actions in an attempt to control outcomes.
Tell Stories Providing meaningful context and allowing employees to draw their own conclusions. Providing bullet lists of conclusions and demanding that employees fill in the necessary details.
Scouting Parties Asking what can be learned from the environment and, on finding a good idea, using it. Asserting that we know best and that all good ideas are invented here.
Road Signs Recognising individual contributions and promoting leverage. Staking out territories and allowing individuals to post "no trespassing” signs.
Align Words Using words to create meaningful context. Assuming that words all have one global meaning - the boss's meaning.

Table 1. The ‘old’ versus the ‘next’ common sense

Respect mental models (and interact with them)

Each of us possesses a mental model that we employ to interpret our surroundings. These models are not static, but are amended and refined daily as we live our lives. Given that our personal history plays a central role in the details of this model it is not surprising that our personal models are unique. This means that when two people look from the same point in the same direction they will ‘see’ different things8, sometimes entirely differently. For example, when articulating ‘simple guiding principles’ the language used will provoke different interpretations in different team members. This is a fact of life and cannot be changed. It is not, however, a bad thing. Different interpretations do, however, result in misunderstandings. The meaning conveyed in a request from one individual to another might not be interpreted as that originally intended by the requestor. The recipient may then act inappropriately in the eyes of the requestor. Sometimes this failure to carry out requests is easily rectified, but on other occasions the consequences might be considerably worse. An ability to empathize, therefore, is essential. However, being able to empathize with others requires access to their mental model. This can only be achieved through careful observation of behavior, and through interaction.

In multi-cultural groups a level of appreciation can be developed by considering the empirical behavioral characteristics of each culture involved and associating each cultural portrait with the relevant team member. This is not sufficient, however, as one must be careful not to ‘tar everyone with the same brush’. An effort has to be made to understand the individual’s viewpoint, not just general ethnic characteristics which can sometimes be misleading – generalization in this context can be quite offensive. An appreciation of another’s culture simply helps prevent insulting that individual, but this is no more than a starting point. A quote from the psychotherapist Carl Jung serves to illustrate this point by considering how the therapist might go about attending to his patient:

“The uniqueness of the individual and of his situation stares the doctor in the face and demands and answer. His duty as a physician forces him to cope with a situation swarming with uncertainty factors. At first he will apply principles based on general experience, but he will soon realize that principles of this kind do not adequately express the facts and fail to meet the nature of the case. The deeper his understanding penetrates, the more the general principles lose their meaning… With the growth of what both patient and doctor feel to be ‘understanding’, the situation becomes increasingly subjectivized. What was an advantage to begin with threatens to turn into a dangerous disadvantage.”9

Critical thinking provides a useful process by which such appreciation can be harvested. For those of you unaware of this mode of thinking, asking yourself the following questions during your interactions with your ‘world’, taken from “Asking the Right Questions – A Guide to Critical Thinking,”10 may prove useful:

Of course, when teams are not co-located such interaction becomes very difficult, but more important given the disparate working conditions. However, given the proliferation of low-priced video conferencing facilities this is at least becoming commonplace. Conferencing, though, should not be seen as a straightforward replacement of face-to-face interaction. It is important, whenever possible, for team members to meet in each other’s working environments to fully appreciate their colleagues’ positions.

So, the diversity of views can be managed to minimize misunderstandings and potential conflicts. This diversity of views, however, is a powerful resource when operating within a complex environment. Different individuals ‘see’ different things, and by pooling these differing views a richer appreciation of the individuals’ environment is developed, resulting in more informed decision making – there is a necessary balance between homogeneity and heterogeneity of views.

Use landscape images

The increasingly complex environment that project teams operate within, make deciding what action to take, and when, problematic. What we need is the means to recognize patterns in our complex environment to facilitate the decision making process. The ‘means’ comes in the form of an interface that can be used to take advantage of our considerable pattern recognition skills. The metaphor of landscapes can provide this interface in the very same way that Windows provides the interface between the 0s and 1s of computers and ourselves. The reason for choosing the landscape metaphor is simple – humans have very good spatial awareness, or ‘spatial intelligence’11. In allowing the project team to construct a landscape image of how it perceives the project ‘space’, it can better recognize the important issues. Constructing a landscape need not require fancy technology; it could simply be the creation of a rich picture, or a causal map (which can be achieved in a group video conferencing mode – taking full advantage of technology where appropriate), on a white board. In addition, the process of constructing the landscape will further provoke interaction between the team members, which will give each individual the opportunity to further develop their appreciation of the other members’ mental models, and the convergence toward a project ‘language’.

Combine and recombine

We have already mentioned that humans have a considerable ability to recognize patterns in complex situations and that this skill can be enhanced by presenting the situation in different forms. In constructing our personal pictures of our environment we rely on the brains ability to recognize boundaries and, therefore, distinct ‘parts’ or elements that make up the environment. Relationships are then proposed between the ‘parts’ and, in so doing, creating ‘wholes’. Again, our mental models play a central role in determining which ‘parts’ we acknowledge as real, and therefore the ‘whole’ that is generated.

There has been much written in the management literature suggesting that operation within a complex environment requires holistic thinking, as opposed to reductionist thinking. This perspective is valuable (and synthesizing the different perspectives of the project team will result in a more ‘complete’ picture), but it is not the be all and end all. Taking the whole apart and rethinking the ways in which the parts might be defined and recombined to create new wholes can also provide valuable insights into how one might operate within the complex environment. In short, combine and recombine is a process that allows the team to see the same things in different ways, which might result in novel procedures, ideas, concepts, etc. Few creative ideas originate out of whole cloth – they are the products of thinking about existing things in new ways and recombining old parts to make a new whole.

Recognize your multiple roles, don’t hide from them

In the modern organization the identity of each individual is written out explicitly in the company’s operating procedures, along with the roles and responsibilities that the identity should be associated with. For instance, in a project team there might be the Project Manager, Quality Manager, Technical Manager, Project Secretary, Technical Support, Subject Matter Expert, and so on. The problem with such distinct, and unchanging identities, is that context is omitted. We all have multiple roles, in the same way we possess multiple intelligences – at one moment one might be a subject matter expert, or a computer operator, the next one might be a friend, or a listener – it all depends upon the context. The context determines which role we adopt. Though this dynamic nature is not reflected in most operating procedures it is important to recognize it, and not be shy of breaking the mold determined by the organization when the context requires it. This is a very human feature, and should be taken advantage of rather than restricted through detailed job descriptions. The team culture should support such a chameleon-like attitude towards roles. This freedom will allow the individual team members greater flexibility, which is essential as the operating environment becomes more complex (the patchiness principle strikes again), as well as putting them at ease when ‘shape-shifting’.

Create canyons, not canals

The patchiness principle and the need for a certain level of team member freedom in order to endow the team, not only with the flexibility necessary to adapt to changing requirements, but with the inquisitiveness to explore their surroundings has already been mentioned. This inquisitiveness contributes to the successful development of a coherent strategy, and also gives the team a capacity to pre-empt changes to the strategy as necessary. It is difficult, if not impossible, to build such features into the fabric of the project team through the application of extensive procedures. So, why the ‘create canyons, not canals’ metaphor? Rivers need lots of room, yet when bounded by canyons (the metaphorical equivalent of simple guiding principles, and mental models) they are still free to explore. Tributaries are formed, and as the river meanders new places are explored. A canal on the other hand has fixed walls. A lot of time and effort (and therefore money) is spent keeping the flow within the canal exactly the same. The view from the canal, however, is limited and it becomes impossible to explore other regions. The creation of flow controls, through the construction of canals, is an attempt to control outcomes. Of course, control does affect outcome, but such restrictions can frequently result in the ‘wrong’ outcome, i.e., an incoherent outcome.

As mentioned above, exploration is key to remaining coherent, but this is exploration within limits – limits imposed by the guiding principles chosen, the individual mental models, the customer requirements, etc.

Tell stories

Team interactivity, and intra-activity for that matter, is essential in allowing individuals to learn to appreciate others’ mental models, and to take advantage of the different perspectives brought to bear on a particular problem. Furthermore, it helps in the development of a project language. During the interaction between two or more persons, simply stating facts, quoting one-liners, opinions, etc., is a rather dull and uninformative way to communicate. Such impersonal presentation of ideas and concepts are easily misinterpreted, as meaning is not easily conveyed. Telling stories is about allowing others the benefit of shared experiences. Stories allow others to relate to fact, context, emotion, and to bring their own interpretation to what they hear or read. This richer mode of interaction also enables others to obtain further insight into how an individual sees the world, and in what contexts they use certain words. Meaning happens from interaction, not from blind passive reception; encounters are memorable when they are infused with emotion. Stories not only allow emotions to be expressed by the teller but also to be inferred by the listener. When was the last time a set of bullet points carried lasting emotion? By contrast, the best speeches by both politicians and judges are centered around stories. Even Monica Lewinsky can attract a large audience for telling her story despite the fact that nearly everyone listening already knew all the details. Ace Greenberg uses stories to manage Bear Stearns by getting employees to ‘feel’ his point. Telling stories allows the listener to effectively put themselves into the teller’s shoes.

Send out scouting parties

In order to remain coherent the team must have a clear understanding of what is going on in its environment, and how different events might impact the team’s operations. It is arrogant to believe that the team knows everything there is to know about the subject matter it is working on, customer politics, etc. By sending out scouting parties to probe the environment, vital stories might be found that would be of great value to the team in achieving its goals. In a recent technology project designed by the first author, exploration time was explicitly built into the project plan. The guidelines to the team members were that if they came across an idea that they wanted to take further, they had the support of the project. At first, the exploration was initialized by the project manager as team members were wary of such freedom. As the project progressed, this type of exploration was seen as legitimate and the team felt more comfortable in pursuing paths, even though most of the time the journeys ended with no obvious returns. However, in this particular project, not only was the technical standing of the work improved, but a change in customer politics was also recognized, resulting in a significant shift in the focus of the work. There is an obvious trade-off between staying focused and exploring, and only through experiencing such practices can the appropriate balance for different projects be achieved.

As with most of the building blocks in this framework, the exploration results in further interaction as the stories are relayed back to the team and discussed, improving working relations further.

Post and attend to road signs

No project team will maintain coherence if the varied contributions of its members and of the team itself are not recognized with sufficient attendant notice such that the members involved can develop pride with regard to their activities. Such acts of recognition and notice function as ‘road signs’ within a community or housing development. Not only do such signs allow for recognition, but they also allow for meaningful directions to be communicated to others who are not part of the team. In the absence of road signs not only might previously covered territory be remapped, but so too might previously encountered and easily avoided mistakes. The hoarding of such information within the team has thus two potentially negative effects: a possible feeling among team members that their contribution is being “hidden” from the outside world (either as an embarrassment or to prevent others from realizing the members’ value) and the inability for others to learn from the (rather than of) the activities of the team. Unless a team is engaged by the intelligence services, it seems foolish to risk such ill- effects. The power of team behavior, learning, and coherence comes from the interactions that all three promote. Only if the environment and context in which the team operates is set up to promote recognition and further interaction can increasing returns result. Perhaps the most important aspect of coherence to the project team manager is the prospect of increasing returns.

Use aligned words to fuel coherence

In a number of the elements described thus far mention has been made of the importance of language and the development of a project language. Despite the many supporters of a definitive English language, words do not have absolute meaning12 – that would require the omission of context. The meaning of words depends strongly on the context, i.e., the meaning of words depends upon its usage. Given our different mental models, our personal context, the same word will mean something slightly different. In effect, the words we each use determine what we ‘see’. If, then, we all use words differently how can we convey our thoughts to others without a common comprehension of what the words mean? We can’t. However, through word usage, through story telling for example, an appreciation of how individual team members use words and associate meaning with them can be developed (which in turn provides insight into their mental models). This is what is meant by a project language.

Consider the development of a causal map in a group environment. The concepts that are generated will have been discussed and debated over, and through this interaction a shared appreciation of what the concept means will be created. Once a map has been developed one cannot simply show it to another team and expect them to associate the same (consensual) meaning to the concepts. There will be tacit understanding that results from the familiar, and agreed, usage of the words that cannot be conveyed through the map alone13.

The project language will be specific to the project. The language will evolve in the project context, thereby instilling a shared appreciation of the ‘project space’ within the project members. Having such a common, context-specific, language increases the chances that a communication between members of the project team is interpreted in the same, or very similar, way, thus limiting misunderstandings. It also promotes coherent action. This is because the language would have been developed in the project setting and so the meaning associated with words would convey images and impressions that are project specific.

Obviously, not all words carry the ability to promote coherent action. It is important to recognize which words have the potential to shape thinking and actions. These are words, or memes, which:

Language and word choice form a manager’s primary tool. At the lofty heights of grand strategy, Phil Conduit of Boeing recognized this. In the most recent reorganization he suggested banning certain words and encouraging others – as a means of helping to reshape the ecology of Boeing’s workplace. Disney does it by insisting that its customers are ‘guests’ and that its employees are all ‘hosts’. AOL does it by having ‘members’ not customers. In brief, words can seem like little things but they are the vehicles for both transmitting and shaping our thoughts. Thoughts in turn breed actions. Coherent actions demand a context, which is itself coherent. Words, in this context, have the power to drive such coherent actions.

Now that we have considered the ten basic building blocks necessary to drive coherent actions within a project environment, we need a unifying framework that brings these blocks together.

The Five Steps

There are five simple steps that utilize the ten building blocks described above and are key to realizing the ‘next common sense’ in any project environment. They are:

  1. Identify yourself and your goals;
  2. Use the right language;
  3. Create the right context;
  4. Turn people loose and then get out of the way, and;
  5. Use communication that works.

It is important to realize that these steps come as a package. For example, leaving out the final, communication, step is an invitation for an initially coherent program to dissolve into incoherence. The team members that were turned loose in step four may well have very different destination in mind and, without communication among them, will go in different directions. So, none of the steps can be omitted completely, but the effort expended in taking individual steps will vary from project to project. It is also important to recognize that once a step is taken it will be necessary to take it again at some other point in the project life cycle. For example, as the context changes, so individuals’ identities will need to be reviewed which may result in amendments to the project language.

An inability to take these steps and review their status must be seen as a risk to the successful completion of the project. Of great benefit to the project manager is that the leadership is in some way distributed. Having confident team members, and an interactive environment, mean that the team will learn to recognize for itself the need to take a step back. In order for this mode of operation to be successful the role of manager as facilitator, rather than ‘Godfather’, becomes central.

Summary and Conclusions

The project team’s operating environment is becoming increasingly more complex. In order to achieve coherent action in such an environment the project manager and the project team members must all appreciate the context in which they operate and influence. In other words, coherent action is situated action, action that is consistent with the relevant context. To operate in complex environments we must learn to take advantage of the characteristics that make us different from machines. In this paper we present and discuss a framework, which essentially exploits our own ‘humanness’. Our very ‘humanness’ gives us great potential in achieving our goals in complex situations, but only if our humanness is recognized and harnessed causing a shift from the purely command and control management approach. The framework discussed, though presented as such, is not to be seen as a mere prescription for coherent action. The building blocks and unifying steps simply provide the elements that the authors believe to be essential. Within this framework there is enormous scope for individualizing it to suit one’s own particular context – it facilitates the development of situated strategy.

References, Bibliography, and Notes

1. Letiche H. 1999 “Why Coherence?”, keynote presentation at the ‘Managing the Complex’ conference organised by the New England Complex Systems Institute, Boston.

2. Carron, A V and Chelladurai, P. 1981 The Dynamics of Group Cohesion in Sport, Journal of Sport Psychology, Vol. 3, Pp. 123-139.

3. Ingraham, L H and Manning, F J. 1981 Cohesion: Who Needs It, What Is It, and How Do We Get It To Them? Military Review Vol. 61, Pp. 2-12.

4. Thagard, P and Verbeurgt, K. 1998 Coherence as constraint satisfaction, Cognitive Science, Vol. 22, Pp. 1- 24.

5. Lissack, M and Roos, J. 1999 The Next Common Sense – Mastering Corporate Complexity through Coherence. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, ISBN 1857882407.

6. Team members inevitably do things in their own way even when a prescription is provided. However, this can be seen as not playing the game, and, despite good output, the individual that plays by their own rules is occasionally forced to the side lines for their ‘illegitimate’ behaviour – a key resource might be lost to the team.

7. Skyttner, L. 1996 General Systems Theory – An Introduction. Macmillan Press Ltd., ISBN 0333618335.

8. Kuhn, T S. 1996 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 3rd Edition, ISBN 0226458083.

9. Jung, C G. 1958 The Undiscovered Self. Penguin Books, ISBN 0451626508.

10. Browne M N and Keeley, S M. 1998 Asking the Right Questions – A Guide to Critical Thinking. Prentice Hall, ISBN 0137581866.

11. Gardner, H. 1993 Frames of mind – The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Fontana Press, ISBN 000686290X.

12. Aitchison, J. 1997 The Language Web – The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521574757.

13. The construction of causal maps in a group setting is an effective way of encouraging a shared understanding, and giving participants an appreciation of language use.