Breaking the Rules

How mindfulness, rather than rule-based project management, can benefit certain projects

By Elmar Kutsch and Neil Turner


Project management frameworks are often thought to be universal—they can be applied in any type of project, and success can be expected as long as project managers comply with rules, processes and routines. This rule-based approach is certainly efficient—but is it truly universal? For projects in a highly uncertain environment, mindfulness may be a better alternative.

The traditional—and often espoused—way to manage uncertainty and complexity in projects is to strengthen an organization's rule-based capabilities. The belief is that repeatable packages of rules, processes and routines help to reduce human variation as a cause of failure. These frameworks aim to design potential adversity out of a project and draw on the expertise and experience of project managers who came before.

This practice often makes sense. Such an “autopilot” approach means project managers can rapidly respond to difficulties because solutions to potential problems are decided before they even arise. However, we have to face the fact that in complex projects, we cannot always fully predict how events will unfold. Traditional probabilistic risk management, for example, oversimplifies the past by breaking it down into separate elements of risks. It also aims to analyze what we know from past experience, not necessarily what we do not know about the future. As a result, it may create an illusion of control, undermining our preparedness for what we cannot predict.

Mindfulness offers an alternative route to managing complexity and uncertainty. Mindfulness seeks to tap into flexibilities within the human mind to create options where historically informed rules, procedures and routines find their limits. The approach involves questioning before taking action, resisting the temptation to assume we have control, not relying on predefined actions, innovating and improvising. Mindfulness allows project managers to creatively generate options to deal with uncertainty, rather than selecting from a set of past-informed options that may not fit the problem at hand.

This empowered, exploratory style may not be the fastest, however. It takes time and is less automated, although it may bypass existing bureaucratic controls. “Tightly coupled” projects—in which tasks are dependent on each other and a problem in one area creates a snowball effect that drives the project to crisis—should not necessarily be approached with a pure mindfulness approach.

But for loosely coupled projects where tasks are more independent of each other, managers have some amount of breathing room to address issues as they arise. They can reflect on what is happening in order to create novelty in their answers to counter the uncertainty. And many projects may fall between tightly and loosely coupled, allowing middle ground between rule-based project management and mindfulness-based project management.

Here are some ways organizations and project managers can encourage mindfulness:

Mindfulness involves questioning before taking action, resisting the temptation to assume we have control, not relying on predefined action and improvising.

  • Empower project team members to create options—to deviate from established rules if the situation warrants it and to create novel response options.
  • Widen team members’ response repository to deal with uncertainty. Do this by broadening their skills and capabilities to handle emergent situations.
  • Challenge team members’ reliance on what they know and foster a sense of discomfort as a prerequisite to be vigilant about uncertainty.
  • Provide team members with the necessary resources to exercise their solutions.
  • Establish a culture that is not driven by compliance but by support for creativity.
  • Provide an abundance of expertise that team members can readily rely on to inform their decision-making.

No one knows project management better than you, the practitioners “Getting It Done.” So every month, PM Network shares your expertise on everything from sustainability to talent management, and all project topics in between. If you're interested in contributing, email [email protected].

Before we give in to the temptation of establishing an autopilot mentality in our projects, let's pause and think about what challenges we expect to encounter. A rule-based approach may well be suitable, and the benefits of this are well-established. If we anticipate uncertainty, though, fostering the creativity of the human mind can only help. PM

img Elmar Kutsch, PhD, is a senior lecturer in risk management at Cranfield University, Milton Keynes, England.
img Neil Turner, PhD, is a senior lecturer at Cranfield University School of Management's International Centre for Programme Management.




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