Project Management Institute

"Dad, what do you do, anyhow?"

chaos, employability and the order of things


Command-and-control is out, “chaordic” management is in, and the only certainty is that change is coming. Gone are the days when we had simple jobs with simple job descriptions. How can you keep up the pace?

FOR A PARENT, whether a mom or a dad, it's tough to answer an eight-year-old's innocent question, “What do you do at work?” Especially if you are a project manager.

Let's face the question: What do managers do, anyway? Are they information brokers between the “trenches” of daily operations and the corporate suite? Nope, these days the management information systems do that. Do they check that all systems are go and the production line is humming? No, because computers monitor what's going on and the self-directed work teams and robots move production along. Do they take care of employees' concerns and motivate them to greater achievements? Well, yes, some do, although with the corporatewide training programs and trends toward integrated work teams, not as much people management is needed as before.

So, it's no wonder middle-management has been tossed onto the bone pile: with sophisticated computer systems and automation, the job of the operational, functional-type manager has largely been swept away. Indeed, manager-parents find themselves hard-pressed to give an eight-year-old a satisfactory answer—lucky are the parents who can say they are doctors, firefighters or engineers (the kind that drive trains).

Big-Time Management Shift. As companies move—consciously or not—toward the new trends in management, not only middle managers but senior executives find themselves up to their earlobes in the task of overseeing or running projects, ranging from the strategic to the day-to-day. Those companies aware of the radical shift in management practices have embarked on intensive training and on-the-job programs to bring folks up to speed on how to run projects. other well-meaning-but-unaware companies perform project work by intuition, with varying degrees of success. The result is percieved by some as a chaotic form of management—a way of herding along multiple projects that would be unthinkable in the past, but which is looked upon by some modern thinkers as the inevitable way to go.

Chaotic management forms raise the nasty question “How do you maintain balance between chaos and order in an organization?” If we accept the idea that command-and-control management, which made the industrial revolution what it was, is not only out of style but simply doesn't work any more, then what do we put in its place? Does this mean that chaos is sacred, that pandemonium is the roadway to organizational bliss?


I don't think so. As much as we may applaud the freshness and free flow that the new way suggests, some semblance of order is required to get work done. Somebody has to do coordination and interfacing. And someone has to perform work and carry out projects. Dee Hock, ex-CEO of Visa, perceived the task of his organization as one of coordination, while the work was pushed out to the periphery; in his case, to the member banks (see “The Trillion-Dollar Vision of Dee Hock,” by Mitchell Waldrop, Fast Company, Oct./Nov 1996). So aside from visioning and strategizing, basic coordination still has to be carried out by management, in spite of the chaotic free-flow trend.

Big-time management consultant and chaos-flogger Tom Peters, while expounding on the virtues of “getting crazy disorganized,” weaves into his writings the need to develop across-the-board project management capabilities within the organization. Why? How did project management become the mindset-of-choice for staying on your feet in the midst of chaos? Why do so many theorists now perceive project management as the way to get work done in a business climate where fluidity, not control and order, is the way to thrive?

Simply put, it's because in order to survive in chaotic times, you have to keep the big picture in focus at all times. “The devil is in the details” and the emphasis on integration and people skills, along with the cross-disciplinary character of project management, allow project managers to deal with those details without getting lost in them.

Employability in a “Chaordic” World. Hock has labeled the fuzzy area between chaos and order as “chaordic”: a loose, free-wheeling pattern of chaos blended with order, creating a dynamic tension between opposing forces. This scenario creates a limbo situation for managers who have to “go with the flow” in some settings and “get organized” in others. Now, limbo is not a comfortable place to be in these days of dramatic rightsizing, flattening and shape-shifting by organizations. But project management training, with its emphasis on each project as a short-term opportunity to show your stuff, can help managers find their way in these “chaordic” times—thus keeping themselves employable within their organizations.

Here are some general principles and a list of recommendations for both practicing project professionals and managers new to the profession. First the general principles:

Get into the flux of things. Accelerating, head-spinning change is the name of today's management game, and the pace hastens each day. Accept it, learn from it, find opportunities, rejoice and prosper.

Read what's going on. Read trendy stuff from your field. Keep up on computer stuff. Tune in to magazines like Fast Company or Wired as well as more traditional Harvard Business Review publications.

Reengineer yourself. Your knowledge is behind the times and your speed of change needs to be prepped for quantum leaping as opposed to continuous improvement: this applies to you and the rest of the human race. Take two courses this year you would have never thought of taking before, and read three leading-edge books.

Join two professional organizations. Keeping up in any field is an overwhelming task. Professional societies focus on specific expertise. Read the literature, get on committees, help develop standards, get involved.

Recognize that shared knowledge is power. Hoarding information was never an effective way to manage, but these days it's the road to pure disaster—too much is happening too fast. Develop a synergistic network of folks who will give information to you. Set the stage by liberally sharing valuable information with others.

For professionals aiming to update themselves in project management:

If you haven't gotten your PMP—Project Management Professional—certification yet, then contact PMI and get started. It will bring you up to speed on all the basic project management disciplines.

If you are PMP certified and you haven't reviewed the latest Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, put yourself on a study program to go through the Guide's twelve chapters. Do it in 12 weeks, or 12 months, but do it.

Take in national and local project management symposia and educational programs offered by PMI. There's lots going on at the PMI Chapter level and nationally in terms of courses and seminars. Get involved in specific interest groups (SIGs) as well.

Read PM Network and Project Management Journal. These magazines tell you what is going on in terms of activities and events, as well as what the trends are in the field.

Thumb through the 1997 Information SourceGuide of the Project Management Institute. You'll find PMI publications and other related management items from major publishers. Put a couple of books on order, or track them down in your library.

Various organizations affiliated with PMI, such as the IPMA (International Project Management Association) headquartered in Europe, the AIPM (Australian Institute of Project Management), and the SOVNET (Russian Project Management Association), are rich sources for information and advancement in the project management profession. If you are geographically located near one of these associations with whom PMI maintains a cooperative agreement, check out what they have to offer you.

STAYING “EMPLOYABLE” IS the key to prosperity for managers and professionals in “chaordic” times: it's the pathway for walking the line between chaos and order. Professionals can either stay employable from inside an organization by keeping themselves up to date and inspiring change from within, or alternatively from an outside stance as a “project junkie,” described in the August 19, 1996, Wall Street Journal article on “Hi-Tech Nomads” (project professionals who are competent and loyal to projects, but who wander freely amongst organizations).

Since the times they are a-changin'—and at an accelerating pace—and change is both the seed of and the result of projects, the way to get order into the prevailing chaos is to ensure that the organization is project management-literate and -competent. Clearly, no matter what functions are carried out by today's managers, project management will surely be a bigger part of the daily scene. So parent-managers who prepare themselves for the new times will find the transition a lot easier: they can say that they get things done, finish projects, manage scope, quality, time and cost. Yet they'll still have to face explaining all this to an eight-year-old who asks: “What do you do at work, anyhow?” img


Paul C. Dinsmore is president of Dinsmore Associates, affiliated with Management Consultants International Group, with world headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (e-mail: He is a Fellow of PMI and author of six books, including the AMA Handbook of Project Management (Amacom, 1993).

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network · April 1997



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