Project management in the brave new world
‘A physicist, a scientist and a mathematician were traveling in Scotland and saw a black sheep in the distance. “Ah” says the physicist “all sheep in Scotland are black”. “Oh I beg to differ,” said the scientist “some sheep in Scotland are black”. “Oh really”’ said the mathematician “to my observation, in Scotland, there is one sheep of which one side is black”.
Which level of proof do you require for your work?
I am concerned with the level of proof available in the various management theories referenced by or adapted into A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) steps, tools and techniques as an attempt to deal with the soft skills required to manage a project. Our projects are becoming more complex, using virtual global teams and we will need a greater understanding of what makes an individual and a team successful.
“Tell me how you will measure me and then I will tell you how I will behave – if my measurements are unclear, no one can predict how I will behave – not even me!” says Eli Goldratt.
However much I agree with the idea that prediction of behaviour is difficult, I disagree with the idea that it is based on measurement alone, as this denies any link to nature and instinct.
Instinct is defined as a ‘natural’ inclination or aptitude and the following story nicely describes the role of instinct – Once upon a time a scorpion wanted to cross a brook. On the bank he saw a frog and asked if the frog would give him a ride to the other side. “Oh no,” says the frog, “If I carry you on my back you will sting me.” But why would I sting you when we would both surely perish,” replied the scorpion. The frog eventually conceded that the scorpion had a point, and agreed to the request. Half way across, the scorpion stung the frog, and they both began to drown.” But why did you break your word and sting me, knowing it would be certain death for us both?” cried the frog.” Because it is in my nature,” said the scorpion.
William James in Principles of Psychology (1880's) was the first to postulate about innate knowledge and instinct. “Reason” he wrote, “does not inhibit an impulse, only another impulse can neutralize an impulse”. Unfortunately “Instinctivism” (or nature) lost out to the behaviour thinkers like, Skinner, Freud, Boas etc, until Noam Chomsky revived it in 1958 with the idea that it is impossible for a child to understand language from examples. The child must have innate rules into which the vocabulary of the language fit. However almost 100 years of anti- nature thinking had done much damage to behavioural thinking from which we are only now beginning to emerge.
The new thinking associated with the Genome Project work is going beyond the basic understanding of traits into a greater understanding of the role of genetic involvement in our behaviour. As Matt Ridley (2003) puts it in his book Nature Via Nurture - “Virtually no behaviour is determined by my genes but virtually all behaviour is influenced by my genes”. It is this amount or level of genetic influence that we need to discover and discuss in the light of project management in the new world.
I propose that future genomic discoveries will enable us to move the proof available for behaviour management theories in the soft skills areas of Project Management from the observation models of Belbin, Weinberg, Tuchman, Maslow, Hertzberg, McClelland and others towards a more scientific foundation.
Furthermore I want to identify and define touch points between these advances and the ‘soft skills’ areas adapted into the PMBOK® Guide. Finally the paper sets out to identify critical areas to improve our performance in this key part of PM and chart a framework for improvement in these areas.
Much of the material in this paper is based on the writings of Richard Dawkins, Robin Dunbar, Steve Jones, Matt Ridley, Robert Winston, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky and others as well as information from websites including the Genome project and others.
In summary I believe that there are four cases that I have to make in this paper:
- Case 1 – That significant and important events have occurred with the Genome project and discoveries.
- Case 2 – That there is a link between these discoveries and areas of project management.
- Case 3 – That there will be an impact on project management from these discoveries in the near future.
- Case 4 – That we can create a new vision of stakeholder management and soft skills development based on these new discoveries.
I am aware that the nature/nurture idea has been hotly debated many times and draws comparisons with the eugenics movement in the early part of the last century. I also know that in some circles it is a taboo subject, as it seems to imply predestination and a lack of free will. I do not profess to know the exact contribution of nature and nurture to our behaviour. However, I am convinced by examples, like Chomsky's work on language as an inherited capacity requiring nurturing to develop, that the “nature versus nature” debate is over and that we now have to discover the “nature via nurture” balance as described by Matt Ridley.
In short to paraphrase Steven Pinker in ‘The language instinct’ – “It is time for project management theories to submit to science”
That significant and important events have occurred with the Genome project
The Human Genome Project (HGP), completed in 2003, was a 13-year project coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. The project goals were to determine the complete sequence of the 3 billion DNA subunits (bases), identify all human genes (approx 24,000), and make them accessible for further biological study.
The research projects based on the results of this project are providing astounding new information on traits and behaviour. Initially thought to comprise more than 100,000 genes on our 46 chromosomes we now know we have approximately 24,000 genes. Only 1.5% of which differentiates us from our nearest cousin the chimpanzee and only 0.1% differentiates us from any other human on the planet.
A common and useful analogy is a book, according to Dawkins and Ridley. Imagine that a Genome is a book. There are 23 chapters called chromosomes (pairs). Each chapter contains several thousand stories called Genes. Each story is made of paragraphs called ‘Exons’ and ‘Introns’. Each paragraph is made of words called ‘Codons’. Each word is made of letters called ‘Bases’. There are 1 billion words in this book
Each word is made from 3 letters from a 4 letter alphabet –called ACGT for adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Therefore your genome contains approximately 3 billion bits of information. Mutations (beneficial, neutral or harmful) occur when there is an ‘error ‘ in this copying process. There are 46 chromosomes in a typical cell and these are used to create proteins, which build the body.
Consider your thumb – it it straight or hooked – it is an example of the transfer of an ‘H’ or ‘h’ gene from your parents in various combinations – a single characteristic gene. Clasp your hands or fold your arms – is your right hand above or below the left hand? - An example of a genetic transfer of a preference. How big a leap is it to consider that there is some connection between our behaviour and our genome?
The recent discoveries have lead to a huge increase in gene research and a corresponding increase in scientific and non-scientific articles relating to genetic aspects of behaviour and instincts. These articles link the genes either directly or indirectly to brain chemicals – notably Dopamine (motivation), Cortisol (stress), Oxytocin (attraction), Serotonin (impulsiveness, aggression), and others – On my desk I have newspaper headers that attempt to out do each other with claims of the gene for ‘religion’, for ‘aggression’, for motivation, for ‘introversion’, or for ‘personality’. In fact, it is highly unlikely that we will ever find a single gene for these behaviours. However, Ridley concludes that perhaps personality is a combination of the influences of 500 or more gene (2003). Someday in the far future we may be able to dispense with the expensive psychometric tests in favour of a more accurate and reliable genetic test. However prior to that day we will have to overcome a number of significant scientific and social hurdles.
It is difficult at times to put a clear definition on what a gene actually is. I have come across the following uses that may help. A gene may be: a unit of heredity, an archive for the storage of evolutionary information, a recipe, a switch, a unit of development, a unit of instinct; genes are the mechanism of experience.
Eugenics, so named by Francis Galton in 1885 was an early attempt to improve the gene pool of the human species. It eventually led to US Eugenics records office in Cold Springs Harbor, Long Island and the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in the early part of the last century. By the end of WWII over 500,000 ‘feebleminded’ people had been sterilized in Europe and the USA. Britain appears to be the only Protestant countries that did not legalise eugenics. The movement gained its notoriety under the Nazi's when the world finally understood how it was being horrendously misused.
Finally to state that there is no conflict between the nurture and nature elements of behaviour in project management, it is not a zero-sum game, as they like to call it. Both have inescapable impacts on our future. We only need to discover the balance of their involvement.
That there is a link between these discoveries and areas of project management.
The PMBOK® Guide currently comprises 39 steps in a framework to manage a project. It neatly fuses 9 knowledge areas into 5 process groups to produce or deliver a unique product or result. It encompasses the human aspects of stakeholder expectations, skills, motivations, teaming, performance and rewards. The PMBOK® Guide uses key steps, tools and techniques to achieve this including, Initiation, Scope planning, Organization planning, Staff acquisition, Risk response planning, Risk management, and Team development.
Behavioral Management theories seek to identify, simplify and improve the efficiency of individuals and teams in delivering successful projects. Predominantly this has been carried out by observation and surveys of individuals at work. This work is then translated into questionnaires to replicate the behaviour patterns of individuals and teams.
A brief analysis of the various theories in the training field include the following:
- Motivation - Maslow, Hertzberg, McGregor, McClelland, Mayo
- Team development – Tuchman/ Jensen, Belbin, Myers Briggs.
- Social styles, Bolton, Robert & Dorothy
- Organisational Change Management - Elizabeth Kubler Ross
In order to be successful management has broken the change into two components. Project Management (PM) is primarily concerned with delivering a product or service to bring about the predetermined change. Organisational Change Management (OCM) is primarily concerned with the acceptance of the product or service. As projects become more global, complex, virtual, and cross functional, more emphasis is being placed on teams and team working. – The leader in this field is the Project Management Institute with the PMBOK® Guide and Project Management Professional (PMP®).
Business process reengineering (BPR) was a business concept in the 80's and 90's that tried to bring about radical, fundamental and dramatic changes to the processes with only a 20% success rate (according to Hammer & Champy) – companies spent billions of dollars identifying, designing and implementing process reorganizations only to find that they floundered on the last step –acceptance by the organization – in particular middle management. Both OCM and PM require a clear understanding of the behaviours of individual stakeholders and teams in order to increase the probability of success on the project. For PM, BPR and OCM to be successful in the future we need a better, more scientific, understanding of the workings of individual behaviour. This is where the business case lies for the contents of this paper.
Belbin, Myers Briggs and others give ‘labels’ (e.g. chairman, plant, monitor-evaluator, resource investigator, completer-finisher, etc) to work styles or team roles. An understanding of these styles and roles is important to understanding team working and development. The recent discoveries from the Genome project allow us to ‘look behind’ the team role ‘labels’ to see the environment or needs that produced these classifications and the mechanism for their transfer to future generations. As discussed above, genes have played an important role in developing who we are including being the mechanism of previous experiences. Greater knowledge of our genetic make up will enable us to improve our performance in these areas.
The impact on project management from these discoveries in the near future.
The primary impacts on our current lives are medical, legal and ethical. Current medical discoveries are focused in the field of single gene diseases (cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Tay Sachs.). Greater technological advances will allow us to improve the knowledge of multi gene diseases in the near future. Police forces around the world have started to build genetic databases to help solve crimes and exonerate suspects. At present the medical insurance companies in the UK have agreed to extend the freeze on genetic testing – in future this may be a voluntary option leading to lower premiums. The same agreement may well arise for corporate hiring leading to the same voluntary relaxation caused by the desire to get employment. The Genome project set aside a significant portion of its budget for the study of ethical impacts.
In project management I believe that the primary impacts will come from:
- A greater awareness of what it is to be human. Future genetic testing will allow us to know ourselves better - this will enable us to make better choices regarding career and job opportunities. Genetic information will help to reduce the reliance on psychometric testing as the means to establish compatibility with career, job or team membership (in addition it will enable us to be better prepared and proactive regarding our medical future).
- The role of nature and nurture. The past 100 years have seen a complete denial of the influence of genes and nature on our behaviour. Our genes are at the mercy of our actions and experiences and so it is not a zero sum game – we are a product of both the ingredients (nature) and the fertilizing (nurture) of our genes. Genes are programmed to produce as well as respond to social behaviour, mostly represented through changes in our brain chemicals. Current and future studies, testing procedures and theories based on our genes will add greater value to the management of individuals and teams. I look forward to a genetic evaluation of Belbin's team roles and Myers Briggs's team styles.
- Improved selection of team members. Currently we are faced with a multitude of observation type theories with corresponding questionnaires to assist team selection and development. A simple genetic test will some day greatly simplify and improve this process.
- A more scientific understanding of motivation. Currently many theories from Maslow to McClelland seek to explain the intricacies of motivating an individual. However recent studies seem to suggest that motivation is related to a brain chemical called Dopamine that in turn is controlled by many genes including the D4DR gene on chromosome 11. A shortage of Dopamine causes indecisiveness, frozen personality and in extreme form causes Parkinson's disease.
- Stress and other factors. Currently stress is not very well understood or managed on projects. Due to their unique nature, projects lend themselves to high stress situations. A better understanding of stress and an individual's ability to cope with stress would be of great benefit to the project management community. We would need to understand the role of Cortisol production in stress. High stress produces Cortisol which reduces immunity. Happier people get fewer colds and people with low control over situations at work exhibit high stress levels. This has the effect of lowering immune system.
- Post genome sequencing. This is the evaluation of the 0.15% of genetic material, which varies between humans. It will enable us to understand the real differences between humans and aid our understanding, particularly in global teams, of what unites us and what divides us. It will help us to overcome prejudice, perceptions and cultural misunderstandings.
The new vision of stakeholder management based on these new discoveries.
I have started to develop a new scientific based framework for stakeholder management to guide the soft skills areas for future PMBOK® Guide. The framework seeks to provide a roadmap with quantifiable metrics for soft skills requirements in stakeholder management. It needs to be flexible enough to embrace future discoveries and thinking related to behaviour management that will replace our current understanding of these subjects, yet sturdy enough to tie together as a roadmap in its own right. It will require a basic understanding of genetics and brain chemistry. It will also require knowledge of philosophy, ethics and corporate laws.
The framework addresses: Objective setting, requirements gathering and expectation management, Organizational planning, Team selection, Team motivation, Team styles & development, Individual motivation, Conflict resolution, Problem solving, Decision making, and project ethics.
This framework will enhance the PMBOK® Guide and project success through:
- Better selection of projects
- Higher motivation of both individuals and teams
- Improved team selection and team working
- Improved stakeholder (expectation) management
- Improved organizational change management (OCM)
- Improved overall business results
- In the short term I believe that personal genetic information will greatly influence our medical future history enabling us to make beneficial alterations (nurture) to our lifestyles, diets and stressful situations to enable us to get the best from our bodies.
- In the mid to longer term, personal genetic information about our ‘potential’ behaviour styles will enable us to make decisions regarding career and job selection to help us lead more fulfilling lives.
- In the longer term, genetic information may well be in the public or semi-public arena enabling the selection of employees and teams without the need for the current reliance on psychometric testing.
A key ingredient in this will be the ethical argument as to who owns your genetic information. Therefore, the next few years will probably be consumed not by scientific breakthroughs (although there will be many), but rather through ethical and legal arguments as to the use and abuse of this critical information.
To help illustrate the importance of these recent advancements in science I draw on the following quotations: “We used to think that our fate was in the stars – now we know, in large measure, that our fate is in our genes” - James Watson – Genome project manager and co discoverer of DNA.
‘Ninety nine percent of the people don't have an inkling about how fast this revolution is coming’ – Steve Fodor, President of Affymetrix
The “Brave New World” of Huxley, much misinterpreted as a ‘nature’ hell, was in fact a description of ‘nurture’ hell. The conditioned upbringing of the various players leading to a horrible existence should still guide us to proceed with caution in this search for more knowledge. However, I believe that leveraging the discoveries of the Genome project will bring about a new way of thinking in medicine, ethics, law and management and therefore ultimately in project management as well. In effect bringing about a new world - post Genome.
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