Who is riding the bull?

Senior Project Manager, Scotiabank Group


Power and influence in complex organizations is diffused across a wide range of project participants and stakeholders. Consequently, project managers are challenged in providing the leadership and control required to meet the expected objectives. The first part of this paper uses the concepts and archetypes of ‘systems thinking' as explained by Peter Senge in his seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, to set the context of projects and project management in an organizational setting. Systems thinking is a “discipline of seeing wholes… of seeing interrelationships rather than things” (Senge, 1990, p69). The second part explores key project manager levers of power and influence that are consistent with Senge's framework.


Playing chess and project management have a lot in common. A chess player needs to understand the rules, the current layout of the board and the implication of his and his opponent's moves. Project managers need to understand the rules of engagement, their project environments and must be able to look beyond one or two steps ahead.

A high percentage of projects fail, with many failing absolutely. Projects of comparable complexity and size take different time and resources to deliver in different organizations. How can we account for these two realities? A large part of the problem can be traced to the organizational settings, and on the project manager's skill to work the project environment in the broader context of the organizational setting.

The Project Environment in a Systems Context

Peter Senge, in his famous book, notes that the “real leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity that “distracts us from seeing patterns and major interrelations”(Senge, 1990, p72). There is dynamic complexity “when the same action has dramatically different effects in the short run and the long” (Senge, 1998, pg 71). Senge goes on to propose that cause and effect are not linear with one-way causality, instead they are circular in nature. “The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding the ‘feedback' process that shows how actions reinforce or counteract (balance) each other” (Senge, 1990, p73).

Senge proposes that there are two types of feedback: balancing and reinforcing. Balancing feedback is everywhere underlying all goal-oriented behavior. Within the balancing feedback, there is the planned and the unplanned, the latter hindering the accomplishment of an objective. Reinforcing feedback are the engines of growth or decline where small actions can grow into large consequences. However, a reinforcing process of growth or improvement will “run up against a balancing process, which operates to limit the growth … [and]. the rate of improvement slows down, or even comes to a standstill” (Senge, 1990, p97). In the project world, we operate in an environment of largely balancing processes.

Projects are the children of their sponsoring organization and thus do not operate in a vacuum. The mapping of the organizational context into the Senge framework for purposes of bringing light to our understanding of the project environments presents a challenge. There seem to be two key distinct balancing processes: organizational configuration and resource allocation. The elements under the organizational configuration process need some explanation. Structure covers hierarchy and roles and responsibilities. Practices includes policies, procedures as well as discipline, or their lack of.

As much as we would like to believe, these two processes are not necessarily in sync. The former carries more history and is more rigid.

The project in the organizational context

Exhibit 1: The project in the organizational context

Project management with planning, execution and control sandwiched between initiation and closure is also a balancing process. The organizational configuration, the resource allocation and the project processes closely interact. Exhibit 1, using the Senge's template, traces the flow of influence within each process and the key interactions between the processes.

Roles and responsibilities in the hosting organization are generally the determining force in the project structure. The project disciplines in practice are explicitly or implicitly aligned with the organizational practices. The project team is a microcosm of the organization, and exceptional results are unlikely to be the norm.

With the existence of dynamic complexity in human systems “cause and effect are generally not closely related in time and space” (Senge,1990, p63). The delays that interrupt actions and consequences can impact the relationships in the aforementioned balancing processes. These delays can have a compounded impact. From a project perspective, the delays are a source of much project risk. Delayed decision-making, delays in the allocation of resources, delays in the completion of the work, delays in communications within the core project team and to organizational stakeholders all result in project risk.

Given the constraints imposed by the balancing forces and processes, Project managers operate in an environment where workarounds and patched solutions abound. Symptomatic solutions are put in place to relieve “pressures, either external or internal, to ‘do something' about a vexing problem”. According to Senge, these well-intended solutions simply shift the burden because, “the underlying problem remains unaddressed and may worsen.” (Senge, 1990, p107). In the project world, it seems to be all too common to have 80% of the work completed during the last 20% of the schedule. In such situations, team members tend to pay a heavy personal price and product quality invariably suffers shifting some of the burden back to the organization.

The Levers of Power and Influence

Continuing with our application of the Senge's framework, Project managers need to put in place a reinforcing process whereby ‘a small action snowballs, with more and more and still more of the same' (Senge, 1990, p81) to offset the gravitational forces. The following three activities can generate the required reinforcing loop: understanding and working the production line, a skillful application of the PM tools and techniques, and a disciplined approach to influencing outcomes. Exhibit 2 integrates the reinforcing process with the aforementioned balancing processes.

The reinforcing process within the project context

Exhibit 2: The reinforcing process within the project context

Understanding and Working the Production Line

Covey's 2nd Habit is a must for project managers. Covey states: “begin with the end in mind…There is a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation” (Covey, 1989, p99). The first creation involves the final product, and the process to get there. An explicit delivery strategy needs to be established during project planning. The delivery strategy translates into the project production line. The delivery strategy needs to focus on dynamic complexity and the impact of delays.

In many organizations project managers are expected to allocate work, negotiate schedules and track results, manage relationships, and are not directly responsible for the project production line. However, when things go wrong in the delivery activities, the organization focuses on the project manager. Project managers need to understand and work their project production lines.

In the technology world, we all too often seem to use simplistic and mechanical planning and monitoring approaches based on high-level frameworks. Organizations seem reluctant to abandon the traditional waterfall methodology where requirements are completed before design, and design is completed before development, and so on. This method builds into the delivery activities arbitrary lags and is somewhat oblivious to the natural flow of project disclosure.

We need to use more dynamic and cohesive methodologies, such as the Rational Unified Process (RUP) and its more extreme variations. RUP explicitly recognizes that however much we wish it, the overlap between requirements gathering and design and development cannot be avoided (Exhibit 3). RUP relies on iterations to build production quality software. Iterations differ from phases in that iterations are expected to be of basically the same duration. They are also expected to be of relatively short duration (less than 6 weeks). Iterations deliver a product end to end, starting with the requirements/use cases or design and ending with integration, testing and possibly the delivery of functionality to the user.

Activity levels across the life-cycle phases Source: Royce (p119)

Exhibit 3: Activity levels across the life-cycle phases

Source: Royce (p119)

Iteration based development effectively supports the monitoring and management of project velocity and therefore the schedule. With the common iteration duration the project manager, through careful management of the iteration load, can set a regular rhythm to the delivery activities. Without the unwieldy lags associated with the more traditional methods, the feedback is timely. As the known risks, be they technical, skills related, or of some other kind, are given priority and consciously resolved in the early iterations, the production line experiences fewer surprises and the schedule related feedback is more accurate.

Project managers with a limited understanding and/or with limited control over their production line have a very difficult task in their efforts to:

  • partition project activities to effectively support planning, execution and management activities
  • impose the necessary discipline to project activities
  • gather and integrate data from the various feedback sources
  • understand the ‘true' project status
  • actively managing instead of accepting risk, and
  • negotiate with the organizational stakeholders for resources.

Skillful Application of the PM Tools

PMBOK's tools serve to plan, monitor and control the delivery activities. The effective use of these tools and methods is time consuming, requiring discipline and knowledge on the part of the project manager. These tools need to:

  • organize the data into cohesive information in support of the delivery strategy
  • make the data come alive, and make the reality meaningfully reflected in the content of the materials
  • help share information with the team.

The project manager must be able to distinguish between what is important and what is not important, between the items that will bring light to the project dynamic complexities, and the items that do not.

So what makes skillful and disciplined use of the tools? Foremost are the following items:

  • carefully crafted documentation on what is in and out of scope
  • a WBS based on project deliverables that correspond to the project requirements, and not activities
  • a WBS that maps the production line to support the management and leadership activities
  • a RAM that is aligned to the WBS deliverables and that properly maps roles and responsibilities.
  • Schedule and budget estimates at the deliverable level
  • application of Earned Value Analysis to effectively monitored and report on project progress and assess project risk
  • meeting, minutes and action registers that drive the team to the finish line.

A Disciplined Approach to Influencing Outcomes

Covey points out that individuals have a circle of influence that can grow or shrink, and therefore it is not static. According to Covey, people need to focus their attention and effort on the items that they can influence, and not waste their limited resources over items where they have limited if any influence. The challenge is focused in the project environment. The project manager's control over the project management process and influence/control over scope, expectations and commitments provide the starting leverage.

The growth in the circle of influence comes from the effective alignment of the project team with the goals, commitments, expectations and methods. The alignment must start with the project initiating documentation, which needs to be clear and comprehensive specifying both the whats and the hows. The team needs to carefully review the documentation and provide input as the intent is to have a game plan agreed upon and internalized by the team. As Katzenbach and Smith describe it, the goal is to have a group of people “with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (Katzenbach, 1994, p92). The organizational gravitational forces became pronounced as the team attempts to translate a concept into a reality and as the ‘wheels touch the road'. The alignment is an on going activity.

The project manager has a second community to influence and engage, namely the organizational stakeholders. This is easier done when the organizational stakeholders are organized into a committee (e.g. Steering Committee). The project manager needs to be comfortable managing and delegating up. This is a two way process. It is incumbent upon the project manager to provide early and full disclosure and to manage expectations. Senior management must then be used to validate options, to bless decisions, and to take on assignments as required. What is being proposed is engaging and co-opting the key stakeholders into the process, which is materially different from escalation.

The project manager cannot allow the team members or the stakeholders to highjack the project. To get around this challenge, the project manager needs to set the tone and discipline for the project. It needs to be applied consistently in all forms and forums so as not to diminish their impact. The project manager needs to continually:

  • frame and manage the agenda
  • expect and practice full and early disclosure, be open minded to new information, and critical in its assessment
  • communicate and co-opt the team and stakeholders in the risk management strategy
  • make timely decisions that are accepted by the team and that take the project team closer to the end state
  • frame and manage expectations, setting new realistic markers on time to avoid putting the project at risk, or putting undue burden on the project team
  • manage communications up, down and horizontally
  • relate all information and actions to the triple constraints of budget, schedule and quality.

To recap, planning and working the production line, skillful use of the project management tools, and the disciplined approach to influencing outcomes can make up a reinforcing process. We must keep in mind that we are dealing with a human system, or more precisely a human abstraction. The linking of production line to tools to influencing is a mental framework, and not natural law. To effectively link the three elements requires conscious and disciplined action, in fact a strategy. In situations where the project manager has a weak hand vis-à-vis the production line, skillful use of the tools and a disciplined approach to influencing should strengthen his/her position vis-à-vis the delivery activities being directed by others.

Revisiting Project Failure

Normally, a litany of reasons is used to explain project failures. Poor requirements gathering tends to be at the top of the list. We need to feel sorry for the poor business analyst who invariably gets blamed. And the list goes on: lack of executive buy-in, poor project management training, poor scope definition, unrealistic expectations, etc.

With a systems view, after taking into consideration balancing and reinforcing processes, dynamic complexity and lags, it becomes apparent that the somewhat disconnected causes go only so far in explaining project failures. A broader and more dynamic perspective is required. In analyzing military campaigns, Cohen and Gooch went beyond the simple and symptomatic causes to identify the following three root causes for military misfortunes:

  • failure to learn, “having experienced a disaster once, the individual or organization continues to indulge in exactly the same patterns of behavior until they are visited by the same disaster once more
  • failure to anticipate where disaster is the consequence of a failure to anticipate predictable situations
  • failure to adapt to new and unexpected circumstances” (Cohen, 1990, p25-26).

The responsibility to learn, anticipate and adapt, according to Cohen and Gooch, spans from the organizational leaders to the operational and tactical commanders.

Cohen and Gooch refer to the occurrence of one as a simple failure, the occurrence of two failures occurring in combination as aggregate failure, and the three failures occurring simultaneously or consecutively as catastrophic failure. A simple failure will not necessarily bring total defeat. The ability to recover becomes more difficult when aggregate failure occurs and is practically impossible under catastrophic failure.

Projects are much like military campaigns as they both take place in dynamic environments. This taxonomy applies to the project context. Project managers need to lead the project learning, anticipation and adaptation activities, if for no other reason than professional survival. Leaning, anticipation and adaptation cannot take place in a vacuum. The project manager needs to know: how the team will accomplish the desired objective, how well it is doing in this regard, and how to effectively influence to get the desired outcome. Project managers must not only fear failure, but also systematically work to avoid it.

Real life use of power and leadership

At the end of the day, project management is about power, influence and leadership under difficult circumstances. They come to those individuals that seek it, that learn how to use it, and learn to grow it. There is much to be learned from the use of power, influence and leadership outside the narrow project framework. We can look to political, historical and biographical works for role models. George Patton as commander of the US III Army and the Battle of the Bulge, and Lyndon Baines Johnson as leader of the US Senate present two interesting cases.

The Battle of the Bulge would have been an unmitigated catastrophe for the Allies as the Germans attacked through the Ardennes in mid winter 1944. The front line commanders failed to anticipate and were in no position to react. With his army of over 100,000 men a hundred miles away moving in a totally different direction, Patton reacted to the attack quickly and effectively. A plan was put in place overnight that leveraged from the mobility of his well-trained army. Then, while other generals stood in disbelief, Patton turned around his well-disciplined army over a 3-day period to counter attack and bring defeat to the Germans.

When it comes to the raw use of power, Lyndon Baines Johnson as leader of the US Senate comes to mind. As Caro points out, Johnson “looked for power in places where no previous Leader had thought to look for it – and he found it. And he created new powers, employing a startling ingenuity and imagination to transform parliamentary techniques and mechanisms. (Caro, 2003, pg XX). With his uncanny ability to accurately assess how his Senate colleagues were going to vote on any given day on any given legislative bill, Johnson was able to effectively use the procedural powers to control what and when bills came to the Senate floor for a vote.


Project managers operate in an environment of balancing forces that are not necessarily aligned to expectations for otherwise the status quo would prevail. Moreover, project managers operate in an environment where power and influence is widely dispersed.

Project managers need to use wisely the available levers of power. Wisdom comes from understanding and manipulating the high leverage points generally associated with dynamic complexity. Wisdom comes from understanding where, through the judicious exercise of leadership, a project manager's actions can make a positive difference.

As a final note, we should not forget that “leverage lies in the balancing loop – not the reinforcing loop. To change the behavior of the system, you must identify and change the limiting factor. (Senge, 1990, p101). This realm lies beyond the project manager's reach. We need to understand the temporal nature to our successes.


Caro, R., (2003) The Years of Lyndon Baines Johnson -Master of the Senate. Knof:Toronto.

Cohen, E. & Gooch, J (1990) The Anatomy of Failure in War: Military Misfortunes. Free Press:New York.

Covey, S., (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon and Schuster:Toronto.

Fowler, M., & Scott, K., (2002) UML Distilled - Second Edition. Addison-Wesley:Toronto.

Hirshson, S., (2003) General Patton: A Soldiers Life, HarperCollins:Toronto.

Katzenbach, J., & Smith, D., (1994) The Wisdom of Teams. HarperCollins:New York.

Royce, W., (1998) Software Project Management-A Unified Framework. Addison-Wesley:Toronto.

Senge, P., (1990) The Fifth Discipline-The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday:New York.

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 or any listed author.

© 2006, George Hanff
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Santiago, Chile



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