I’ve Got No Strings

Few would challenge the importance of a stern manager – let’s call him the “Captain” – taking control of the Good Ship Project, applying a strong hand at the helm to ensure the correct course is set and a successful conclusion reached. I for one, however, take issue with such a “command and control” approach. For me, such behaviour merely demonstrates a lack of trust in the team, delays communication (which all has to be routed via the Captain), and actually goes a long way towards wrecking projects. In my opinion, it’s not a strong hand at the helm that we need but a sure hand on the tiller, guiding and not forcing the team towards its final destination. Most situations have various options so we have to accept that dissent is almost guaranteed and then deal with it accordingly, but what usually happens is that the Captain takes the epistemological (sorry, I’ve been aching to use that word for some time) high ground and assumes that they either know everything, or need to know everything, for an endeavour to flourish. Everyone has their own personal reality, and the Captain’s is all too often the unshakeable belief that the people “under his command” are incapable of understanding, planning, or completing tasks without intervention. However, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; for example, if I am assigned work that I don’t feel contributes to the final product then I probably won’t do it either unless the work-setter chases me. There is a reason whenever I feel that the work is inappropriate – as an expert in my area, aren’t I best placed to know what is required? Letting the Captain take over ignores the team’s skills and experience, removes the need for independent thought, reduces internal team communication, and, ultimately, slows innovation.


But there is another way, besides taking orders from the Captain, whereby the team set the way of working, create the plan, and assign and track tasks. It is only when a group works together under its own steam and direction that we begin to see the emergent property of true collaboration – the only path to creating something special, perhaps something that individual team members never could have imagined alone. A large portion of the traditional project process does seem to be an arse-covering exercise to ensure that, in the event of error, blame will fall to somebody else. After all, a 200 page tome down the trousers does protect you against a kick up the butt far better than a sheet of A4! But extensive documentation that doesn’t relate to the build, use, or maintenance of the final product, e.g. the dreaded Project Initiation Document, is a perfect example of misdirected effort. And what is the point in expending ten units of energy in avoiding mistakes when it only costs two to rectify a mistake once made? Mistakes and miscommunications are bound to happen, so surely this active avoidance of error is not only a waste of time but, worse, a first inexorable step towards the death of imagination? In striving for something special you are bound to take a few wrong turns, and this should be welcomed. Surely it’s better (in a non-critical endeavour) to be 25% actually wrong than 100% hypothetically right? In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz suggests that “far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is critical to human cognition”. Or, in simple terms, unless you make mistakes you’ll never learn anything: A Google Approach to Mistakes

The following observation by Dave Coplin, “chief envisioning officer” for Microsoft UK, is equally true for Project Managers as it is for IT Managers: “there is still this sense of empire in the IT community, with IT chiefs wanting to retain control of all aspects of their business processes.” My advice for any Command and Controlaholics out there would be for you to stay out of the detail, concentrate on the big picture, and let go of your project process crutch. Frank Sinatra once said after having given a fan a pair of diamond cufflinks “if you own something you can’t bear to part with, you don’t own it; it owns you”. So be brave and drop that list of “must-do” processes that you apply to every project, and stop trying to take control. Of course this requires a leap of faith, but as Gerry Stribling points out in Buddhism for Dudes, “everyone takes themselves too seriously… the less important you perceive yourself to be, the freer you are to accomplish great things”. So the next time you feel the need to take over, just take a minute and listen to the team; you may learn something. In the immortal words of Morpheus in the Matrix: “you take the blue pill and the story ends, you wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe; you take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”