Transitioning From Planning To Emergence

Last week’s post about planned and emergent projects was both a continuation and a departure for me. It was a continuation, in that it speaks to project management and outlines concepts that I have been endeavouring to work with and introduce to customers for some time. It is a bit of a departure, however, because it also represents a shift in focus of where I see myself working going forward.

When I have managed projects in the past, many of them have been emergent in nature. Many organizations I have worked with have been struggling with the ability to manage emergent projects, not recognizing them as such and therefore trying to treat them as normal, every-day planned projects – with predictably poor results. Teams I have facilitated have struggled with the idea that there should be uncertainty in their strategic plans or unanswered questions in their projects. Even though we recognize the intellectual existence of emergent projects, we don’t want to actually deal with them. It’s taking the concept of ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ into the project and strategy realm.

The failure to accommodate and deal with emergence in projects and strategies is really a challenge in thinking. The focus of management, pretty much from Taylor forward, has been on rigorous, formal and disciplined management. Uncertainty and fuzziness are seen as signs of imprecision and weakness, rather than simple realities. Executives don’t want to admit to their colleagues across the boardroom table that they don’t know the details of how they will execute on a strategy, or that they’re not fully clear on how long a project will take.

Many of the most significant challenges that organizations face today, however, are inherently complex and uncertain. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be much of a challenge. But the corporate mindset of “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” is not able to engage with these challenges. If I can’t raise something as an issue without knowing how to solve it, then I’m not going to open my mouth. And so our largest strategic and organizational problems get taken off the table and get swept under the carpet; they become the undiscussable elephants in the room that everyone sees, but no one will acknowledge. As well, it would seem, these elephants feed on uncertainty and fear – because they just get bigger and bigger, until all room for potential movement is squeezed out.

Part of the reason the elephants are in the room is because they ARE undiscussable, or at least are perceived that way. In other words, we often lack the ability to identify the elephants without being perceived as hostile, defensive or subversive. We lack the tools to think about these complex problems, to evaluate them and to make effective decisions about how to address them. The result is that we sit in meetings, looking at everyone around us, trying to figure out how to move forward. Or at least how to give the elephant a nudge off of our toes.

That leads to the directional shift. While I have played in emergent sandboxes for some time, and am altogether comfortable with working through the uncertainty and ambiguity that environment affords, there has often still been a great deal of discomfort in those I work with. Executives do not like fuzzy answers. Sponsors do not like uncertain estimates. Steering committees do not like ambiguous goals. And yet embracing all of those is essential to solving many of the challenges organizations face in what is certainly an unpredictable, inconsistent and at times hostile global environment.

To address these challenges requires a different level of discussion, a different level of problem solving and a different approach to deciding at a strategic level within organizations. Acknowledging the emergent nature of problems we are tackling is all well and good, but the inevitable next question is, “Now what?” We need the thinking that not only accepts but embraces the emergent nature of a challenge, the strategies by which to devise reasonable responses to these problems and the decision making tools to be able to figure out what to do.

Much of my focus going forward, and the work that I see myself conducting, is in working with executive teams, steering committees and governance bodies in tackling these challenges. Providing the education, the support, the tools and above all the facilitation to be able to work through these challenges. It is the next chapter in a story that began with projects, and that has progressively explored the many challenges that influence how projects are approached.

How this chapter unfolds is its own emergent process. It will no doubt involve its own false starts, dead ends and tangents. And yet it is a narrative that I very much look forward to exploring. I hope you’ll stick around and see how the journey unfolds.

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