Appropriation & Adaptation

Last week I talked about how all of the models, processes and standards that we are beholden to are all essentially make believe. Someone created them, because they thought they were useful. To the extent that they are still useful, awesome. And if they’re not useful anymore, then we should feel entirely free to adapt, change, overhaul, throw out or simply ignore them. Because if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t make sense to do it that way, does it?

Hidden inside all of that is a little glimmer of observation that I want to shine a whole lot more light on this week. It’s something that’s been noodling away in the back of my consciousness for a while. And I think it’s really important to talk about. In particular, I want to focus on where we get our ideas for models in the first place, and how we evolve—or don’t evolve—them over time.

To tackle this, we need to start with the process by which models actually get created. And to say that they get ‘created’ is almost certainly an exaggeration. They get adapted, modified, integrated and altered from other things. Mostly, models are ideas that are borrowed from a different place and a different context and remixed in a way that makes sense and provides value. Arguably, this is how much of innovation works. Mark Twain’s quotation is an awesome reflection of this:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

That this is true is not a criticism. It’s an observation. But it’s an important one. If our new models are reinventions and reinterpretations of previous concepts and structures, then they have a history. There is background. There is experience. There is context. And the challenge is that this background doesn’t often get translated into the new model.

Project management is a really good example of this. It has often been argued that there is no ‘theory’ of project management. There is no specific school of project management. In an academic context, you can find project management being taught and studied in engineering, architecture, computer science, business and even sustainable development. It’s a little bit of a rootless discipline, and so it shows up where it can find enough of a foundation to get some support.

This leads to the essential question of WHY there is no underpinning theory. Why is project management rootless? And the answer to that is a product of its origins: project management borrows shamelessly from a whole host of disciplines. Project management gets presented as this holistic, integrated thing that let’s people deliver meaningful undertakings in a logical fashion. And while that’s lovely, it didn’t get built that way from scratch.

The sources of project management as we know it today are numerous. There are concepts and aspects from strategy, from decision making, from operations management and from product development. There are concepts from psychology, from industrial relations and from sociology. Project management borrows from finance, accounting, information technology, marketing and management science. The consequence is that if you are looking at any one aspect of project management, the chances are more than excellent that the origins of that aspect are in some other far-flung discipline.

The challenge is that we don’t acknowledge or recognize these sources. They are not pointed to. They’re not widely taught. Project management typically gets presented as this whole, complete thing that spontaneously came into being. And that’s a problem in many ways. Not just because we are failing to acknowledge source. But because we are taking an idea, running—and running away—with it, and in no way keeping touch with how it evolves.

This is a little bit like how people of different cultural backgrounds migrate to new ones. In many respects, they hang on closely to their cultural norms and values. Back home, where they came from, culture continues to evolve. It adapts. It responds to shifts, pressures and opportunities. But to the migrant, the culture that they have brought with them can often remain fixed and unchanging. Linguistically, for example, Newfoundland English is today as close as you will find in the world to how English was spoken in Victorian times, and Quebecois french is reflective of French in the time of Louis XIV. Current inhabitants of Britain and France, however, are entirely likely to struggle with that reconciliation.

A recent article on portfolio management that I wrote is a good illustration of this. Portfolio management comes from product development. It was developed as a way to optimize investment decisions in product development opportunities, to manage scarce resources and optimize investment returns. Several research papers in the mid-to-late 1990s found portfolio management as practiced fundamentally wanting; organizations still had poorly defined portfolios, bad decision-making processes, resource scarcity and minimal strategic alignment. And while these problems continue to get wrestled with in the product development community, we in project management have essentially taken the ideas wholesale as developed at the time, and struggled to do anything different with them.

Team building is another great illustration. Study project management—or even better, get certified—and inevitably you are going to get introduced to Tuckman’s model of team building. And while you might not know who Tuckman is, you will absolutely recognize the terms “forming, storming, norming and performing.” In the PMP exam, this is pretty much the only model of team building that is presented and discussed. And yet it in no way reflects how team building actually works. We don’t build teams in linear, regulated and regimented fashion. And while new models and insights have continued to be developed and refined, project management hangs on to a fifty-year-old model that is largely discredited.

If I’m honest, I’m also a case in point. I’ve been consulting in project management for going on three decades now. I’ve read huge amounts of what has been written on the topic (and I’ve written my own fair share). I am guilty of having believed—with hubris and not a little bit of shame—that at one point I new pretty much everything there is to know about the subject of project management.

That changed, massively and significantly, about 15 years ago. What shifted my thinking was doing my doctorate. Initially, I bristled at the idea of having to cite sources in academic writing; of not just presenting an idea, but needing to know where that idea came from, how it has evolved, and why it is relevant. I knew what I knew, so why couldn’t I just say that and move on? Academic writing doesn’t let you do that. In retrospect, I wholly understand why that’s the case (even if it still occasionally annoys the crap out of me).

That need to cite sources is what made me search more broadly, out of the project management literature (which is it’s own self-reinforcing echo chamber) and into the underlying literatures of strategy, decision making and psychology that underpinned my work. Giant, overwhelming, ever-evolving and multi-faceted literatures, each one. My claiming to be an expert in all things project management was a little bit like me knowing every nook and cranny of an entrance hallway in vivid detail, without realizing that beyond the door I was ignoring lay an entire mansion of knowledge of which I was largely ignorant.

The first, obvious insight into this is that it is virtually impossible to be an expert who has total mastery of a subject (unless the subject in question occupies an infinitesimally small niche of some broader subject, which is largely how we get into specialization in the first place). The second and more important one is that domains and practices are always evolving and changing. There is no one fixed point of knowledge, where everything stops and we can claim to now know all that there is. There is new research, there are new insights, there are explorations and discoveries about how to apply (or not apply) new techniques and approaches.

So if our models aren’t working, we should by all means be willing to change them. We should be content to shunt them aside and look for something different and more relevant. But we should also be comfortable with the fact that what is different and more relevant is already out there, at least in part. There are insights and ideas, perspectives and alternatives, that have already been explored and are continuing to evolve. We just need to be willing to go out and find them.

That is easier to say than it is to do, of course. Just like our cultural migrants from earlier, clinging to their values in a new and alien world, the reason we hold on to what we know is that it is comfortable. Even if it doesn’t work optimally, we know it, we’re familiar with it, we can claim some mastery of it. So acknowledging that it isn’t working as well as it could and consciously letting go of it appears to be a bit of a risk. We’re jumping into the unknown.

The good news is that just because it’s unknown to us doesn’t mean it’s unknown to everyone. It is known by some, and it is knowable. We just have to be willing to explore and investigate, to innovate and invent, to borrow and apply. But this time, we should keep in mind where what we are borrowing came from, and keep a half-eye pealed to how the original idea evolves even as we embrace it and make it our own.

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