Embracing “It Depends”

It should be relatively evident from my last few articles that I have little tolerance for irrelevant, inappropriate and—above all—cookie-cutter attempts to implement process. This isn’t just wrong, but is—in my view—entirely dangerous. It’s also wasteful, inefficient, and frustrating for everyone involved.

So what’s the answer? In case that wasn’t obvious, this would be “it depends.” As I’ve acknowledged, that’s a frustrating answer. It’s one that many people don’t like, because it’s vague and imprecise and leaves a lot open to interpretation. And it is an answer that immediately leads to a far more exasperated question: “Okay, Mr. Smarty-pants. What does it actually depend on?”

So glad that you asked. But before I answer, a little bit of explanatory background, illustrated by a story. Stay with me here, though, because it’s extremely relevant, I promise.

A lot of where we get tripped up and confused by process—and the appeal of concepts like “best practices”—is in how they are described. Take project management. There are standards out there for managing projects (not just from PMI, although that would be a noteworthy example). And there is a lot of marketing rhetoric around those standards. They are described as “world leading” and “essential” and “broadly accepted.” Yes, they are even referred to as “best practices.” The implicit implication is that if you are not using them, and using them as fully defined, you’re doing something wrong.

Yet what we’ve lost sight of is where those standards actually come from. In fact, most of us have lost sight of where project management practices in general came from. And the answer isn’t that far back in time. Depending upon who you ask, modern project management traces it’s history back only about sixty years or so. Dupont developed techniques to deal with the management of large-scale plant turnarounds, and the US Department of Defence was experimenting with how to deliver the Polaris nuclear missile submarine platform.

Both of these efforts drew on some of the best management minds available at the time (Rand and McKinsey are often mentioned) to help develop new management approaches. What emerged weren’t simply pre-defined solutions, however. They experimented. They tried things out. What worked or seemed promising, they kept and expanded upon. What didn’t work, they threw away. What emerged, over time, were techniques that we now recognize as the heart of modern project management (including the critical path method, PERT and earned value management techniques).

What we’ve become fixated on here is the results. In essence, the presumption is that because these techniques worked in a particular context, they should be relevant and applicable in other organizations and other contexts. That was also one of the driving motivators of the founding of PMI. They sought to promote more broadly the techniques and practices that were pioneered during this period.

We’ve forgotten about the process of getting to the process. The experimenting. The learning. The adapting. The trying of new things to see what works, and continuing to adapt and refine. Process isn’t something that is parachuted in wholesale. It is does not start out complete and perfect, and does not remain static and unchanging. It needs to work in the context of where it’s being applied.

Going back to the experiences in Dupont and on the Polaris program, what was implemented was appropriate for the time. Both were staunchly formal, hierarchical, command-and-control organizations, in an environment where subordinates were pretty much expected to deliver on the expectations of their superiors, without question, challenge or opposition. The techniques that emerged supported and responded to this. They reinforced top-down direction and—even in work that had risks and challenges—presumed a level of predictable, planned and deliberate definition and execution of work. It was all about planning the work and working the plan.

Now, if you work in a top-down, traditional, formal, hierarchical, command-and-control organization, there might still be a lot of modern project management that appeals. But even then, you’re going to have to adapt it. If your organization doesn’t resemble the US military during the Eisenhower era, however, some larger modifications may be relevant and useful.

This is where we get to “it depends,” and figuring out what it actually depends on. Put simply, if we are going to implement process that works, it needs to be relevant. It needs to be useable. It needs to be appropriate. It needs to be understood. It needs to be valued. And it needs to be actually used.

That doesn’t tell you WHAT the process should look like, of course. And that is—being entirely honest—what drives most of the frustration with “it depends” as an answer. When appropriate process is contingent, there are no simple guidelines or clear prescriptions. It does, however, define the success criteria of what good process actually looks like. That is going to be different in each case, however. But the answer needs to conform to those expectations, or it simply isn’t going to work.

In determining appropriate process, there is a lot of judgement and consideration required. There are a lot of options and opportunities to be explored and worked through. We are adapting and experimenting. We are figuring out what works. We are returning to the principles of where process comes from, not simply relying on the results of someone else’s exploration.

Which brings us to how we get to figuring out “it depends” and determining what an appropriate solution—for us—actually looks like. What I’m sharing here is my approach to thinking through this process. That’s not to say that it’s the only way of getting there, either. But it’s one that has worked—consistently and reliably—for me in guiding organizations through a conversation about how they manage, and determining how they can manage more effectively:

  • How do you manage today? The entire process begins with an understanding of the current situation. It’s about understanding the current state, in all of its messy reality. What’s important is that there is always an answer to this question. There is a starting place. We need to understand what that looks like. It may be awkward, inconsistent, informal and unreliable. But it exists, and it exists for a reason. So that’s where we have to start.
  • What is working? In every organization I have every advised, assessed or consulted with, there has always been an answer to this question. No matter how dysfunctional any organization thinks they are, there are still things that work. Sometimes this simply reflects a culture of caring and getting things done, despite the lack of formal process. Or there might be pockets of good process in place, or effective practices that individuals or teams are taking advantage of.
  • What isn’t working? Asking what isn’t working is one of the best ways of identifying priorities and concerns. There will always be answers to these questions, and the answers will often be detailed and comprehensive. People in the organization are going to have things that grate, that frustrate them, that get in the way or that are just plain broken. These are the things that are going to get highlighted here. They aren’t just complaints, though. They speak to what is making things ineffectual or inefficient, and that are getting in the way of producing real and meaningful results.
  • What would help to improve how you manage? This is an extremely interesting question, in that it’s basically asking people “What do you want?” In other words, it’s focussing essentially asking people to say what is most appropriate and desirable in terms of process and capabilities. Usually, it speaks directly to what isn’t working. Sometimes it builds on and enhances what is already working. In all instances, it identifies HOW a solution should work that addresses those problems. And that’s the power of the question. Just because you know something doesn’t work doesn’t mean (unless you are dealing with a very simple and simplistic issue) that you know what the solution looks like. This question actually asks people to design and speculate what would be desirable, acceptable and useful in terms of a solution.
  • Where are you trying to go? Every question so far (even the one about improvement opportunities) is asking about what is currently in place. They are questions that try to understand what is going on, and what people see as possible progressions and improvements based on what is going on. This question focusses on the future. It suspends an exploration of what is, and asks for a consideration of what could be. In doing this, it needs to be specific. It also needs to avoid platitudes. We aren’t (usually) for example, trying to simply improve on-time, on-budget, to-spec performance. What we care about may be reputation. Strategic alignment. Improved collaboration. Reduction of silos. Retention of our staff. Attraction of better staff. But all of these are very specific outcomes, and each of them will have very specific strategies that allow us to attain them.
  • What immediate next steps will get you there? This question gets to the heart of “what’s next?” It is the essence to embracing “it depends,” and defining what, precisely, it depends on. It is a question for you, not for others. Understanding the current state is important, as is defining the desired future. This is the question that defines what is possible, practical and reasonable from here. It requires being clear about what immediate next steps are relevant, make sense and make a difference. It needs to be meaningful and significant enough to represent real, valuable and useful change. And it needs to be not so far ahead that it appears unattainable, unrealistic or threatening. The answer to this question defines what actually is required, useful and relevant in terms of process. But it’s not about what is useful in perpetuity, or in a perfect world. It is about what is practical, possible and pragmatically appropriate right now.

There are a lot of people that don’t like “it depends” as an answer. I get it. It’s easier to look for simple and beguilingly precise answers. It’s easier to go with what others have done. It’s easier to go with “best practices,” which—as we’ve discussed—usually aren’t. And that’s the problem. Simple solutions, appealing as they are, don’t make meaningful differences when the problem is complex change. Contextual answers take a lot more work. They require a lot more effort. But in the long run, they are the only things that actually make a difference.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be getting in to these themes in a little bit more detail. I’ll look at how and why we build the processes we do, what works and doesn’t work, and what makes sense in making process useful, constructive and meaningful.

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