Although Project Management has been around since a man built his first mud hut under the direction of his missus, it has only relatively recently become a recognized professional discipline, with formalized methods and tools being developed along the way. I can remember a time when just producing a Gantt chart would leave the client gaping with admiration; now we have some of the most sophisticated tools imaginable - Earned Value Management, PRINCE 2, CMM-I and the rest. So why, it is reasonable to ask, do so many large projects still hit the buffers, under-deliver and/or blow their budget?
Let me be clear - these tools and techniques (I'll term them "1st order") are absolutely vital; and up to a certain level of complexity, are quite good enough to do the job and deliver against a firm requirement. However, as complexity increases, simply following the rules is not enough - because in complex projects, the requirements are never firm. In fact, the level of complexity is in direct proportion to their uncertainty. While applying 1st order tools to the specifics of the task at hand, the project manager also needs to adapt, modify, and improvise by deploying a range of additional, less prescriptive, techniques and methods as and when needed.
Sometimes this even means breaking the 1st order rules on purpose. It may very well be that the behaviors necessary to apply 1st order methods - attention to detail, rigorous adherence to process - could even be a barrier to 2nd order management practice. In second order practice, creativity and lateral thought are the essential competencies, alongside systems thinking, experiential learning and courageous leadership.
During the writing of my book on 2nd order Project Management, I was privileged to talk to some of the world's best and most experienced project leaders, people whose track record demonstrates their abilities. One of the many qualities they showed in common was an enthusiasm to share their stories and their wisdom in order to inform the practice of others - a mark of true professionalism. While I have attempted to incorporate their knowledge in the body of my book, some of their most trenchant quotes deserve to be offered verbatim, in order to encourage careful reflection. For obvious reasons, the quotes are not attributable but, nevertheless, here they are.