The Power of Babel

I was recently in a meeting with six experienced project managers. What amazed me was that none of them seemed to speak the same language or could agree on the best approach to projects. They all had their theories and could defend them with evidence of how they’d worked.

Which got me thinking about why it is so difficult to change project managers, to get them to try something new.

Imagine if you asked three project managers to get from Melbourne (Australia) to Sydney (Australia) — a distance of about 900 kilometres. One may go by car, one by train and the other by bus. All three get to Sydney and are, therefore, ‘successful’. They would have all taken different amounts of time and the cost will have been quite different, but they’ve all ‘proved’ that their approach to getting to Sydney ‘works’ and will, therefore, believe it can be applied successfully to the next project.

Once a project manager does something that “works” they are convinced they have the formula for project success — hence the disparate views, language and approaches to projects.

In our Melbourne-to-Sydney example above, if you then come along with a ‘take a plane for the cost of a bus’ option, most project managers will reject it. They don’t know that it works and it is an option they have not (personally) seen as successful. And they are far too busy to learn as well as being risk averse.

One of my favourite cartoons is of a medieval knight fighting with bows and arrows who does not have time to see the salesman selling machine guns because he is “too busy fighting a war!” This so sums up many project managers’ approach to learning new approaches.

It is said that the best lessons are learned from failure. You learn what does not work.

But when things are seen to work, however badly or expensively, they are adopted as ‘the way’. As a result, approaches that don’t work but are made invisible by aspects of a project that do work and are, therefore, continued and thought of as part of the successful way of delivering projects.

So, when planning to change project managers’ approaches you need to stay away from the detail, the terminology or even the approaches — and focus on what you’re trying to achieve (the ‘desired business outcomes’) and work backwards as to how these outcomes can most efficiently and effectively be achieved.

Getting a group of project managers to define and agree the desired business outcomes for projects in general (as opposed to defining them for a specific project) teases out the different views as to what is important on projects and, often, creates new perspectives for those in the discussion.

The project manager who catches the bus may in fact not know about the cheap-fare plane option having assumed it was far too expensive or may have a belief that ‘supporting public transport’ is an important factor. The car driver may see that going by car is actually a far riskier approach to projects than is necessary (as well as the most tiring). And so on.

Changing change-agents is always the hardest challenge, but using the ‘desired business outcomes’ technique can create a common language and change the discussion from “who is right?” to “what is required to achieve these outcomes?”

Topics: Value Delivery, Value Equation, Project Governance

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Jul 2008) as "The Power of Babel"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections