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Right-Brain Project Management

Recommended Reads | By Mike Griffiths | Read time minutes

Ramifications brain, concept of the human brain system

Recently, I attended an excellent presentation on Right-Brain Project Management by Dr Michael Aucoin. I attend lots of presentations during the course of a year, mainly at North American events but a sprinkling of international conferences too, and few presentations stand out as being excellent. This one was exceptional from the content (that connected some loose ends in my Agile-Leadership-Project Management mental model) to the materials and delivery.

So, what was so good about it and what does it have to do with Agile Leadership? Well it outlined a parallel view of project management that supports and reinforces agile leadership and fills in some gaps along the way.

Michael started off by talking about today's stretch projects. He defined a stretch project as a project that causes traditional project management challenges. They are characterised by:

  • Schedule challenges and resource challenges
  • Ambiguous specifications
  • Dealing with new technology, new groups, new people
  • Dispersed teams
  • Many mid-project scope changes
  • Challenging people issues

In these circumstances the old project management approaches that are good for predictable projects break down. Michael did not use the words traditional and agile, but he might as well have been giving an agile presentation because through his research he had arrived at the same conclusions, but interestingly, offered additional insights.

Why Does Project Management Fail?

Many people are frustrated by the mismatch between project management theory and its application on real-life projects. This is due largely to trying to employ approaches designed for predictable projects on today's stretch projects and seeing them come up short.

Yet, in many walks of life outside of project management, people succeed in unpredictable environments everyday. Doctors, farmers, and teachers all work in difficult to predict environments yet, on the whole, are successful. So why do project manager's struggle with stretch projects? There are three main reasons.

  1. Mismatched project model and environment
  2. Projects lack emotional involvement
  3. Personal challenges created by stretch projects

Let's look at each in turn:

1. Mismatched project model and environment

Familiar and predictable projects can use a roadmap approach to determine what to do, following a known plan. However, stretch projects often have a lot of ambiguity as if parts of the map are missing and we may not even know if the destination exists or is possible.

This mismatch of approach to environment is widely acknowledged. As Stephen Covey states We are in a knowledge age, yet most of our management principles are from an industrial age.

2. Projects lack emotional involvement

We are often uncomfortable talking about bringing emotions into the workplace. There is a belief that we should be professional, detached and calm. Yet, we need to find meaning for our work if people are going to get excited about it.

We need to feel passionate about issues to fully engage all of our creativity in solving problems. Nothing will stop a group of people achieving what they really want to do - they will exhibit extraordinary motivation and overcome almost any obstacle to meet goals they have strong emotional feelings for.

3. Personal challenges

Stretch projects highlight our own shortcomings. When we try to get something achieved and it does not happen, for whatever reason, we feel bad about ourselves. It exposes self-doubt and uncertainty that many people find unnerving. The way to handle these personal challenges is to grow in emotional maturity. This involves learning how to:

  • Handle ambiguities
  • Tolerate different perspectives
  • Accept inner conflict - it is OK that we do not know everything
  • Act for the good of other people

We do not need the transcendental emotional maturity of the Dalia Lama, but instead just the experience to be comfortable with not knowing all the details, and when we encounter conflict, the fortitude to step-up and work through it.

The Right Brain

Dr Aucoin went on to summarise the classic left brain and right brain division of duties and roles. What was interesting for me was to learn that while the left brain deals with logic, facts, analysis, and sequential processes it is largely incapable of making decisions based on these facts. Decisions are made in the right brain along with all the emotions, concepts and metaphors, discovery of new patterns, and synthesis of ideas.

An illustration of the right brain role in decision making was given using the story of "Elliot;" a successful attorney who underwent surgery on the right side of the brain to remove a tumour. While he was able to function normally in many respects, he could no longer make even simple decisions and suffered emotionally too.

Right Brain to the Rescue

Just as stretch projects break the defined, predictable guidance of traditional, logical, left brain dominated project management; right brained techniques engage the adaptability skills that doctors, teachers and farmers employ to be successful with unpredictable situations.

Right brained approaches are not a replacement for logical, analytical, left brained defined approaches, but instead complement these techniques with tools for handling ambiguity. These tools are:

  • Find the compelling purpose
  • Make sense of the project
  • Experiment and adapt
  • Create the new reality
  • Develop and deliver trust
  • Improvise within the project framework
  • Leave a legacy

These were defined in Dr Aucoin's handout as listed below and I have added my action steps afterwards that start with "As PM's we need to…"

1. Find the compelling purpose

When we really want to do something, we will overcome any obstacle. The compelling purpose is driven by what is meaningful in a deep way. To find the compelling purpose, keep asking "why an objective is important" until an answer that resonates with our core principles is found. As PM's we need to find why the project is so important that we will get people volunteering to work on it. How will it make us better, or improve service, capability or capacity?

2. Make sense of the project

At the beginning of a stretch project, we often have a vague idea of where we are going. We must first explore the project environment and make sense of it before we can exploit it. As PM's it is important to identify what the project is really about before we start planning.

3. Experiment and adapt

When the path is ambiguous, it is counterproductive to expect to develop and follow a detailed plan. It is better to deliberately experiment and learn how to adapt to the environment. As PM's we should demonstrate and encourage experimentation and adaptation within the project.

4. Create the new reality

Stretch projects require a high degree of creativity, not only in the professional domain, but in solving interactional issues among group members. As PM's we need to engage the creative side of our team to tap into their full drive and overcome project challenges be them technical, HR, or business.

5. Develop and deliver trust

Agile techniques demand that we slash bureaucracy and expect all team members to take leadership roles appropriately. So much more can be accomplished with an atmosphere of trust. As PM's we need to create an environment of trust so people know it is safe to fully contribute and not hold-back.

6. Improvise within the project framework

The stretch project requires us to develop new approaches to problems, but we must always operate within the framework of the compelling purpose and good team and customer service practices. As PM's we need to encourage out-of-box thinking, but never lose sight of the box.

7. Leave a legacy

If a conventional project fulfils objectives, the right brain project seeks to leave a lasting, positive legacy. The ultimate deliverable is a good emotional memory - smiles on the faces of all who are involved with the project and its product. As PM's we need to create and manage a positive emotional memory for the project. People are our best assets and ultimate determinators of success. The Sydney Opera House was 9 years late and 14 times over budget - a failure from a left brain project view, but a huge asset for Sydney that has a very positive emotional legacy.

Links to Agile and Leadership Models

While these techniques match the agile concepts of progressive experimentation and adaptation. They also align to the agile ideas of shared leadership via empowered teams. These ideas also match well with the classic leadership principles outlined by James Kouzes and Barry Posner in the "Leadership Challenge" of:

  • Modelling the desired behaviour
  • Creating and communicating a vision
  • Empowering others
  • Willingness to challenge the status quo
  • Encouraging each other

However, there are some subtle and useful additions in the right brain model. In particular I like the idea of starting the project by finding the compelling purpose rather than trying to find purpose within the project once it is going. It allows us to explore the reasons and motivations behind the stakeholder's requests and flows into the "Make sense of the project" step. This conscious search for sense before making plans accepts the vagueness in early projects and embraces the futility of detailed plans made too soon. Rather than moving to planning too early, a focus on motivation and meaning is a great use for early project time.

Another valuable insight is the recognition that failed traditional approaches create personal challenges for project managers. David Anderson brought this up at the last APLN Board Meeting. He highlighted the phenomenon that many managers suffer the personal turmoil of feeling a fraud as they struggle to apply traditional management approaches and fail.

My own personal turmoil is an annoyance at David Anderson who always seems a year ahead of my own realisations about project management and leadership.

This personal turmoil felt by traditional managers is the self-doubt Dr Aucoin describes due to relying only on traditional, left brain focused approaches for today's stretch projects. They don't work so well and since people are doing all they know how and still failing, they feel bad. The solution is to engage in more emotional, synthesis and meaning-focused activities that is the domain of the right brain. Mastering these self-doubts and learning to accept ambiguity is a fundamental part of our human journey.

Greatness lies in being able to remake ourselves.

So, for me, the left brain, right brain concept was an interesting angle, but the main learning was in an alternative management model. I think it complements the existing agile and leadership models and adds validation to why these other skills are important too.

Mike Griffiths is an independent consultant specialising in effective project management. Mike was involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994 and has been using agile methods (Scrum, FDD, XP, DSDM) for the last 13 years. He serves on the board of the Agile Alliance and the Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN). He maintains a leadership and agile project management blog at Leading Answers


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