Think of your life as a project. You’re born, get educated, go to work, typically start a family and want to make a difference before you hop the twig. But what difference can you make with your remarkably fleeting biblical allotment of three score and ten years?
What motives sit beneath the activities you manifest on a day-to-day basis? What grand vision does project ‘you’ project into a future that stretches well beyond the constraints of the breaths of your mortal coil?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
According to one story of Socrates, who was put on trial for impiety and corrupting the youth, when found guilty, he had the choice of exile or death. He famously declared that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and chose death. I’m not suggesting that we all need to be as radical as Socrates, but he does lay out an ideal we can contemplate. We can choose to live a life of meaning and purpose and think about how we might make our most significant contribution. We can envision a future in which we have applied ourselves to continuously becoming better educated, just, courageous and reasoned. In doing so, we can gain confidence in our capacity to meet our lofty aspirations and work on doing what we love—and loving what we do.
Bill O’Brien, a former CEO of Hanover Insurance and a legend in the world of applying Peter Senge’s ideas about learning organisations, had this to say about the underlying issue:
The fundamental problem with most businesses is that they’re governed by mediocre ideas. Maximising the return on invested capital is an example of a mediocre idea. Mediocre ideas don’t uplift people. They don’t give them something they can tell their children about. They don’t create much meaning.
So the first question to ask when approaching or reviewing your portfolio of work concerns your intention. What is the purpose of what you are doing? If you were to pause from the often frantic pace of the day-to-day, what higher purpose do you imagine? For example, instead of wondering how you are going to digitise your engineering function, you might think about what contribution that work makes to the development of smart cities, and how that, in turn, will help usher in a new generation of environmentally, socially and economically more productive places and spaces to live, work and play.
Or, if you’re working on a space-based biology experiment, instead of first thinking about how you will pull together all the commercial, logistic, regulatory and academic work required to launch your project into space, would it not be more profitable to marvel at the prospect of how many lives you and your team will save through your innovative efforts to cure cancer?
Once you have reflected on what life’s work is worthy of your best efforts, in the world of collective goal-directed endeavours, it is not enough to keep the vision to yourself. For the sake of what you seek to create in the world, there is a need to share the vision and render it more complete by inviting others to contribute to its cocreation. As Yogi Berra famously put it, ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’. But by having a compelling vision, the resulting true north you have cocreated inoculates your enterprise against the inevitable dips, setbacks and wrong turns every endeavour worth doing suffers.
The word mythology is made up of two root words: mythos and logos. Mythos is defined as an underlying system of beliefs, especially those dealing with supernatural forces and characteristics of a particular cultural group. Logos is defined in this context as the rational principle that governs and develops the universe. In short, every cultural group, of which your organisation is an example, shares stories about its past, present and future endeavours.
Telling stories about your vision, sharing it with others, drawing on triumphs and failures, and imagining what a glorious and ultimately victorious future might be like, touches the heart and ignites our romantic impulses. Such telling renders the world and our lives within it as something vibrant, more than just a random collection of matter, indifferent to our sensibilities and careless about our fate. The mythos brings us to life as the logos brings us to order—the two are inseparable. But the proper place of the logos is always in service of the mythos. It’s the underpinning logic as to how to go about turning your intention into reality.
“Passion may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient”
Notwithstanding the primacy of the story, the deeper the horizon of your sought after future, the more complex it becomes, and the more raw mental horsepower is required to navigate the complexity. Passion may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. To realise a grand vision, in addition to passion and smarts, you need remarkable operating discipline.
To give some idea of what this means, consider the concept behind the capability maturity model developed by the US Department of Defense. In brief, it strives to provide organisations with the means to get ever better at reliably delivering planned outcomes in ever shorter times. Through graded steps, each one clearly defined as a maturity level containing specific capabilities, an organisation gets better and better performance and more and more reliable outcomes.
The warning that comes on the label of capability maturity models is that you can’t skip any of the levels: one builds on another. You can’t start the third floor until the first and second are in place. Having said that, my experience has been that more important than anything is mobilising the will to work in a more systematic fashion. It is never enough, though, to have only the processes, logic and reasoning behind a better method. It would be like saying that being able to skillfully play scales and arpeggios is the reason you learn a musical instrument.
Let’s assume, then, that you have clarity on your vision and that in service of that vision you have set what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last called a BHAG—a big hairy audacious goal. A goal that is big and hairy enough to ensure that you and your team have to think beyond the constraints of your existing mental models because you know that if all you do is to finetune existing frames of reference and ways of working, the task at hand will appear neither reasonable or possible.
To deliver seemingly unreasonable and impossible goals, it is highly desirable to have an enterprise-wide Value Management Office (VMO). The primary purpose of the VMO, as its name implies, is to deliver value. Its architecture is designed to be scalable. At the highest level, it defines and governs global processes for all initiatives and projects. As the ultimate repository of value initiatives, it provides the framework, processes and capabilities required to ensure you choose the right initiatives, prioritised from amongst the many, and that they are successfully led and managed to realise the business value they promise.
The task at hand, then, is to define the portfolio of work that will deliver the desired outcomes. Use of the Logical Thinking Process provides an effective and powerful means of linking the goal to the critical success factors required for its accomplishment. Also, further use of the Thinking Process articulates the necessary conditions needed to ensure the critical success factors are in place and sequenced at the correct level of resolution, breaking down the overall portfolio into associated programs of work.
For example, the critical success factors might involve portfolios that address the categories of people, process and technology. Within those portfolios could be programs of work at a high level which include the upgrade of the ERP system, development of a new integrated operating philosophy and the organisational design and development work necessary to be ready to fully exploit the latest systems and processes.
Below the level of the program, we enter the world of projects and the iron triangle of scope, cost and schedule management. Quantitative work management is a capability that sits within Level 4 of the maturity model mentioned above. It differs from how teams usually plan and perform their work by virtue of the fact that it explicitly looks to understand as detailed a quantification as necessary for what resource, by type, in time and place will be needed to perform any given task on the project. Managing to this level of capability requires a depth of expertise in resource management as well as practical knowledge of finite scheduling. At Ensemble, we achieve this through the use of Critical Chain Project Management.
Having a good handle on finite capacity—and being able to measure portfolio demand against that capacity—is a source of enduring competitive advantage. Many an organisation can become increasingly good at running projects, but are they doing the right ones to deliver the best bang for invested buck? How often do you get the sense that it’s a ‘great landing, wrong airport’? The constraints-based approach to project selection offers a rational means of determining what can and cannot fit into the execution pipeline, what project sequence and timing release provide the optimal business outcome. And what difference it could make to that outcome with additional investment targeted at the pipeline’s bottleneck.
Time is money and money is time. Making money is in and of itself not an inspiring goal. In Bill O’Brien’s words, it doesn’t create much meaning and is a ‘mediocre idea’. However, making money is a necessary condition of being able to continue to invest in getting closer to your vision. Adept management of portfolios, programs and projects is a reliable means of making the money necessary to invest in turning your grandest of visions into reality.
You’ll find a lot more about systemically improving how your organisation plans and performs work in my book, More Than Just Work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy my book (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo: Projecting by Alex Litvin on Unsplash]
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