A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



Remain comfortable in the state of highest tension

If you've embarked on this journey of managing projects, you might do well to read and re-read "Zen in the Art of Archery" by Eugen Herrigel.


There are a lot of things in that short book that echo through the business of managing projects.

This is going to sound like mystical hooey. The only way that you're going to know that I'm right is when you've been doing it a few years.


Success if about practice. Success is about turning up, and keeping turning up. In archery, in the early years (yes, years) of practice, the focus of the training is in knowing when to let go of the bow string. But that really translates into being comfortable with not letting go of the bow string. If you can practice long enough and become comfortable enough with the strong physically and mental discomfort of holding the bowstring at the maximum point of tension, then you have a chance of letting it go at the right time.

This is the lesson from this book.

Wait comfortably in the state of highest tension.

That's right. Be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

Let's remember this. If you've embarked on a project, you're trying to do something. And if you're trying to that thing properly, you're opening yourself to finding out reason why that thing can't be done.

You're discovering bricks-without-straw problems. You're discovering that it can't be done in the required time. You're discovering that the user's don't want it. You're discovering the contradictions associated with the projects.

This is an important thing to understand. Trying to do things creates tension. Trying to do things creates conflict. If you don't want conflict or tension, then don't try to do things.

But of course, this tension, this conflict, is unpleasant. You will be very tempted to avoid it or release it.

Agreed activity is a way of releasing the tension, keeping working, without pointing out the problems. Working hard is a way of easing the tension, turning up early, going home late but not actually addressing the issues which are arising.

But being too brutal about addressing the issues that are causing the tension, that can also be a way of avoiding the tension.

It's taken me a long time for me to realise that this was wrong.

If you create an antagonistic relationship with the client, that's a way of releasing the tension. If you're too brutal about showing the contradictions, or the bricks without straw problems, that can easily do the trick.

If you've been doing this a while, you can see the big problems almost immediately. Especially, you can, after a few minutes guess the chances of a project delivering to any kind of "tight" deadline.

One intriguing thing that I've noticed is that you can tell this story to another project manager in just a few words.

What I found myself doing on a recent project was noting, early on that the project had a fixed deadline and a large, complex, unwieldy, non-fixed scope. But rather than either ignoring this problem or directly confronting the product owner and client with the bad news, I just, over a period of months, built a backlog, started to track progress through the backlog, and then put together a burn-up chart showing when the project, with the scope that we knew about, would finish.

By the time that we were all staring at a graph that was pointing to the project delivering in December when it should have been delivering in July, everybody who was looking at the graph had been involved in its calculation.

It was difficult to deny it's predictions. That didn't stop people trying. It was still a sticky moment for me. I think I nearly got fired. But from that point on the business of that project was about reducing scope and doing deals about delivering some functionality later. After looking at the picture, the conversations were the right kinds of conversations. And those conversations came from remaining comfortable in this state of tension.

As I'm writing this, I'm remembering some things that one member of the team, a very clever guy said me to me about this chart.

When we first looked at the chart, and it showed us not delivering on time he said "We can't show this to the client, it will make us look like we don't know what we're doing."

Many months later, when the chart was indicating that we would deliver on time, possibly with a month or so to spared he said "We can't show the client this chart, he will want us to do more now that he knows we've got the extra time."