A parable for failed project management, and how to find success

elephant

Working with a team, managing a successful one, and leading for success all have at their core a similar problem. How do we ensure that all team members view the project — the drawbacks and the benefits — with the same insights and understanding?

This is the Blind Men and their elephant problem. In the classic Indian tale, a group of blind men come across an elephant, but because they each touch and feel different parts (such as the tusks or the trunk) then they can never agree on what the creature is.

Are the blind men so different from engineers, architects, business analysts, consultants and project managers? Not really.

Of course the biggest difference is that the blind men aren’t a team. They haven’t spent time in team formation, or together experienced any of the Five Stages of Team Development:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing
  5. Adjourning (leaving the team)

The analogy, however, still holds. Each team member can only ever see one small aspect of the project — such as the analysis, the architecture, the vision, or the footprint. It is only the project manager that has a grasp of all that is involved. Only the Project Manager can see that the creature is an elephant.

As a study by Benham Tabrizi shows, most cross-functional teams do suffer from dysfunction. For example, Benham finds that a lack of project management fundamentals cause team failures. “Teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success,” he writes. This is program and project management 101.

In researching this article, I came across a concept popularized by Dr Karen Sobel-Lojeski called virtual distance. Karen uses three axes on which to measure team performance:

  • Physical distance (i.e. geographic)
  • Operational distance (i.e. frequency of meetings and team skill set)
  • Affinity distance (the sharing of cultural values and attitudes)

By measuring teams on this scale, Karen was able to judge which teams would fail. More importantly she was able to judge what actions could bring the team back together again to achieve success.

The analogy here? Well, Karen’s research enables us to regain our lost sight, and see what concrete actions we need to take as program and project managers in order to increase our team’s performance. We should all be able to see clearly.

Post Script:

BBC Radio in the UK actually conducted the experiment at London Zoo with 4 blind people volunteering. And what was their experience? You’ll have to click the link to listen and find out more …

RELATED LINKS

How great project management could lead to a great sales cycle

Innovation in project management: Can it be done?

The role of the project manager in defining strategic partnerships

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