Friday, July 28, 2006

The Atlantic's "Management Myth" (or I Am Not a Blue Bar)

I really enjoy The Atlantic magazine. Ever since my mother left it open on the table with a portrait of Robert Parker I've been hooked. It's well written and insightful, and I feel just that much more informed after I read it.

What's really fun is when there's a story that starts to approach my fields-- Software Development and Project Management. Although, to be honest, I know a lot more about Software Development, PM has a certain appeal since its something many more people can relate to. (Have you ever been to a party outside of a technology area and said 'I write software for a living'? Invariably, the response will be 'Cool, I've been having this problem with Word, could you take a look at it for me'). So it was a pleasant surprise when I found Matthew Stewart's article "The Management Myth" (subscription required) in the June 2006 issue.

Generally, the perception of Project Management is one of trepidation. And why is that? Is it because the tools are so woefully inadequate and hard to use? Or is it because of what Project Management represents? I couldn't help but notice when I first opened the article that the accompanying picture told a definite point of view. I couldn't find it online, but a brief description would be of a greek philosopher pacing with a stopwatch with an eye on his workers, who are dressed in contemporary clothes. The workers are not watching their screens, but instead are watching the would be greek philosopher. The message is clear: a pretentious psuedo-classic scientist who rules through intimidation and fear.

This social dynamic has, unfortunately, been set up from day one, ever since Mr. Frederick Taylor wrote (as told by Mr. Stewart):

... the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these prinicples, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

What starts as a waft of elitism culminates as a winter storm blowing a chill through the entire workplace. No wonder management theory has such a negative connotation.

And yet, people must work in groups in order to produce things. And we must measure efficiency in order to better production. Is there a way to accomplish this without reducing workers, the people most responsible for a product's quality, to pig iron schleppers? Or in todays information age, virtual pig iron schleppers? Well, a crappy PM will always be a crappy PM, but perhaps we can improve the tools so that people can understand their piece of the whole, so that people can communicate up or across production chains easier and so that people don't feel they're reduced to just a blue bar on a gantt chart.

Mr. Stewart lays out an excellent case that Mr. Taylor was indeed an unfortunate representative of a nascent management science. And I would go so far as to say it is worth re-examing the conventional wisdom of business management culture and curriculum. However, I would not throw out the baby with the bath water, for, as is commonly the case, its not necessarily the tool but the tools wielder that is the problem.

From the article:

That Taylorism and its modern variants are often just a way of putting labor in its place need hardly be stated: from the (pig iron laborers) point of view, the pig iron expirement was an infuriatingly obtuse way of demanding more work for less pay. That management theory represents a covert assault on capital, however, is equally true. (The Soviet five-year planning process took its inspiration directly from one of Taylor's more ardent followers, the engineer H.L. Gantt.) Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest-- not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.

Yes, this is the same H.L. Gantt from whom the eponymous chart came. And not only was he associated with Taylor's class warfare, but he even insprired the Soviet poliburo five-year plans. One can just imagine Dr. Evil twisting his pinky at the corner of his mouth. I'll bet he even had bad breath, too. But is it possible that someone so misaligned could produce a tool we can build upon and imbue a more constructive perception?

I believe so. I think the Gantt Chart is one of the better, if not the best, tool for spatially organizing tasks on a timeline. It communicates a volume of relevant information quickly and efficiently, and, I would argue, is intuitive enough that a pig iron schlepper-- even a virtual pig iron schlepper-- can make sense of it. The trick will be to

1) Detach it from its ignominious history
2) Improve peer communication
3) Improve management communication

And, in truth, this isn't just a task for the Gantt Chart, but in fact for all project management tools. And I have a simple philosophy to make it happen: remember that people cannot not be reduced to blue bars.

Here's what we can do:

1) Project Management is about communication, so take a cue from communication apps like Instant Messaging (online presence, signatures, personalization)
2) Allow people to use avatars next to their assignments (more personalization, express moods, real photos)
3) Allow people to customize the task and milestone icons (if you're producing an airplane wing, wouldn't that be a cool final milestone?)

And make sure all the people assigned to each task, summary or project have their contact information and personalized representation. Provide easy means for public communication (which brings a certain amout of social responsibility), and with individuals via instant messaging for more private communication (which brings a certain amount of social connection).

In short, maintain much of the current project management time and cost information so that management can evaluate results, but add the social tools so that management, and the workers, can also evaluate the process itself. Anytime a group of people get together, it is fundamentally a social event, whether they are producing a bottle of beer or drinking it. Part of the fun of being human is knowing how to evaluate social events.

Up to now, Project Management has not dealt with the human aspect because 'it can't be measured'. But as Matthew Stewart astutely observes in his article, you can't really measure management efficacy anyway. As Mr. Stewart points out, Mr. Taylor never published data regarding his conclusions, and even casually made adjustments (40% here, 200% there) on his data according to his judgement-- often called 'wags' (Wild Ass Guesses). Which is why it's usually better to spend more time socializing with your bosses on a golf course than showing them Gantt and PERF charts in a meeting room-- in other words, attaining class membership as opposed to analyzing information.

What the latest wave of internet technology has proven, however, is that it is in fact possible to bring socialization through software. What companies (like mine) need to do is adapt their applications to take advantage of these old social tools (telling stories around the campfire) in new technology settings (online forums with JPEGs of campfires), or a smile into an avatar. Only then will you be able to remove the stigma of management theory and project management as class warfare and to take it to its next step of evolution-- a human representation of what it took to create your product. Only then will you be able to expand the analysis from purely time and cost to the analysis of the process as a whole. It might be more difficult than blue bars, a bit more messy than addition and subtraction, but it will certainly be much more representative and more accurate of what actually happened-- and thereby much more useful.

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