5 March 2014

No wonder our perception of project work is distorted. By Jon Whitty #PMFlashBlog

No wonder our perception of project work is distorted.

#PMFlashBlog – Project Management Around the World – Brisbane, Australia
By Jon Whitty

My conversations with project managers about project management began in Brisbane a number of years ago. I started a small study (which I published as: Project management artefacts and the affective emotions they evoke) where I asked project managers a simple question to which they had to pencil sketch the answer. No words were allowed. I would ask the project managers to close their eyes and remember a time they were managing a project. I then say, “Now answer this question by drawing the answer”. The question is “managing that project was like {draw}” And what they draw is most revealing.  They certainly don’t draw a Gantt chart!

What I discovered from this simple experiment is that our perceptions of project work is massively distorted by the various common artefacts (billboards if you like) of the project management community. The Gantt chart is a prime example. It reflects very little of the project experience ahead. An itemised to-do-list would do a better job. And in many cases I’ve found this is actually what is used.

To explore this further consider how pictures are manipulated every day. And these images can have an enormous distorting influence on our view of the world and of ourselves.

I’d like you to watch this ‘Dove Campaign’ video from start to finish. And as you watch it consider carefully the impact the final image has on both the model and you and I who encounter his picture at the bus stop.  

No wonder we have negative images of our own working practices.

In a previous version of this post I said “I’d love to be able to create a video someday to show the creation of the Gantt chart in a similar way." And here one is!

On the left is how project managers really experience a project. And on the right is a manipulated and distorted version of events.

This is tinkering with reality in so many ways. The Gantt chart smooths out the turbulent, emotional, punctuated, messy, and unforgiving real world into smooth, modernist, calming and confident lines.  The real pictures are packed with emotion, jaggedness, and non-linear relationships. None of them are even the same! If a project is anything, it’s personal and experienced personally. Yet somehow we have been duped into believing that all projects can be represented by a Gantt chart.

And anyway the Gantt chart is altogether the wrong piece of art work to represent the work of a project. What it does represent it an operational production environment. If you want to know more about this then take a look at the writings of PatrickWeaver and TerryMcKenna.  

I think the project management practitioner community should take a long hard look at their use of Gantt charts. Don’t wait for the project management professional bodies to do it because the Gantt chart reinforces all of the ideals these bodies base their certification on.

From my many conversations with practising project managers I would say that the Gantt chart lowers their self-esteem about their work practices. And furthermore it raises the expectations of senior management to unrealistic heights.

If you can’t achieve what’s on your Gantt chart, don’t you feel out of control?

Perhaps we should put warnings on Gantt charts saying that the real world has been manipulated to look harmonious, ordered, and in control. 

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