Article: Leverage? Let’s try structural tension

Being a Chief Project Officer is new for almost everyone because a “C” level position for projects hasn’t been a common practice for very long.  So, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the questions that newly frocked CPO’s often approach me with is how they can exert leverage over an organization that does not have a culture that is used to a CPO or even Enterprise level Project Management within their ranks.

Archimedes, a Greek mathematician who lived from 287 to 212 B.C. is quoted as saying, Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the Earth.”

Leverage is a critical concept when you are one person who must ultimately project your influence over virtually every employee in the organization.  One technique that has great potential is the idea of “structural tension”.  In a business context, structural tension could be said to be the natural tendency for a structure to change shape.  Let’s take a look at this in practical terms.

Imagine for instance that you have made a decision to become very public about a project schedule.  You are going to publish a big wall-sized copy of the schedule along with the comparison against the original baseline and, just to be sure that everyone can see it, you’re going to publish a copy also on the corporate internet.  If no one else in the organization is doing this, there is no doubt going to be more oversight into what is happening with that project compared to any other.  The natural tendency of the members of that team will be to ensure that the results of that schedule are always at their very best because the notion that their peers and colleagues can see the data generates an unspoken pressure.

So, we have a single change in procedure (publishing the current schedule) which potentially generates a phenomenal change in performance.  You haven’t had to use a big stick, in fact, you haven’t even had to make a request for better performance but you are entirely likely to get it anyway.

Just like this example, what goes best hand-in-hand with the concept of leverage is the science of display systems.  For project managers, there are some common displays that everyone expects and some even know how to interpret.  When you thing though, about the potential power of exerting leverage, the selection of display systems and how you deploy them is absolutely essential. 

Science tells us through a principle called the Hawthorne effect that the very act of measuring something changes the thing being measured.  This very effect was evident in a water study done in Tucson, Arizona where a couple of water researchers named Woodward and Hirshon were trying to find out how water was being used in a number of households.  In their study, it became apparent that as soon as water meters were installed on all the water-using appliances in the house, the amount of water being used decreased remarkably as everyone knew that their use was being monitored.

While this was a problem for the water research in Arizona, A CPO can apply the same phenomena to our advantage as he or she works on changing the project management culture in an organization.  If people know that certain things are measured, then their behavior about those things may change.  Great, then let’s focus our attention on the areas of projects where we need to put attention.

The easiest pitfall in this conversation would be to now measure everything and that, of course won’t be effective.  Displaying too much information doesn’t allow any focus where we want it so you’ll have to be picky.

Start by doing internal analysis of the metrics of your projects.  Don’t have metrics?  Start getting some.  Data about projects is a CPO’s stock in trade.  Once you have an idea of where the project management environment needs correction, start a hugely public display showing the progress in those areas.  Don’t be afraid to name names.  Put right on the display the people accountable for the result (including yourself if required).  Many manufacturing organizations have done exactly this to help lower industrial accidents.  Many of us have seen such signs as we walk into an industrial area saying “xxx days since our last accident”.  You can use the same effect in project management.

The key is in selecting the type of display with the data you want to use to produce the leverage you’re looking for.  You can be sure you won’t find much consensus at first.  After all, this will occur for some people as pressure to perform and many people resist that.  Still, if you’ve picked the right data and the quality of the data is difficult to question, then the push-back almost never comes to management.  After all, what the project staff will be battling are the empirical measures of their very own projectst, not your subjective interpretable influence. 

That’s leverage.