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Fifty shades of grey

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Wherever possible in project management, vagueness should be your enemy. As a consultant my role often involves helping a team to eliminate ambiguity, to establish clear definitions; success or failure? Black or white?

Not much in life is as straightforward as black or white. When youre looking at anything involving people, then most of the answers are at least one (and more like several) shades of grey, but I think that is exactly what makes projects so challenging and interesting.

A podcast programme from Radio 4 recently introduced me to the Sorites Paradox or falakros puzzle:

Would you describe a single grain of wheat as a heap? No?Two grains? Three? Thirty?

Eventually you have to admit the presence of a heap, so where do you draw the line?

This ancient philosophical puzzle explores the complexity of vagueness the blurry lines that mean you can mark your milestone as complete in your dashboard report, yet somehow the next task is still unable to get going.

If I ask the question is it black or white? fifty members of a project might see the answer in fifty shades of grey. Most people working in project management will at some point have encountered the fudging of numbers or the confusion of trying to work out what a predecessor was trying to define.

Wherever people are planning or analysing they bring with them the unique interpretations based on their personal experiences. There will be personal as well as professional motivations; a whole host of PESTLE (Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal, and Environmental) factors influencing each individual involved, so differing views shouldnt come as a surprise.

To balance the science of project management there is a need to remember the art of interpretation and flexibility that must also be applied.

Take a deep breath, people are only human.


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  1. Mark Oliver
    Mark Oliver 23 September 2012, 08:44 PM

    AlistairYou make some very real observations. I totally recognise the vagueness point and agree that this is often associated with the indivdual skillset and experience of those involved.But, as you say vagueness is often the enemy. It is vitally important that an objective "black and white" assessment is made at key points in the project. We hear of a "conspiracy of optimisim" that can develop within a team and recognise delivering "bad news" can be difficult.Recognition is the start. How it is mitigated is the challenge. My personal recomendation is clarity of planning with clearly defined milestone criteria etc, equiping the team members with the skills to recognise the issue and address ambiguity and optimism - I would recommend the ability to present "crucial conversations" and finally add the safety net of effective independent reviews at key phase gates of the projectPeople are only human. We need to recognise this, celebrate the innovation and contribution BUT mitigate for the potential issues!