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.


Posted by Alastair Smart on 17th Sep 2012

About the Author
I'm a full member of the APM and was previously a People SIG committee member. I am also a PMI member and certified PMP, and a Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) Practitioner. I have supported MoD Project Teams within the Submarine and Land Equipment Operating Centres, including work to improve project management culture as part of a major change management project; and am currently working in Ottawa supporting the Canadian DND (Maritime Equipment Program Management) organisation.

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