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What we're reading book review: The Light and Fast Organisation: A New Way of Dealing with Uncertainty, 2016

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Posted by APM on 22nd Jun 2016

Title: The Light and Fast Organisation: A New Way of Dealing with Uncertainty
Author: Patrick Hollingworth
Publisher: Wiley
Date of publication: 2016
Number of pages: 224



As part of our ongoing PMO Wisdom series, we asked PMO SIGs Marisa Silva to review The Light and Fast Organisation: A Way of Dealing with Uncertainty by Patrick Hollingworth. A new book for your to pick up maybe?

Two words in the title of this book say it all: despite having 224 pages, this is a book that will provide you with a light read and, believe me, you will read it fast, very fast, because you won’t want to put it down. Business and mountaineering are similar in many ways and Patrick Hollingworth, an experienced climber and someone passionate about mountains, did a great job translating his passion and knowledge into a business setting.

It’s no news that we are experiencing a fast pace of change, so dramatically perceived nowadays, that some authors even designate it by exponential change. According to Patrick, this is derived from what he calls a ‘perfect storm’, the explosive combination of three key forces shaping our environment: technology, people, and places.

We are now more connected to each other than ever before, with technology breaking distances between people and places and leading the way towards what promises to be revolutionary breakthroughs. While this has created innumerous business opportunities, not to mention important scientific and societal advances, it has also generated an environment of vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity to operate in, what is now commonly known as VUCA (aka the hot acronym of the moment).

We all know how scary out there it can be when dealing with uncertainty! Unfortunately, there are no secret recipes in this case, and Patrick’s message is that we should learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because VUCA is here to stay. While, at a first glance, this may seem like a simple solution, the reality is that it requires a transformation from within. Instead of trying to change the conditions, the author argue that it’s more important – and effective – to try to change how you organize to cope and respond to those conditions. In summary, it’s a learning journey, and the more you stretch outside your comfort zone, the more resilient and better prepared you will be to operate in a paradigm of highly uncertainty.

To that respect, the book draws an interesting comparison between ‘Alpine’ and ‘Expedition’ styles, suggesting that a light and fast approach – just like alpinists – is more effective than a heavy, slow approach – typical of mountain expeditions (if you saw the ‘Everest’ movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about!). The same logic can be applied to the context of business, where it’s easy to find companies which have become ponderous, sluggish behemoths, with complex structures and several layers of governance, proven to be slow to identify the signals of change in their environment and to adapt to new conditions, that is, companies which are still following an Expedition approach.  However, in light of a world in constant change, if you want to reach the summit, agility is needed.

We have seen it in Project Management too: almost of a sudden, Agile became the new mantra that all companies want to follow or, at least, want to understand what is it all about. Personally, I prefer ‘agility’ (a business and project capability) to ‘Agile’ (a product delivery method), as I believe the former is broader and far more important as a concept, and the latter has been abused and misrepresented in their original intent. Regardless of the name, is tempting to draw the parallelism between Expedition and Alpine with Waterfall and Agile approaches. My view is that these concepts are not mutually exclusive, but nevertheless, in extremis, the characteristics the author presents for Expedition and Alpine styles can be easily expanded into a project design and delivery setting, making the book of great relevance for project professionals who want to look with new eyes to a phenomenon that is recently making the rounds.

If you work in a PMO, you have certainly been asked if and how could you support Agile projects so there are useful messages for PMO practitioners to reflect upon too. Additionally, this book serves as a wakeup call for PMOs, particularly in a time when many see their value being challenged because of their lack of agility, extensive methodologies that overkill project delivery, or reactive portfolio reporting that doesn’t tell you much about the risks that lie ahead. If this is your case, you may want to go buy this book today, since the author offers useful food about why agility matters in the business environment if one is to survive exponential change. In summary, how you can become an alpinist too.

Contrary to an expedition approach, which aims to control and delimit all the elements associated with uncertainty and ambiguity, an alpinist seeks that same uncertainty and ambiguity, with the view that is only when you step back from the tiring effort of trying to control everything that things really get interesting. According to the author, an alpinist doesn’t see uncertainty as a threat to be avoided, but as an opportunity to be embraced instead. To let go of control is to allow ourselves to connect with our gut feeling, to be curious and less afraid to fail, to use sense making for better decision making, and think holistically about the landscape (mountaineering or business) that we are at. In fact, as a Project Manager or a PMO responsible for the effective delivery of a portfolio of projects, do you really think you’re in control? Make no mistake: the risks that will hurt you the most are not the ones that are in your risk register.

With a fresh and sometimes provocative thinking, and presenting examples from the mountaineering and business worlds, ‘The Light and Fast Organisation’ calls for a new approach to risk and uncertainty management and illustrates how others went light and fast, providing a practical approach on how to become more self-aware and resilient to setbacks.

In addition, something I found very clever – and brilliantly designed! – is that, if you buy it straight from Patrick’s website, the book comes with a passport-size booklet (‘An Alpinist’s Guide) which captures some key messages of the book and that we tend to forget. My favourite example was ‘Remember, you are not a number, and you are not a machine. You are a human being’. How simple and true is this, particularly when PMO people hear about ‘resources’ all the time?!

So, if you are looking for a book that can explain in plain English what that VUCA thing is about and how your PMO can become comfortable being uncomfortable, this one would definitely be one of my recommendations.

We're about to experience the same amount of change in the next 20 years as we have in the last 2000 - is your PMO ready for the future?

Marisa Silva
PMO SIG commitee member

Posted in PMO SIG
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