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Project Design – General Systems Thinking Applied to the Project Context

April 17th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Some people are able to design a project rapidly and effectively, using what they know about where they are and where they want to be to come up with a plan to get there. They can do this without templates, without formal critical path analysis, and without a lot of help. I like working on projects like that, where the project starts as a blank slate, with little more than a goal in the future and an open question: what do we need to do to get there.

I’ve been trying to put a name to this ability for a long time, and I’ve finally done it – project design. This probably sounds stupid to many of you, I think, because a lot of people already think of this as project planning, or project management. To me, those terms don’t describe the ability I’m trying to capture. Project planning is, for some people, about predicting progress. For others, it is about making tactical decisions throughout the execution of the process. A project plan should include a project design, but the project planner doesn’t necessarily have to create it. The same is true of project management.

Let me give you an example. I have been on many projects that were phase based – waterfall, RUP, PMBOK, etc. These projects came with a project design, i.e. phases laid out in advance (initiation, elaboration, design, construction, testing, implementation, etc). Each project design is based on a particular theory of project management, in this case that projects utilize resources more efficiently when similar work activities are performed together (NOTE: this isn’t the only theory behind this approach – it’s just an example of one of them).

Many methodologies include a project design. Anything that comes with a template project plan has already designed your project for you. I don’t necessarily think this is a good thing.

On the flip side, I have also been on projects that use an agile approach like scrum. My experience with scrum is that it really doesn’t come with a project design, at least not at the level of detail other methodologies do. It comes with some tools (like product and sprint backlogs) and some principles (like plan every day), but I’ve yet to see a template project plan that captures scrum the way a template plan for RUP exemplifies RUP.

I think this is one of the reasons I prefer agile over other approaches. Template project plans reduce the apparent need for good project design, and as a result many project managers do not develop these abilities.

But what is project design? I think it is three things:

  • Understanding and describing where we are
  • Understanding and describing where we want to be
  • Understanding and describing how we will get there
  • About that third bullet – it’s not about project planning. There’s no “when” in that bullet. It’s more about the approach than it is the schedule.

    Mike Kelly and I discussed this a few days ago over lunch. As always, he challenged me about this idea. “What’s the difference between project design and general systems thinking?” he asked. That’s when it occurred to me – nothing, really. Project design is simply general systems thinking applied in the context of a project. This was an interesting deduction, because it leads to the answer to another question:

    Can Good Project Design Be Taught?
    Yes and no. If project design is the application of general systems thinking to the context of the iron triangle, those who wish to learn it will be limited by the level of their ability to do general systems thinking. That said, within those limitations, project design can be taught to others, in my opinion, in the same way that art can be taught, but the application of that learning will be limited in some way by the attributes of the student. I’m curious if others disagree with me here, because in spite of the absolute way I talk about it in this paragraph, I’m not 100% convinced I’m write. Consider it a theory I am testing.

    Project Design Is a Fundamental Ingredient of Good Project Management
    Well-designed projects don’t necessarily get executed more easily, or turn out better. Project planning and project execution are still required. But it is important, and I’m afraid it is generally ignored. It shouldn’t be. We should be actively developing ourselves in this regard, finding ways to improve.

    Project Design Pays Off in a Crisis
    I’ve never been in a crisis where a manager asks when we’ll have the problem solved and our answer revolves around phases like requirements collection, analysis, design, etc. Nobody uses a template project plan in a crisis, where the only thing that matters is solving a problem. Everyone starts, intuitively, with a blank sheet of paper. The ability to know and describe where we are, where we want to be, and how we need to get there is a an extremely valuable capability in these situations.

    This post feels incomplete to me, but it’s already really long and I’m already really late. I’ve gotta go to work.

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    1 response so far ↓

    • 1 Allen Childress // May 17, 2007 at 4:00 pm

      You should think about sticking a Nike add in your office…
      “Just do it.” 😉

      Documented process is good for when you work in a CYA environment and/or when they want something they can hold in their hand at the end of every week. To my experience those two things always come in pairs. It builds trust when there wasn’t trust to begin with (sometimes in oneself, sometimes in others). It also makes an excellent shield when any blame games break out.

      The masters I know don’t think… they just do. But they did alot of thinkin’ and documentin’ before they became masters. 😉

      One of “The 5 Keys to Mastery” is practice practice practice. A project plan isn’t needed nearly as much the 7th time you’ve done something as it was the first or second time.

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