GPM First
Chapter 12 of Images of Projects (978-0-5660-8716-5) by Mark Winter and Tony Szczepanek

Shared Use of the Images

Chapter Twelve

Introduction

So far in Part 3, the focus has been on individual practitioners using the images in different situations, either selectively as shown in Chapter 10, or in a structured way as shown in Chapter 11. In this chapter, we focus on groups of two or more people using the images as a shared framework for prompting and steering their discussions in the everyday flux of events, as in the example below:

[Person A] “From a development perspective, here are two possible concepts …” [Person B] “It seems to me, from a change angle, the first one is more achievable …” [Person C] “I agree, but politically, it might still be necessary to achieve the second …”

 

Although purely illustrative, this example shows a team using the images framework to discuss some new initiative, with each person deliberately ‘calling upon’ different perspectives to help steer the discussion. Since they all know the perspectives, they use the images framework as a common language for thinking and talking together about projects, and this is the idea that we focus on here. And the reason for this is simple: much of the work on projects involves people thinking and talking together, in meetings and workshops for instance, and experience shows that using a common language can make a significant difference to this process. Indeed, part of the reason projects flounder is the lack of a shared language for conducting group discussions in the everyday flux of events; for example, if everyone has a different interpretation of words such as ‘value’, ‘development’ and ‘change’, and they are not aware of this, then the potential for misunderstanding is obviously much greater and only limited progress will be made. Our suggestion here, as the example shows, is to use the images framework as a common language, which includes not only the language of the images from Part 2, but also the language of the Situation-Learning-Action (SLA) cycle from Chapter 11, which can also function as part of this shared language. And like the last two chapters, we start with an illustrative example first of a project team engaged in a discussion, and then present the underlying framework, followed by some practical suggestions and general reflections at the end.

In a nutshell, managers live in a rhetorical universe … The first step in taking a fresh perspective towards management is to take language … seriously.1 [145]

Robert Eccles and Nitin Nohria

Illustrative Example

To illustrate the idea of using the images as a common language, including the ideas of selective use and structured use, we use the example in Chapter 7 of the Coalfield Heritage Project. For this project, imagine a scenario in which the team is meeting for the first time to discuss the action needed to initiate the project and imagine they only have an afternoon to do this; also, all four members use the images framework as a common language when working together on projects. Summarized below is an illustrative transcript of their half day discussion.

It is important to note that the example opposite is purely illustrative of the kind of discussion that a team could have using the images as a common language; had more time been available to produce the action plan, say 2 or 3 days, then the team could have approached the task in a different way, possibly through some meetings and individual work along the lines discussed in Chapter 11. And notice too the role of the project manager: whilst he or she is facilitating the discussion process, this is different to the facilitation approach in Chapter 11, in that the whole team is aware of the process and the need to co-manage it within the time available. As the example shows, although there is a lead facilitator, others are also helping to prompt and steer the discussion, in a way that is sensitive to the views of others, whilst also ensuring the main task is achieved. In doing this, people can suggest things without causing others to think “Why are we now discussing this?” or “How have we suddenly got on to this?” In other words, there is an unfolding logic to the discussion which is explicit and purposeful, and whilst some people might not agree with this logic, they can still contribute to the discussion, and suggest other directions to go in. Also, in this kind of discussion, power over the process is more evenly distributed than other types of discussion, where certain people dominate because of their role and personality. In summary, this is the kind of discussion that people can have using a common language, and the value of this can be very significant. However, for it to be effective, it also requires people to adopt certain behaviours in the process, such as suspending judgement and accepting that it will be messy at times, which we briefly cover in a later section. In the next section, we illustrate the concept in more general terms.

A Framework for Shared Use

To illustrate the concept generally, Figure 12.1 shows a nominal group of three people periodically thinking and talking together using the images framework as a common language. How and when this framework is used depends entirely upon the people involved: in some conversations, it could be that only one or two of the perspectives are called upon, whilst at other times, the group might conduct a whole discussion using the images framework, like the example opposite. And just to reiterate, this includes not just the language of the seven lenses, but also the technical language of the SLA cycle, namely words such as ‘situation’, ‘learning’ and ‘action’, and the three questions of: ‘What ARE?’, ‘What MIGHT be?’ and ‘What SHOULD be?’ Including this as well means the framework provides not just a common language for talking about the different aspects of projects, it also provides a shared language for talking about the process, as in the example opposite when the project manager says: “Since we need to agree an action plan for the initiation phase by the end of the afternoon, I suggest we use the SLA cycle and agree some rough timings for each stage.” Since all the other team members understand the SLA cycle and the ideas behind it, they have a shared language for talking about the process as well as the content. This distinction between content and process was highlighted in Chapter 11 and the extract used from Karl Albrecht’s book Practical Intelligence is worth repeating again here:

 
Figure 12.1 The seven lenses and SLA cycle as a framework for shared use

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understanding the difference between content and process, particularly in a group situation, is one of the simplest, most powerful, and least understood secrets of practical intelligence. At least 95 per cent of humans are utterly distractible by the information that arises in a discussion and quite oblivious to the process that’s going on. When group meetings get confused, derailed or deadlocked, or they fail into conflict, the cause is more likely to be a failure of process consciousness rather than not having the needed information or not having the intelligence to make use of it. If you have a highly developed sense of process consciousness, you can think on both levels at the same time: you can observe, react to – and guide – the process and its content at the same time.2 [146]

 

Moreover, as Albrecht points out, this applies not just to individuals, it can also apply to groups, an idea which he regards as ‘the most powerful possibility of all’, when the whole group have a strong sense of process consciousness:

when the members of a group can consciously observe and manage their own thinking process, they can usually arrive at better decisions, more quickly, and more humanely than they otherwise would. … process consciousness enables a group to focus their mental energies more effectively.3 [147]

 

This essentially is what our illustrative example sought to show: how a project team can jointly observe, react to and guide their own thinking process and its content at the same time, by using the images framework as a common language. And it is this idea that we too regard as the most powerful possibility of Images of Projects. This is because of one simple fact already mentioned, which is that projects and programmes are created and sustained through people thinking and talking together, and it is this that makes the common language idea the most powerful possibility of all. That said, there are limitations to this of course, notably the influence of power and politics, and we return to this briefly at the end of the chapter. The potential however to improve the quality of group discussions through the use of a common language is very significant and to illustrate this further we briefly mention two more examples in the next section.

Different Types of Shared Use

The two examples here build directly on the two main types of selective use and structured use in that we see the joint use of certain images as shared/selective use, and a more structured use of the images by a group as shared/structured use. We make this distinction simply to illustrate further the idea of using the images framework as a common language and to show how these two examples relate to other ideas elsewhere which advocate a similar approach.

Shared use of the lenses framework (selective use)

In Chapter 10 on selective use, it was explained how the seven images can operate in a similar way to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats®, in that just as certain hats can be ‘put on and taken off’ in conversation, the same applies to the seven lenses shown again in Figure 12.2. Like the six hats, the seven lenses can be used in two ways essentially: they can be used by individuals to work on their own tasks, which was the focus in Chapter 10, and they can also be used by groups as a shared language for discussing the different aspects of projects. And it is this shared use that is the more significant mode of use, as Edward de Bono points out with his own framework of the Six Thinking Hats®:

 
Figure 12.2 The seven project lenses

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it is obvious that the framework will be most useful if all the people in an organization are aware of the rules of the game. …. The concept works best when it has become a sort of common language.4 [148]

 

Shared use of the SLA cycle (structured use)

The other example of shared use is illustrated through the example of the Heritage Project team who deliberately structured their discussion using the language of the SLA cycle and used various images and models (for example, the ESCO model) to help prompt and steer the process. Moreover, this also illustrates another idea that relates to shared/structured use, namely the idea of dialogue, which is attracting increasing interest in some organizations. In writing about this in The Creative Thinking Plan, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas state:

dialogue is more than conversation, argument or discussion. … [it] is more a mood or a quality of conversation than a specific technique, though there are ways in which this mood – which is very different from the more normal feel of a discussion – can be encouraged. Everyone is familiar with the mood of dialogue. You feel it in a heart-to-heart conversation with an old friend. You occasionally catch it in a meeting in which suddenly everyone is sitting forward in their seats, totally engaged and bound together in a spirit of communal enquiry. Everyone is aligned: listening, learning, contributing, and willing to look with fresh eyes and to hold up their own taken-for-granted beliefs and opinions to challenge. People are living on the edge of their understanding, genuinely willing to be perplexed, to admit confusion, to dare to look underneath their reassuring ‘position’ to the greater complexity these positions are often designed to conceal and contain. … Dialogue is basically a set of ground rules that encourages this mood shift to occur … Often a facilitator is needed, at least to begin with, … Gradually [however] the members of the group allow themselves to become genuinely puzzled and engaged, to reveal their uncertainties, to hear the resonance with other people’s uncertainties, and to join a journey of exploration that is both meaningful and collaborative.5 [149]

 

To a large extent, this is what the Heritage Project team were doing in talking about the action needed to initiate the project: they engaged in a dialogue about the project and used the images framework to facilitate this process. Moreover, because the team was using the SLA cycle to help learn what action was needed, they were also engaged in what might be termed a learning conversation, which is illustrated in Figure 12.3. In combining the ideas of the SLA cycle with the idea of dialogue, this offers a potentially powerful approach for talking together about projects, but it also presents a serious challenge to practitioners, as William Isaacs points out in his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together:

dialogue represents a way of working that while perhaps embedded in the genes of our ancestors is new to us. Most people lack real experience of it. We are unused to speaking together openly and consciously, particularly in high-stakes, without any intention of somehow possessing for ourselves something of the outcome of these exchanges. … We do not know how to participate in such a way that we have not planned in advance what we are going to say, or where we are deliberately inquiring into. We come prepared, well stocked with thoughts, perhaps having sought to prepare others as well. And when the going gets tough, we fall back on argument and debate.

 
Figure 12.3 The idea of a learning converstaion

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One implication of this is that as our experience with dialogue increases, we discover that the words we have to express ourselves are ill equipped to capture what we feel. For many of us, our language reflects the “machine age” in which we live. This is particularly reflected in the business culture. There we “force” issues, “drive change,” “roll out” efforts to expand. … Our language has become fragmented. We speak to reinforce our positions. We can see this same tendency to fragment in the fact that we have many words that seem to mean something different to everyone you ask. Words like process and system mean so many different things to different people that they might as well be in different languages. … To the extent that we remain caught in the language of the machine age, we will always be mired, unable to soar, unable to think. Changing the way we speak will shift how we think.6 [150]

 

Much of the language in project and programme management still remains caught in the machine age, which is why we advocate the use of a richer language based on the idea of multiple perspectives. We would suggest that changing the way we speak about projects and programmes, through the deliberate use of multiple perspectives in organized learning conversations, can not only shift how we think about them, but can also make a significant difference to the outcomes in the longer term.

Reflections on Shared Use

 

Still multiple interests and agenda

Earlier we used a quote from Edward de Bono’s book The Six Thinking Hats® in which he states: ‘The framework will be most useful if all the people in an organization are aware of the rules of the game.’ Whilst this is helpful in explaining the common language idea, it can also be read as if there is just a single ‘game’ to be played within organizations, which is clearly not the reality and not what de Bono means. As any experienced practitioner knows, there are multiple ‘games’ played within organizations, linked to the different interests and agenda of those involved, or ‘language games’ as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would call them, as explained in the extract below from The Great Philosophers:

new ideas about language and meaning [have been] articulated most significantly in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations. In this work, Wittgenstein set out to show that language gains its meaning from the way in which it is used … Linked to this idea is the notion of a ‘language-game’; the ways and contexts in which words are used depends upon the ‘game’ being played. The idea of the language-game is linked to specific activities.7 [151]

 

Interestingly, this both supports and challenges the idea of using the images as a common language: it supports the idea of a group needing to work with a shared framework (since words mean different things in different contexts), but it also illuminates the reality that people will be continually engaged in other ‘language games’ linked to other interests and agenda. Not only this, it suggests that this type of use is likely to be of most value to groups who share the same objectives for a project, such as a client team or contractor team for example. When those involved, however, are more of an aggregate group than a close-knit team, this third type of use is much less appropriate. That said, it is still the case that much of the work on projects and programmes is about people thinking and talking together and it is interesting to note that it is this process that is now of increasing interest to researchers, as the last point here explains.

The social process of thinking and talking together

As mentioned in Chapter 3, the social process is a complex subject area and there is a plethora of literature that extends way beyond the scope of this book. There is one body of work, however, that is worth mentioning here, since it not only offers another perspective on people thinking and talking together, but also recent Project Management Institute (PMI)-funded research based on this perspective identifies some important implications for practitioners. Developed by Ralph Stacey, the ideas are known collectively as complex responsive processes of relating (CRPR) and the main idea is the concept of ‘relating’. As he points out in the extract below, this is essentially what people are doing all the time in the social process of everyday life:

organizing is human experience as the living present, that is, continual interaction between humans who are all forming intentions, choosing and acting in relation to each other as they go about their daily work together. … there is a process of interaction, or relating, which is itself a process of intending, choosing, and acting. No one steps outside it to arrange it, operate on it or use it, for there is simply no objectified “it”. There is only the responsive process of relating itself.8 [152]

 

Based on this relating idea, CRPR offers a way of understanding the complexity of the social process, including for example the intricacies of conversations that usually go unnoticed in the ebb and flow of everyday life. Moreover, CRPR is now attracting the interest of project management researchers, notably a PMI-funded research team led by Dr Svetlana Cicmil and Dr Terry Cooke-Davies, who explain how CRPR shifts the focus away from the management of complexity, to management in complexity, and the implications of this profound shift for managerial practices and competencies. Writing about this in the Project Management Journal in June 2007, the team state that:

this concept provides some important propositions related to management knowledge and competencies, which refocus attention away from managerial intervention “from outside” promoted by the conventional body of project management knowledge, toward the ability of practitioners to engage in these processes of conversational and power relating, and reflexivity in thinking about one’s own complex processes of relating with others.9 [153]

 

As another social image of projects, the image of complex responsive processes is a helpful perspective in that it reinforces the point that there is only one process that all practitioners are immersed in when working on projects, namely the social process of people relating through thinking and talking together. And it is this process that the images framework is designed to enrich and facilitate through groups of people using it as a common language.

Like de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats®, the images of projects framework works best when it has become a sort of common language.

“We seemed to have covered a lot of ground in this workshop, has there been something operating in the background?”

Member of BSR Project Team

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