GPM First
Chapter 2 of Second Order Project Management (978-1-4094-1094-2) by Michael Cavanagh

First and Second Order Project Management



They don’t want scales … they want … music … all the scales, all mixed up … all the little black notes … all … piggly-higgly … not only that … they want me to play without looking at the little black notes … just play!

Signor Piginini

Example 2.1 Scales and arpeggios



Jim Henson’s The Ghost of Faffner Hall has an episode entitled ‘Music is more than technique’, which includes a scene where the virtuoso violinist Piginini is discovered in the concert hall basement by the janitor (who looks suspiciously like Ry Cooder, and ensures a happy ending by teaching him how to play the blues). The maestro is frightened of going out in front of his audience, because, although technically brilliant, he can only play scales and arpeggios, and needs the manuscript in front of him – but the paying customers want him to play music.

Example 2.2 Excerpt from ‘The Flow of the Nile’


© Rob Fordham. Used with permission.


As anyone who has ever tried seriously to learn to play an instrument will testify, scales and arpeggios are hugely important – they provide the foundation of the technique necessary to make progress beyond an intermediate level. In themselves, however, they would never pass the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ – and no one would ever buy a ticket to hear them. Essentially, they are the ‘good practice’ processes that every musician needs to master, and then to apply appropriately in order to convey the message and emotion of the music. They are adequate for simple tunes – however a concert-level performance requires a different skillset altogether – not replacing, but in addition to, the basic principles.

So it is with PM. The first order tools and techniques – Earned Value Management, PRINCE 2, CMM-I and the rest – are absolutely vital; and up to a certain level of complexity, are quite good enough to do the job and deliver against a firm requirement. As the complexity increases, though, simply following the rules isn’t enough. The Project Manager needs to be able to adapt, modify, and improvise, applying first order tools to the specifics of the task at hand (sometimes even ‘breaking’ their rules on purpose); and in addition, deploy a range of additional, less prescriptive, techniques and methods as and when needed. We call these ‘second order’; and where first order tools are designed to apply process rigour, the common element of second order methods is that they are targeted towards the achievement of the deliverable purpose. The term itself was initially coined by Manfred Saynisch as a result of assiduous research over a number of years – his recent papers offer a comprehensive and detailed review of his findings. (Saynisch 2010a; 2010b).

Put another way, it could be argued that first order is about doing things the right way; and second order is about doing the right thing. It may very well be that the behaviours necessary to apply first order methods – attention to detail, rigorous adherence to process – may be a barrier to second order management, in which creativity and lateral thought are major components.

Clearly, it is by far the best policy to attempt to achieve both; but it is equally evident that it is much better to produce the right thing – even if ‘playing by ear’ – sometimes perhaps doing things the ‘wrong’ way (albeit inefficiently and at greater cost) – than it is to slavishly follow process but produce something that is less than 100 per cent fit for its intended purpose. Failure to deploy either results in a project being a game of chance – and in the long run, the house always wins. See Figure 2.1. The greater the complexity, the greater the stake.

Figure 2.1 Doing the right thing/doing things the right way



There are a number of components of Second Order PM.

The Systems Approach, in the sense we use it here, is the deployment of systems thinking and cybernetic concepts to understand the interconnectedness of the deliverable to its subsystems and supersystem and their respective purposes.

Experiential Learning is the means by which both individuals and the organisation can capture, understand, document, disseminate and apply the lessons learnt from both past and current activity.

Appropriate Contracting is the recognition by all stakeholders that in an uncertain future, it is impossible to share risk equitably within a fixed contractual agreement.

On their own, though, even these are insufficient. They depend on Improvisational (or ‘Adhocratic’) Leadership – having the repertoire and courage to pursue the desired outcome in the face of uncertainty and ‘events’; and on a project culture of Outcome Management (as opposed to Requirements Management), ensuring that there is a mutual accommodation between all stakeholders as to what would constitute fitness for purpose in the through-life operational environment. In addition to this, it is impossible to ignore ethical considerations relating to product/service development and implementation.

It helps to start with the issues that leadership must confront.

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