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Chapter 3 of Second Order Project Management (978-1-4094-1094-2) by Michael Cavanagh

Leadership in an Uncertain World



Nine tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books; but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals.

T. E. Lawrence



The bookshelves groan with leadership titles. An Internet search brings forth literally hundreds of quotes. This is not the place to add to either. Instead, I want to concentrate on those aspects unique to complex projects which leadership must address in the ‘irrational tenth’; the inevitability of uncertainty; organisational denial; the CoO; and shared vision. And the greatest of these is shared vision.

Peter Senge’s view, in the bestselling The Fifth Discipline (1990), is that an organisation acts in order to bring about ‘the future it most desires’ and that to achieve this demands a ‘shared vision’ across the entire organisation. He quotes examples such as the collective ‘I am Spartacus’ scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name, John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the moon by the end of the decade’ speech and other similar (but less iconic) vision statements from large modern organisations. Perhaps the earliest real (and most powerful) example of these would be Cato the Elder’s clarion call to the Roman Senate in the latter stages of the Punic Wars – ‘Carthago Delenda Est’ – which motivated the campaign to the point where Carthage was not just destroyed but ploughed over, its fields salted and its population sold into slavery. A true shared vision acts not just as a guide for action, but as a motivating factor and a test of appropriate action – is what you are doing contributing to the achievement of the vision? If not, stop it.

Senge sees three caveats to this. First a shared vision must not be the result of a one-off exercise, where managers possibly come back from a workshop or suchlike with the feeling that ‘We’ve done that, got our vision statement, and now we can get on with real work’ – implying that creating a shared vision statement is a duty to be discharged, a box to tick. This is a sure indicator that in their view day-to-day activity is what is really important; they will be careful to avoid the cracks in the pavement, and will actually be surprised when they walk into the lamppost.

Second, the vision needs to be truly ‘shared’ rather than imposed – the personal vision of the boss cannot be assumed to be accepted by all – and in fact an imposed or dictated vision may be more likely to meet (possibly subversive) opposition. When I hear leaders say ‘our vision’, and I know that they are really describing ‘my vision’, I recall Mark Twain’s words that the official ‘we’ should be reserved for ‘Kings and people with tapeworm’.

Thirdly, vision should never be seen as a short-term fix to an immediate problem; it is the philosophy, the ‘governing idea’ of the enterprise, on which its eyes must be fixed; thereby maintaining the energy and commitment over the long term.

In my personal view, a shared vision should always be expressed in the present tense as a statement of current and/or future fact, aspiration or state of mind rather than an objective to be achieved. ‘I am Spartacus’; ‘Carthage is destroyed’; ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

The vision creates the context and motivation for action, and the leader’s responsibility is to relate everyday tasks, even at the lowest level, towards its achievement. The polymath social scientist Herbert Simon suggested that this requires ‘subgoal identification’: ‘when the goals of an organisation cannot be connected operationally with actionsthen decisions will be judged against subordinate goals that can be connected’ (Simon 1997). The larger and more complex the organisation, however, the harder it is to validate this connection. An illustration of this might be the story originally quoted in the rule of St Benedict (and often retold in other scenarios):

A traveler came upon a group of three hard-at-work stonemasons, and asked each in turn what he was doing. The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’ The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’ The third said, ‘I am building a cathedral to the glory of God.’


It would appear that the foreman of the first two had failed to communicate the vision adequately.

When the corporate vision is remote and unclear in the minds of the workforce, they will, as Simon says, be influenced in ‘subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways by (their own) interest and power drives’. In other words, if you don’t communicate the vision, people will work towards their own. Their ‘rationality’ will be ‘bounded’ by themselves.

Risk Horizons


The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.

Oscar Wilde


The only real certainty in this world is its uncertainty. We deal with the continual changes in the river in which we stand through a process of risk management – whether we call it such or not. Again, this is not the place to discuss risk in detail, the topic being almost comprehensively covered elsewhere – however I would suggest that there is an additional second order risk management aspect which needs to be considered as project complexity increases: that being the twin concepts of urgency levels and Risk Horizons.

There are a number of different degrees of urgency. Premature urgency results in our trying to take risk mitigation action at too early a stage – when not enough is known about the risk scenario for anything but generalised, unfocussed and therefore potentially very wasteful action. Latent urgency is the time window during which enough facts are available to decide upon and execute appropriate risk mitigation. Manifest urgency is the point within latency when risk is fast becoming an issue but it is still possible for steps to be taken to ensure collision avoidance – however the clock is loudly ticking away those final seconds to disaster.

Beyond this point, you’re going to hit the iceberg whatever you do.

Figure 3.1 The Risk Horizon



Each of these levels is delineated by a horizon. Between premature and latent urgency levels, the Risk Horizon is the point at which risk becomes clearly enough defined to allow for realistic and accurate analysis of probability/impact, with mitigation expenditure being capable of justification and precise targeting. Beyond the Issue Horizon, it will be impossible to prevent the risk becoming an issue unless immediate action is taken – usually at prohibitive cost. At the Event Horizon, the opportunity to mitigate the risk disappears.

The issue is unavoidable. All that can now be done is to attempt to reduce impact. Beyond this point, it may not even be possible to save the crew, even at the expense of the ship.

To assess these levels and horizons accurately demands the application of what Sir Geoffrey Vickers (1965) termed Appreciative Judgement (the combination of reality, value and instrumental judgements) placed alongside a realistic assessment of capabilities and a constant lookout to identify the ever-changing icebergs of a real world environment. Ensuring this second order risk assessment is performed not just at project initiation, but continually throughout project execution, is a fundamental leadership responsibility, informed by ongoing PCM Assessment and supported by the Systems Approach to be discussed below. Continually is the key word. No ship’s captain switches off the radar on leaving port – but many, many times the risk assessment, so assiduously produced at the beginning of a project, is left to gather dust on the shelf as the project proceeds and reaction (as opposed to proaction) becomes the prevailing activity.

Appreciative Judgement is hard to develop, for it tends to be constrained within a reference class that is limited by experience. Typically, we can only ‘see’ risk within that reference class; and addressing this weakness provides an additional argument for the application of both Experiential Learning and the System Approach as discussed below.

Risk Denial


They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…

General John Sedgwick, shot by a Confederate

sharpshooter in the American Civil war


The most prevalent difficulty with second order risk in complex PM is the exponentially greater psychological tendency to denial – a simple refusal to face facts, even in the face of compelling evidence, which may be down to a fear of making a wrong decision but is more likely to be an overriding desire to believe that the situation couldn’t really happen, because its consequence is just too awful to contemplate. This is seen often, at human ‘not everyone who smokes/drinks/has unprotected sex gets Lung Cancer/liver disease/AIDS’; organisational ‘The bank is just too big to fail/ we’re too good to be relegated’; and project ‘The ‘O’ ring won’t shatter just because it’s cold (the cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster) /we’ll catch up on the schedule later’ levels. It gets worse – and more difficult to counter – the more complex (and therefore more public) the project, since the accusation of a U-turn or the need to avoid being seen as ‘faint-hearted’ is a threat to both power and position.

Strong leadership can be dangerous in such situations – particularly if it involves refusing to accept the truth. Lawrence McDonald, the author of the definitive history of the Lehman Brothers downfall, says it takes just one phrase to understand the failure: ‘24,992 people striving hard, making money, and about eight guys losing it’ (McDonald 2009).

The need is for leadership that is strong enough to hear the truth, and courageous enough to face it. Winston Churchill: ‘I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.’

Risk denial is not quite the same as turning a blind eye, which we could euphemistically term ‘intelligent denial’. Nelson knew the Danish ships were there at the battle of Copenhagen – he just decided to take the risk, more confident in his fleet’s ability than was the admiral who had told him to disengage. (He didn’t actually say ‘I see no ships’ – but ‘I really do not see the signal’. Not quite as good a soundbite, though). However ‘intelligent’ in hindsight, it is just as dangerous. Nelson’s ‘courageous leadership’ is praised because he won the bet. But it was a bet. As, in truth, was Churchill’s acceptance of the challenge rather than negotiating a peace, as so many advised. But, according to one historian, his defiant speeches in the dark days of 1940 created ‘the euphoria of irrational belief in ultimate victory’, and that euphoria carried his people with him. They were lucky – but perhaps luck is just an attribute of leadership. Thomas Jefferson: ‘I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.’

The Conspiracy of Optimism

In a similar vein, courageous leadership must also recognise and address what has come to be known as the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’ (CoO) – although the term ‘Conspiracy to gain Approvals’ may be more accurate.

I want this project. You want this project. If we tell our sponsors how much it would really cost/how long it would really take they wouldn’t agree. So lie to me please – I will know you’re lying, but I won’t challenge you. By the time they find out, you and I will probably have moved on anyway. And you just never know – nothing might go wrong, expected risks will never materialise, we could have got it absolutely right first time – even though none of these have ever been the case before, it might just have been bad luck.


The central issue is – unsurprisingly – about people. Typically, in large projects, the main actors are in mid-career, with important and well-paid jobs, which they hold down on the basis of perceived success – usually measured over very short timeframes. It would be rare for such people not to need the job and the money that goes with it – and therefore they feel they must continually reinforce that perception of success in the minds of both those to whom they report, and across each stakeholder interface. Supplier Project Managers want to give their own management and their customers good news stories; in turn, their sponsors – both shareholders and governments – want to be able to report success, in the face of a media which delights in bad news.

It is unusual for such projects to be cancelled. When things go wrong, a public flogging of one or two scapegoats will normally be deemed sufficient pour encourager les autres, but the project will probably plod on regardless, despite its lateness or profligacy resulting in undeclared detrimental effects on overall strategies, not to mention other dependent projects. The potential consequences – in the defence sector to national security; in the commercial sector to survival; in humanitarian projects to life itself – are unacceptable; and the PM community should beware any complacency and an attitude that says it doesn’t really matter, let’s just convince ourselves that it’ll all come right in the end.

The CoO is fuelled by three parties. Project sponsors have a vision (a ‘want’) which is generally technically uninformed, but which will delight their public; the purchaser community is prepared to skew information in order to get the result they consider the sponsor ought to want (the ‘need’); and the suppliers are trying to prevail in an increasingly competitive market, made worse by an unhealthy economic climate. The end user – in public sector projects the taxpayer, in the private sector the investor – place their trust in these three parties to deliver for the greater good. Unfortunately, the outlook is getting worse, in terms of both schedule delay and cost overrun. De facto, projects are inevitably becoming more complex (the easy ones have already been done). We cannot afford not to get better.

Clearly, someone has to take responsibility, and it has to start at the top. Bernard Gray, the author of the UK report into defence acquisition:

Across the piece, there will be a need for consistent leadership and courage. Ministers will have to be prepared to take on vested interests, often within the ranks of their own civil servants. They will have to stick to their guns when leaking and counter-briefing starts. The interests of public servants who dare to try to innovate within the public service must be promoted. From my experience of working in and with the Ministry of Defence over the past decade I know how strong such vested interests are and how much commitment is required to overcome resistance to change.

(Gray 2009)


In addition to courageous and tenacious leadership, other essential keywords are realism – speaking truth to power; planning – and refusing to proceed until plans have been comprehensively validated; and empathy, the art of being able to see through the eyes of others. Funnily enough, though, these attributes could simply be regarded as fundamental aspects of leadership in any case. Mutual co-operation between all stakeholders, based on the good of the project not parochialism, begins with the understanding that the outcomes can only ever be win-win or lose-lose. Other than in sport, a win-lose result doesn’t really happen in the real world.

The issue is further exacerbated within the prevailing market economy, and it has to be asked if a CoO is an inevitable consequence of this. While a competitive acquisition environment undoubtedly has its benefits, it also has negative effects – ‘its not just what competition does for you, it’s also about what it does to you.’ In the scramble to reach an agreement, decisions are often made too early, long before the uncertainty that invariably accompanies complex projects can be attenuated, and certainly before other systemic risks – social issues, the emergent effect on other projects and systems and the human elements – have been identified, analysed and understood. Whether this is due to the relative difficulty in measuring these effects, or simply because people don’t want to know the answers, is debatable.

It is tautological to assert that estimates are only that – estimates. They are based on contemporary understanding, not facts – and may not – must not – be considered immalleable in the longer term. Yet once initial project budgets and schedules are set, based on such estimates, they have immense staying power, even to the extent that over time, system functionality and project resources are sacrificed in order to achieve what was unrealistic in the first place. ‘Plans are always based on what you won the contract at.’ There is an element of pride in this – it is a sign of weakness to admit that you might have been wrong, and when pride is coupled with an emotional attachment to previous statements, it is very tempting to make decisions that justify the past rather than address the future.

It is interesting to consider the changed behavioural approach to projects that are considered urgent – disaster relief being a prime example. 80 per cent solutions, implemented quickly, are far more use than 100 per cent performance delivered too late. In ‘non-urgent’ projects, the aspiration to perfection will never be achievable (but engineers will always tend to look for it anyway).

Improvisational Management


We all do ‘do, re, mi’, but you have to find the other notes yourself.

Louis Armstrong


The British comedian Les Dawson used to have a regular routine in which he would sit at the piano and play a piece including several off-key chords. Funnily enough, this improved his reputation as a musician – people would nod wisely and say, ‘It’s really difficult to play the wrong notes, you know; it takes a talented pianist to play that badly.’ There are those who would say that some modern jazz players are more in the tradition of Dawson than Delius; the notes they play appear to be random. Yet in truth, musical improvisation is both structured and disciplined, allowing groups of musicians to create coherent work without (apparently) having planned or rehearsed, and soloists to work with a backing ensemble who they may never even have met beforehand.

An interesting comparison can be made between this ability and real-time, under-pressure management decision-making processes. Musical improvisation demands a knowledge of theory (first order methods); an agreed key, time signature and chord progression (the organisational standard process guidelines); and that the player (Project Manager) has a mastery, not only of these things, but the ability and confidence to deploy them to create a unique and context-relevant performance which satisfies both him/herself, the audience, and the composer’s intention (pan-stakeholder outcome delivery). This confidence stems not just from rehearsal, but the practitioners ability to reflect-in-practice – in other words, to be constantly aware of oneself and ones place in the surroundings — albeit not necessarily consciously. The psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as ‘flow’:

The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing itThe ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

(Csikszentmihalyi 1990)


This mental state of total immersion in the task-at-hand is often described by practitioners in many different fields, from sport through music to management, as being ‘in the groove’ – ‘inside the music’ – ‘in the zone’ – ‘on top of the game’ – totally energised and focussed. It describes the second order leader perfectly.

Second order leadership has a vision, and communicates that vision clearly across the whole stakeholder community, both internally and externally; it doesn’t deny uncertainty and risk, but neither does it rely on luck to see things through; and especially, it is unprepared to sacrifice long-term success in favour of perceived short-term reward.

Ultimately it seeks to deliver against a fit-for-purpose, mutually agreed, product/ service outcome – and is unafraid to change approach and tactics when an existing course would fail to deliver it. In fact, it finds no alternative but to do so. Martin Luther: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.’

And it loves what it does.

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