Friday, May 4, 2007

Two-String Project Management:On managing projects and playing Erhu

This article introduces “2-string project management” (2-SPM™), a novel approach to understand and manage projects, based on an analogy between project management and playing the erhu, also known as the Chinese violin or the Chinese 2-string fiddle. It explains why project management is both a necessity and a threat to business survival. It presents the erhu and its basic functioning, and describes how this marvelous musical instrument, its features and its functioning can be used to have a better vision of the main issues of managing projects.

The wonders and pitfalls of project management

Confusion of goals and perfection of means seems, in my opinion, to characterize our age. (Albert Einstein)

Project management is now more and more branded as the best way to accelerate innovation and manage the important changes affecting modern organisations, in a globalised economy.

It offers an excellent framework to help organisations evolve rapidly towards more agile and adaptable processes and structures. It is also, however, very different from managing recurring operations, this difference not being very well understood. It is also accompanied, if applied as a new business process in organisations, by major cultural changes, these cultural changes being not very well understood either and, most often than not, being underestimated.

Project management, being also seen as a universal remedy to organisational rigidity, is also looked upon by many as the ultimate recipe for succeeding in this very uncertain world of ours. As such it has become a huge source of revenues both for sellers of “universal” project management methodologies and for providers of computerized so-called “project management solutions”: all recipes promising success without proper contextual analysis and proper thinking. As accurately observed by Einstein, we have attained a “perfection of means” but have lost track of why we should use those in the first place.

We just do not have the complete picture of what it takes to succeed through projects and we just do not focus on the right things. We have confused means and purposes and because of that, project management might be our nemesis instead of the saviour we would like it to be!

So what can be done to get us to focus again on the right things and get from project management the wonders it rightly promises to manage innovation and tame perpetual change? An analogy between managing projects and erhu playing can give us some very useful insights to answer this question.

The erhu and its two strings: Perfectly simple means for a clear goal

Let us first describe this amazing instrument and some of its characteristics most useable to improve project management.

The Erhu («Er» means two, in Chinese), also known in the West as the Chinese violin or Chinese 2-string fiddle, is a two-stringed bowed music instrument that belongs to a larger family of instruments called “huqin”. We can track its introduction and its usage in China as far back as a thousand year. Its range is about the same as the human voice. It is a favourite of the Chinese people and many very popular solo pieces and concertos have been composed for it. It is also very popular in Japan where the instrument is called «niko». The famous concerto, «The Butterfly Lovers», popularised in the West as a Violin concerto is most often than not played by erhu masters in China and abroad!

The erhu is perfect in its simplicity. It consists of a long vertical stick-like neck, at the top of which are two large tuning pegs. At the other extremity of the stick is a small sound box, covered with python skin on the front (playing) end. Two strings, attached to the pegs and the base of the sound box, and distanced from its surface by a small wooden bridge, make the skin vibrate and produce sound when stroke by a bow very similar to the bow of a western violin.

The erhu is played either in the sitting position, with the instrument laying on a thigh, or standing up with the instrument held on a special support attached to the waist, The outside or outer string (the one farther from the player's body) is the smallest and the one with the highest note; as such it is the one that gets the most attention by listeners when played. The inside or inner string (the one closer to the player's body) is the longest one and the one with the lowest note (5 notes of difference with the outer string); it has a deeper resonance, its sounds being a bit muffled compared to those of the outer string, calling for less attention.

The bow hair is installed between the two strings and never separates from them. It plays one string at a time, being pushed outwards to play the outer string and pulled towards the player’s body to play the inner string. The goal is clear: get good music out one note at the time, mixing as required inner and outer string notes, within something like three and a half octaves of possibilities.

Simple, straight forward, non confusing goal, using perfectly simple means! A dream for the capable but confused world Einstein has observed

On managing projects and playing erhu - The Causality analogy

This very simple instrument, with its two strings of possibilities can first be used as a Causality analogy, one that can permit project managers and their team to work on real issues instead of dealing with symptoms, as, unfortunately, they so often do.

The 2-string of the erhu as an analogy of cause and effect

While playing the erhu, the notes coming from the outer strings are the high pitch clear notes that get the most attention. They are apparently the most important notes in the presented melody.

However the melody would be just awful and very unbalanced without the presence of the lower somewhat muffled notes coming from the inner string. These lower notes are the foundation that permits to the higher notes to stand, have and maintain the high impact they have.

So the striking effect that we have from the outer string notes is mainly not caused by this string alone, it is caused by the contrast given to them by the inner string lower muffled notes. So the cause of the striking impact of the outer string notes come from bowing the inner string. If you do not bow the inner string, the outer string gives an incomplete, unsatisfactory melody!

Causality and global 2-string project management

We can compare the attention given to the outer string notes of erhu playing to what is constantly addressed when managing projects and trying to improve on them.

Globally, all we hear about nowadays is that project management maturity is based on applying “international best practices”, the Project Management Institute (PMI) Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (also known as the PMBOK® Guide ), an ANSI standard, being considered as the reference in these matters. Most best practices relate to hard “technical” skills like managing Scope, Time, Cost, Risk, Quality, etc., that mainly are implemented through the use of techniques and tools, many of them applied as recipes emptied of contextual meaning. Even so, everyone wants to master those so-called best practices and skills to succeed managing projects. “Best practices” (or know-how TO DO) are the outer string of global 2-string project management.

And this outer string just does not do the job! I have never seen those hard skills, those “best practices” fully implemented, working properly, and being very effective at managing projects. They just do not work alone by themselves, something is missing.

This something, the necessary inner string which sounds will make things happen in managing projects is called “Best behaviours” (or know-how TO BE). Sure the PMBOK® Guide, as other similar compendiums of project management best practices and folklore, talk about behaviours and related “soft skills” (interpersonal abilities, negotiation, conflict resolution, influencing, etc.), but most often than not, it is presented very briefly, if compared to other skills, often as an afterthought.

But if you want best practices to work, they ought to be supported by best behaviours, those behaviours associated to effective teamwork, namely collaboration, courage to tell the facts, humility to accept the facts, respect of each other’s point of view, fostering of individual and cultural diversity, tolerance to uncertainty and comfort with ever changing project environments, valuing roles and responsibilities over formal hierarchical posture and titles. Living these best behaviours goes against the grain of current well “siloed”, competitive, power trading normal recurring operations; they represent a cultural revolution in the usually specialised (silos) hierarchical and competing structures we still find in most organisations.

So if you do not find a way to get this new culture to emerge, these new behaviours to materialise, all the efforts spent implementing project management “best practices” are going to bear no fruit. “Best practices” materialise into benefits if they are founded on “Best behaviours”. The “root” cause of successful project management is not the proper implementation of “Best practices” (the outer string notes we keep hearing about from experts in “techniques and tools”), but rather the emergence of an organisational culture based on the “Best behaviours” listed above, the necessary inner string of project management.

On managing projects and playing erhu – The Complementarity analogy

But causality matters are quite complicated. Actually, there is a continuous cause-and-effect chain in our physical world that makes it very difficult to find the “root” cause of any phenomenon. There is always another cause to a so-called root cause (thus, not really a root cause but an effect!?!). Our physical world is also not the result of cause-and-effect chains materialising one after another. Things do not really happen is series, they happen simultaneously, in support or reaction to one another, through very complex inter-relationships. We live in systems, that behave in an organic manner, not in an organised mechanistic “A to B to C” sequential manner. Cause and effect are emerging through feedback loops, they are not sequential, they are complementary.

The erhu, this very simple instrument, with its two strings of possibilities, can also be used as a Complementarity analogy, complementarity being another useful principle that can permit project managers and their team to work on real issues, by using a systematic approach to managing projects instead of dealing with sequences of activities that won't happen and the subsequent cost overruns and project disasters.

The 2-strings of the erhu as an analogy of yin and yang (feminine and masculine)

The two strings of the erhu are also very complementary. They can represent the yin and the yang, the feminine and the masculine, the use of the two strings bringing a perfect harmony of sounds. The outer notes cannot succeed a charming melody by themselves, but the inner lower notes, although the foundation on which most melodies are built on the erhu, will not go anywhere either without the energy-carrying higher, clearer notes.

Sounds colliding - Using the bow to mix the sound of the 2-strings of the erhu

This is where the bow enters into play. The bow is the essential link that permits to generate and unify all notes, high and clear, low and muffled! Some very skilled players even succeed today in playing both strings at the same time, pulling and pushing on the bow at the same time, which enriches the sound possibilities of the instrument. Sounds can then collide, mesh together more fully, innovate and create new musical realities.

The bow is the mean by which complementarity of the two erhu strings can be exploited, even more so if you are one of those very skilled erhu players playing the two strings at the same time!

Complementarity and global 2-string project management

Globally, “Best behaviours” and “Best practices”, the two strings of project management are also very complementary. Best practices will never make it without best behaviours. However, best behaviours by themselves will not succeed at project management if some techniques and tools are not properly mastered. Best behaviours are necessary to successfully implement best practices, but they are not sufficient. So the world of soft skills and the world of hard skills, the world of the “know-how to be” and the world of the “know- how to do” must collide and somewhat fuse together into a bigger more capable self.

Worlds colliding - Aligning soft and hard skills to integrate the 2-strings of global project management

So we also need a bow to make “2-string project management” (2-SPMTM) work.

The bow of project management is called «Alignment». Alignment of project objectives supported by best practices with personal, individual and collective interests reflected in the best behaviours. Alignment of technique and psychology. Alignment of perceptions and facts. Used properly and for the purpose of alignment, many of the tools currently used in project management (project definition/charter, work breakdown structures, and most particularly many of the approaches used in lean and agile project management) make for a very strong and effective bow. These «complementarity» enablers will be discussed further in future writings on 2-SPMTM.

The multiple 2-string analogies of playing the nine knowledge areas of project management

The 2-string analogy can also be used to help project managers and other stakeholders deal effectively with more specific aspects of project management. During the last few months, I have used this 2-string approach, in many instances, for coaching project managers and in project management workshops. This included some bad erhu playing from my part, as can by found in the videos I posted in Myspace.

Participants in the workshops were invited to find outer and inner strings for each of the nine project management knowledge areas defined in the PMBOK® Guide. Not only did they succeeded in finding important undocumented root causes and key success factors to better manage processes associated with those knowledge areas. The erhu playing analogy also gave them a better understanding of project management issues and a good start in using a systemic vision and approach in managing projects, something more natural to apply, more complete and bound to give better results.

Those other 2-string analogies will also be documented in further writing, while 2-SPM™ is evolving and helping to gather new, useful insights for succeeding at project management in order to innovate, change and subsequently thrive in a globalised economy.

Other features of the erhu and the successful management of projects

Although a simple instrument, the erhu and its playing include many other features that can help better understand project management and other issues related to taming an ever changing organisational and global environment. Some of these features and their relationship to 2-SPM™ are already known, others will surely emerge through discussion and exploration of this analogy in coaching and future workshops. They will be documented in future writings. as they emerge, to benefit other project management practitioners.

Concluding on two strings

This article was but a first incomplete introduction to 2-SPM™. Its outer string was the discussion of the use of a simple and wonderful musical instrument, the erhu, as a project management analogy to better ourselves at managing successfully projects and improving our collective life in so doing.

Its inner string is most probably the willingness and the necessity of human imagination to try to explain complex things with simple universal images. And this inner string is just another outer string in the dance of cause-and-effect chains, its own inner string being that ideas have to evolve and change to be worthwhile and that better ideas with gratefully come to replace this one and help us deal even more successfully with complexity and live more fully the marvel of life and its vibrant music.

Creative Commons License
Claude Emond and Liu Xianghui, 2007

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Claude Emond and Liu Xianghui, 2007