Book review: The metis of projects

metisI received from Ben Berndt, one of my colleagues, a copy of his PhD thesis The quest to find the metis of projects and a copy of the commercial edition of his thesis The metis of projects. How to remain cognizant of a project’s (social) complexity. I will follow in this review his commercial edition.

The book is divided into two parts. Part A: In search of the metis of projects, and part B: An attempt to touch the metis of projects.

The first part (A) focuses on theory and the second part on his personal and pragmatic experience to touch the metis of projects. Before I will go into more details of the book, I will copy, from the book, a description of ‘metis’: “Metis is a type of intelligence and thought. It implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over years.”

Part A is divided into five chapters. The first chapter explains why the author chose this topic. His unease with too-linear traditional project management frameworks prompted him in the world of logics, cybernetics, systems theory, complexity and uncertainty. His goal was to find other frameworks and tools that respect the fact that the world is complex, emergent, non-linear, and somewhat unpredictable. He found what he was looking for in a more participated project management style that uses, for instance, whole systems methodology and social network analysis and some glimpses of metis.

In chapter 2 the author analyses the project area using Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) to create a rich project management picture. The author uses a social and political analysis of the environment. He analyses interventions to understand why stakeholders get a false sense of security from the prevalent project management frameworks. He continues to enrich the picture with a social analysis based on roles, values and norms. The chapter continues with a SSM analysis based on CATWOE (acronym for Customers, Actors, Transformation, Worldviews, Owners and Environment) to think about any purposeful activity. Here the author puts an interesting point on the table. In your projects you need to respect group knowledge to stimulate effectiveness of communication and interaction in project management networks (the ‘wisdom of groups’). The chapter ends with some other worldviews and feedback from the project management community why projects so often fail. The community is looking for emergent but still ‘project management’ control frameworks. Emergent meaning more flexible and the author sees this as an argument for more participative project management.

Chapter 3 gives a deep dive into those project management tools that the author considers to be too linear for complex project management environments, e.g. PRINCE2, ToC and Agile. He criticized the frameworks and describes some preliminary injections to make these frameworks better aligned with complexity.

The biggest part of this chapter is related to PRINCE2. It’s a pity that the author uses a very old version (2002) of PRINCE2. PRINCE2 is based on proven best practices and is updated every 4-5 years. As of version 2009 PRINCE2 is based on four integrated elements (7 principles, 7 themes, 7 processes and tailoring to the project environment). I am not saying that the linear approach has been changed but the principles of learning from experience, management by stages and tailoring includes several of the proposed injections. Management by stages supports the iterative approach and implies that there will be a high-level project plan and only for the current stage, a detailed stage plan exists. Something some managers don’t understand, they still want to have a detailed plan for the complete project! Also remarks about people issues are not taken into account in the product based planning technique, I don’t agree. From PBS, Product Descriptions and PFD you have to go into estimating. From estimating you will go into scheduling and this is the place to take these people issues into account, here you could even apply ideas from CCPM (Goldratt) into account. PRINCE2 doesn’t say you can’t, you have to tailor it, use common sense and use any technique, which will help you to manage your project.

Chapter 4 is about complex project management frameworks. Here, the author moves further away from linearity. He discusses more complexity-aligned models like the Cynefin model, PM-2, CPMCS, MODeST, …). He also gives some academic insights about systems theory, complexity and uncertainty, and their relevance to project management.

Using the Cynefin framework as a reference, the author created a project complexity matrix showing the four areas (within the complex) Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic, their context’s characteristics, the project manager’s responsibilities and related project management tooling. I simple table and it gives a good overview. See also a simple video about the Cynefin framework (a simple explanation cynefin framework).

The next model is the PM-2 framework that can be used in parallel with the PMBoK (refers to this as PM-1) and is applicable to all kind of projects in different fields of business. PM-2 represents a ‘dual cybernetic cycle’ principle. The main characteristic is the co-existence of complexity management (evolution, self-organizing, edge-of-chaos) and traditional project management. The PM-2 model consists of a four-worlds vision (traditional approach, management of complexity, human behaviour, and ways of thinking).

A next model is CPMCS (Complex Project Management Competency Standard). It’s principles are similar to the concept of PM-2. CPMCS established nine new competency areas, titled views. Views provide insights from multiple perspectives that together provide holistic understanding (e.g. view 4: innovation, creativity, and working smarter). CPMCS is focused on large projects within specific fields of business (e.g. defence, climate change, construction of major plants, …).

The author ends this chapter describing some more models. MODesT is a framework that in the opinion of the author will not help you to manage complexity. A last model he describes is Harry Rorije’s project Kaleidoscope (four discs emphases project goal, approach, it’s steering, and environment). I was in the lucky circumstances to offer Harry a floor to test his model. See book review on my blog: book review ik zie ik zie wat jij de ontmaskering van projectmythes. For me this chapter offered a lot of new insights and that there are many more methods than Agile, PMBoK and PRINCE2 to help you manage projects.

In the last chapter of part A the author gives an overview of the foursquare semiotic dialogue model (coherence and contradiction between experienced coherence, affordance, homology and attributed coherence). This model leads to a dialogue square meaning creation (Counter circumstances, ascribe meaning/significance, uncertainty/creativity/strange attractors, Narrative/storied) to support you in asking ‘what’ questions (what factors are …, what externalities …, what trade-offs see …, etc.). By using this model you could understand that frameworks will not help managers to manage complexity in their projects.

As stated this is the last chapter of part A of the book. You now have an academic overview on several models and frameworks to help you with complex projects and the author’s view on shortcomings of existing linear methods like Agile, PMBoK and PRINCE2. A great piece of work which will definitely help you to enlarge your knowledge about project management frameworks and specifically when you talk about complex projects.

In a next blog post I will go into the second part of the book where the author uses two projects to show how the mentioned techniques and frameworks in this part are applied and the author will end with his view on project management.

To order:
Amazon: The metis of projects

2 responses to “Book review: The metis of projects

  1. Hi Henny, thanks for you nice review. Just to start up the conversation.
    My unease with product breakdown structures lies in their ultimate linearity.
    More concrete, I don’t think that you can schedule nor estimate peoples conversation.
    The moment two people start thinking about a problem they will start arguing (I hope) about the best way to approach
    the problem. The outcome of that conversation, and now we are in social complexity, is quite unknown,and is likely controversial, conflicting, paradoxical, power may play its role etc.
    That’s why I don’t trust the idea.

    I don’t argue that we should not use Prince-2 by the way, I do agree with you that we should customize. The more you customize, the less it will operate as a framework, the more you will touch the complex


  2. Pingback: Book review: The metis of projects (Part B) « Henny Portman's Blog

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