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The Management Secrets of the Brain

by Hal on March 6, 2003

in PM practice

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M. Mitchell Waldop urges us to manage projects from the bottom up. In an article published in Business 2.0 in October 2002 (so I've been sitting on this one for awhile…) The Management Secrets of the Brain he draws parallels to recent understanding of how our brains work to managing organizations.


Your brain is the ultimate example of a complex, decentralized organization. And because we (usually) behave coherently, smoothly integrating new circumstances as they arise, the brain is also the epitome of an adaptive organization, a learning organization, a shared-vision organization — in short, the ideal modern company.

Waldop makes five claims:

  1. Never try to micromanage a large, complex organization.
    There's not enough executive attention in the world to ironmonger this level of activity.
  2. Don't let bottom-up self-organization go wild.
    Without leadership standard operating procedures are directionless and blind.
  3. The best way to control your subordinates is to just point them in the right direction.
    This new model…assumes that [leaders have] just one job, which is to generate a neural map of the [organization's] goals, strategies, and current situation.
  4. Be careful listening to the voice of experience — that voice could be your own.
    Sometimes an organization has to break out of its rut and try a new approach.
  5. The organization can't succeed without passion.
    Unless we know what's important, what matters, then all the rationality in the world gets us nowhere.

Waldop makes a great case for managing projects on an agile or lean basis. The brain is ideally suited for project complexity, uncertainty, inevitable learning, and the underlying humanness of the endeavor. Why would we even try a different approach.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hal March 7, 2003 at 1:34 pm

Sorry for some previous misspellings. I’m using a new text editor with an unusual spell-check dictionary. I’ll pay more attention. :(

2 Claude Emond March 7, 2003 at 2:30 pm

Hello

pretty good stuff. On the same token, I suggest the reading of Dudley Tower’s primer on Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), which covers similar grounds and comes with an intervention model to let the RIGHT things emerge in organizations that know that they are part of the real world. You will find this paper, titled ‘Creating the Complex Adaptive Organization:
A Primer on Complex Adaptive Systems’ at the following address: http://www.evergreeninstitute.org/pdf/CreatingtheCAO.pdf . Not taking into account an unfortunate reference to Jack Welch on page 4 and a call for planetary love at the end of the paper, I find the model quite interesting and I am using it as a foundation for an paper I am writing right now with a client (a R&D PMO director) that knows there is something going on outside his organization ; this paper will be titled : ‘Planning and fostering the emergence of a R&D Project management culture’.

Regards

3 Hal March 7, 2003 at 4:22 pm

I’m almost finished reading EMERGENCE by Steven Johnson. Many readers have commented on my bottoms-up notion of how projects really get done. This book offers a view as to why that approach is the only one that can succeed in the project environment. I will be writing more about this.

In the meantime, let’s remember that projects happen in an uncertain and unknowable future. By organizing and managing projects with the expectation of learning and adapting we have the best chance of succeeding. Lean and agile approaches currently offer the most promise and there’s so much more we can learn.

4 Claude Emond March 7, 2003 at 11:24 pm

I’m reading Johnson’s book too …I fell in love with the ’slime mold’. I guess we are heading the same way in our search for better project management, my main interest being ‘organizational changes projects’ involving the developpment of the project management culture essential to support innovation and constant change.

Actually, it all started for me, this summer,when I found at bargain price a book called ‘CREATION: Life and how to make it’ by Steve Grand, the inventor (as he states it) of the computer game ‘CREATURES’. Grand explains quite well in this book the challenge of creating life (which he claims he did !!) and it is through his explanations about building blocks fitting together to create life from ‘the bottom up’ that I started to understand that my TOP DOWN change management process ( la Kotter) was a complete mistake, particularly with a Research Center PMO. When I told my customer about my doubts, he jumped right in because the top down approach was just generating too much resistance with the scientists (who, after all, are quite smarter than most of their management bosses and just cannot stand being told HOW to do things). Furthermore, those fellows, being scientists, use system dynamics and thinking, and ‘lunch’ with complexity every day. I just know now that the behavior of the head scientist was right on target. He would not strongly sponsor the project, saying that, with the right stimuli, the things would evolve ‘by themselves’in the right direction. I thought he was a weak leader, but he was in fact someone who respected complexity and uncertainty, for coping with them everyday as a scientist, and knew that emergence was the ‘best way’ – no, ‘the only way’ to go.

Finally, the new book by Seth Godin , ‘Survival is not enough’, does quite a good job in vulgarizing all this emergence and ‘complex adaptive systems’ stuff. It makes a good read too and I recommend it to everyone I can.

Thanks again for your fabulous weblog, Hal. I wish a good weekend to everybody who shares these conversations.

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