A short story about a man who cannot live his life because he is being forced to spend all of his time tracking it as opposed to living it.
Pang Liu is a man whose life is a project plan. The start date is his birth, and the end date is his death. Of course, before he was born, like any good, effectively managed project there was a concept stage. This is where Mum and Dad did a proper evaluation of the merits of his birth and conducted a feasibility to test those attributes out. His time in his mother’s womb was the initiation phase and his birth was the kick off meeting where he was launched into this world like a new project propels itself into an organisation. As with every new birth it is so exciting; there are so many possibilities and so much potential.
Thirty years on.
The radio alarm clock wakes him in the morning at 6am. In a bleary state and with his eyes starting to open, he leans over to his bedside table to pick up his Android smart phone. He clicks on the Project Daily Activity checklist (PDAC) and he marks a tick on the “Wake up” line item. The Project Manager’s daily tracker software automation process kicks in and updates the RAG status on his Life of a Project Managers project plan to GREEN to recognise that, yep, this morning he did manage to wake up on time. His life is on track and the software on the phone will now connect through his wireless network router downstairs to a server in Chelmsford to synchronise with the programme plan for his friends and families plans for life. The server will generate a multitude of graphical charts and percentage breakdown statistics to show that this morning Pang Liu’s life is on track. He is on time and within budget. The quality assurance plan is also reporting GREEN. Good news all round, Pang Liu has woken up this Wednesday morning and all life activities are within the plan.
He checks his PDAC and he now has exactly 15 minutes to go to the toilet, have a shower and shave. During that time, he will have to review his PDAC and check the PDAC for all start and end time activities. One of these days someone will invent a system that can update the PDAC for his manager rather than him having to check, review and update his-self manually. It’s almost like the PDAC is taking over his life he grumbles as he steps into the bathroom. Whilst in the shower he feels the hot water refresh his skin and his senses awaken and his spirit is lifted. He can see the sun rising in the morning sky and two robins playing in the sycamore trees. His mind wanders off to the outside world and he thinks about the weekend coming up, he will be trekking through the Welsh mountains. he loves the life outside and the timelessness of it.
He steps out of the shower and dries himself. Rather suddenly there is a noisy dong from his smart phone. Damn! His mind had wandered off and he instantly realises that he has slipped behind schedule. He was supposed to update his PDAC to update the activity, ‘End shower’ as completed 30 seconds ago. He grabs the smart phone. His towel drops to the bathroom floor. He stands naked in his bathroom, and he looks for the right place on his phone to update the entry. The synchronisation process kicks in again and sends back another alert warning him that his life is now in an AMBER state as he has missed a milestone. Now, he will have to produce a recovery plan to show how he will get his day back on track and how he can get the status of his day back to GREEN. Also, when he checks his PDAC, he can see that, he is supposed to have a good 30 minutes to get dressed and have his breakfast, but the PDAC didn’t account for any time to produce a recovery plan so now he has to squeeze more activity into the same amount of time. He thinks to himself, he should really report this to the PDAC Customer Support Desk but he knows that, as it is only 6:20am, there is only out of hours support on hand at this time and so, he will only lose more time. He decides to leave that argument for another day and just get on with the tasks in hand and hope to make up the time in the next 30 minutes. If he can put on his clothes and eat breakfast quicker than planned, then hopefully he can have his life back on track. He aims to do just that and to see the PDAC status reporting GREEN by the time he has finished breakfast.
Sounds like a plan he mutters to himself with a wry smile and then he remembers that he needs to update the recovery plan with many of these thoughts as that is a mandatory artefact that he is required to submit to the Life of a Project Manager system to conform to the internationally accepted ISO 2000_423 standard process control for human beings to live their daily life. He clicks on the button on his smart phone to find the create recovery plan function. Fortunately, this is a good piece of software. It has a lot of built in intelligence so virtually all of the data is pre-populated. It has read in his personal data. It has also taken an update from his PDAC and it is now flashing in red lights for him to enter a single sentence on how he will get his life back on track. Very quickly, he types that he will complete his ‘get dressed’ task in less time than he normally requires. He presses submit and the recovery plan is now in process. He looks at the clock and he can see that now, he only has 15 rather than 20 minutes so he better, get a move on. Mercifully, he can re-assure himself that he has been here before and he knows that he can complete all his required activities in 15 minutes. Deep-down he knows, although he would never acknowledge this to anyone else, that he can complete the tasks in less time. He had padded out the task duration in the first place to give himself some additional time. He feels pleased with himself about that. He has beaten the system in his own way. It is moments like these that make him feel good about himself.
Another dong. The smart phone has gone off again. He realises that he’s been daydreaming. He was lying on his bed filled with self-gratitude at his own ingenuity and he has now wasted another 5 minutes. He forgot to update the PDAC that he needs to start to get dressed. Quickly he corrects this, and he moves to get dressed before the system insists on another Recovery plan. But he may have another problem now. The Quality Assurance plan will be getting restless. If he misses another milestone this morning the QA will be flagging AMBER on his life and then he will have to answer to the charge that the quality of his day is not up to scratch. He needs to move quickly but also take care to ensure that the clothes that he puts on reflect the appropriate level of quality that his life deserves this Wednesday. Similarly, when he goes down for his breakfast, he must do this in a timely manner but without comprising on the value of what he is doing. At the end of the day, figuratively here, it is the end-product that is most important rather than the activity itself. And the end-product for this part of the project is today. Ultimately the end-product is his death but, at the moment he is only working to get today completed.
Poor Pang is frustrated with the way his life is panning out. He appears to feel stuck within a system that is placing a high demand of control and management reporting around him. This is sucking the life out of him.
What can Pang do to feel better about things? So far, Pang gets small wins by ‘beating the system’ in little acts of rebellion. He pads out his estimates, he finds small flaws in the way the processes could be incrementally improved. These are trivial things, but they can create revengeful feelings of gratitude to Pang.
Ultimately, Pang is stuck in a system, and he doesn’t have the authoritative power to do much about it. The governing stakeholder powers around him are using low level planning as a means to control behaviour and yet his behaviour is becoming petty and subversive.
How is all of this helping anyone to deliver the change that the project is all about in the first place? And, to what extent, does he pass on that management and control out to the people that he manages? And what is the impact of that behaviour? What could he do differently to help the project focus on itself and the objective it has, which is to deliver the change that was the cause of its original creation?
No Sense. Nonsense. Insanity even!
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is all over the internet as a quote that Albert Einstein made but according to the Business Insider magazine article, “12 Famous Quotes That Always Get Misattributed”, Christina Sterbenz, this is a statement that Einstein never made. In any case, it does the rounds on the internet because it is a view that many people would agree with. And that is probably the most important part of this.
In other words, what can Pang do differently? He is frustrated with his lot and it is not working for him nor is it helping the project to deliver. Something must change or this circular pattern will continue ad infinitum.
It was Wednesday morning. Pang was in the office and a little distracted. He had some time off after today and his mind was on the trip he was about to go on. Tomorrow he’s off to Scotland to camp in the Highlands with some friends. It was a trip he and his friends have talked about a few times, but never organised before, so his mind kept coming back to the tingle of anticipation and excitement that he felt in his fingers and toes as he went about his morning meetings that day.
Systems Szu Ping
As she walked in the room. She moved all the desks and chairs to the side of the room.
"Where do I put my laptop?" Pang asked himself.
"How do I check my email?"
"What if I get another PDAC alert in the next 50 minutes?"
All these worrisome questions hit Pang all at the same time. He looked around the room for re-assurance and he saw a room of people that he knew well and they all had the same look on their faces!
Szu Ping stood in the centre of the room and invited people to speak, to move around and be themselves. It was as if sound became muffled for Pang. He went into another dimension. His senses were taking over. Pang could see and hear people but he wasn’t taking in what they were saying. It was like the sound was muffled and the view was blurry. And yet, he felt more connected to the energy in the room. He could tell by people’s body language what was happening. Somehow, he’d never felt more engaged with these people at work.
Szu Ping had this way about her. She held the space and she did it without judgement. No one is right and no one is wrong. “Everyone is right, but only partially” she’d say. People stopped! They needed a moment to consider that.
Szu invited openness. She didn’t press for people to speak and yet she encouraged all voices to be heard. There was space on the walls for people to write if they prefer. Or people to draw. In different colours. There was something refreshing about this workshop. So often these agile workshops become another ‘Cargo cult’ of one ‘ism’ versus another. It was not like that in Szu’s workshop. This hit Pang between the eyes!
We’re Product centric not Project centric said one post it.
Customer is King (or Queen) said another.
DevOps is the key to organisational cultural change said another.
SAFe kills said another!
Kanban or Scrum!
Szu went through these ‘post-its’ with the group. She let people say their thing. She didn’t side with any one position over another. I don’t know how she did it but she was able to stay agnostic over the all the different sides. And then she did one final thing:
She lifted a mirror on the ceiling so that each of us could see ourselves in the room, deep into ourselves, our bodies, our minds, our souls. And then we could see each other too, their minds, their bodies, and their souls. And then we could see all of us together as our own system. It was all there, laid out in front of us. We are each individual and yet we are also inter-dependent. How can we operate together in an integrated and co-ordinated way? Let’s re-organise ourselves into an interconnected system to enable us to work together in time boxes around an iterative cycle with a proactive belief system toward each other that fosters true collaborative working.
Wow! A new option to explore. Finally, Pang has more choice.