Dammit Jim, I’m a Project Manager not a Project Designer


“Great designs have conceptual integrity—unity, economy, clarity. They not only work, they delight”

Frederick Brooks, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist

Permit me to wax artistic on a Saturday morning…

Wells Cathedral - so much thought, math, planning leading to such incredible beauty.

It’s interesting to think of a project as the realization of a design concept. We tend to think of a project as the organization of the work. Design is usually a phase of some sort within the project that produces some ‘thing’ at the end of the project.

But what if we started to think of the project itself as a designed entity?  What if we saw ourselves as builders of an organizational design of people and resources? And that like a design for a building, the project could take literally thousands of shapes, pay homage to stylistic types and even be classified as ‘art’, and maybe; a thing of beauty.

The project charter would then become the initial design concept, a result of intensive thought, creativity and review during project initiation. 

I’ve been reading The Design of Design, essays by Frederick Brooks of Mythical Man Month fame. You may not know that Brooks was not only a computer scientist, but created designs in architecture, houses, books, and organizations. And, in fact, he wrote Design of Design to discuss and explore common concepts he observed across these disciplines.

Thus the book begins with what Brooks calls the ‘shared invisible entity’ of the Design Concept. The Design Concept is really an idea, and the idea can be shared, and discussed even though it has no physical form.

A typical project design would include answers to questions like; what is the reason we are doing this work, what value will it bring, how will communications be structured, what tools will be used to communicate, how will processes develop and change, how will we measure success, how and when will we handle risk and change.

We have templates for this thinking in most organizations (project charters, business cases etc.) and when we are moving too fast because of market pressures, we tend to just fill out the template, send it to the PMO and add a ‘done’ check to our list.

Poor design is a sad sad thing. This building literally fell over.

If we were designers however, we might stop and consider the design as applied to the context. We might add elements of lessons learned from the context; we might tailor our communications structures to more closely align to the culture of the business units involved, or adjust the amount of process or documentation to the desired agility of the culture. We would envision not just the management of risks, but how the project organization itself will morph its risk processes in good and bad times.

We would invite challenge on the whole design concept, perhaps personally by taking the time to distill to a purity of concept, or through others using organizational mechanisms (a PMO review for example). We would want our design to have what Brooks calls ‘Conceptual Integrity’.

When I hear the word ‘integrity’ I always think of Star Trek battle scenes where the cool computer female voice calmly states ‘Structural Integrity at 10%. Hull breach in 20 seconds’ and the captain screams ‘ABANDON SHIP’.

Remnants of the last alien attack on Earth. Poor design strikes again.

Integrity is really about solidity, soundness, and absence of holes.   It’s about holding up under pressure, or being so finely built as to stay solid when used, and not fall apart.

In my mind, a good project Design Concept would mean that when the project faces threat, the design maintains its Conceptual Integrity. The goal doesn’t fizzle or dissolve, the envisioned value is still attainable even under incredibly tough circumstances.

A ‘beautiful’ project, then, will include elegant and flexible structures that protect the envisioned value such that at the end, we will sense that there was something different and ‘delightful’ about the project design.

I have done this at times, and it was usually when, while designing the project, I went into a super creative mode. I started off with the model, a project charter for example, and then added elements based on my observations and conversations. I allowed for customization to circumstances and invited analysis of the integrity of my concept from others.  The design concept would even heavily morph to respond to envisioned (not yet realize) conceptual holes.

Meanwhile, beautiful design inspires over the centuries.

This all implies a heavy devotion of time to Project Initiation proceses, and the addition of design reviews prior to project planning. Most importantly, this involves allowing ourselves to think creatively about  processes that are usually about control. It’s about allowing ourselves to be like architects who manage to create beauty within the confines of physics and gravity.

This involves allowing ourselves to think creatively about  processes that are usually about control. It’s about allowing ourselves to be like architects who manage to create beauty within the confines of physics and gravity

This is something to consider and in fact, a as potential paradigm shift, can help us PMs think of ourselves as designers, add a layer of delight, creativity and enjoyment to our work.

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One thought on “Dammit Jim, I’m a Project Manager not a Project Designer

  1. I agree that it’s a project manager’s responsibility to run well-designed projects. Not just projects that deliver on time / budget / specification, but that run smoothly, that the project team and stakeholders can actually enjoy working on. Isn’t that close to what you’re suggesting here?
    I think there’s an issue with the analogy you’ve chosen however: the project – unlike a building – is not the end in itself. So after the project’s been implemented (assuming the objectives have been met), how the project was run is largely immaterial. But here’s the key issue: if people liked the way *you* ran the project, they’ll want to work with you again or suggest to their colleagues that they should work with you. And that kind of advocacy is a great thing for a project manager to have.
    And fundamentally, I really dislike working on projects which no one is enjoying!

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