The Project Manager’s “Predator Helmet”: Nine diagnostic filters

In complex and dynamic projects, it’s hard to filter out the noise and focus on just one element. You might want to diagnose some particular problem with a temporary narrow and deep perspective.

In the film “Predator”, the alien’s helmet has an enhanced viewport with filters to look deep into different parts of the human body: vascular system (swipe), skeletal system (swipe) nervous system.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to look deep inside the project “body”? For diagnostic or monitoring purposes or to identify remedial action.

The Predator helmet may be fiction, but I’ve found some mental models that may be the next best thing: a set of nine “schools of thought” about projects as the basis for future research (Ref 1).

If reframed as “mental models”, these schools can be used as “mental filters” for project managers to focus on those project elements that the filter reveals. Check them out below.

1. The “Hard” Systems Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter emphasises those project elements that operate as a system or a machine.

Once the system is defined and analysed, you can predict and optimise its performance. This perspective ignores the human involvement in projects and the subjectivity and variability that humans can introduce. There is an expectation of continuing order and rationality in the way system components interact and perform.

This filter shows what is usually called the “Hard” systems perspective.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to better understand and optimise the performance of those elements of a project that are defined and concrete, and when the causal relationships between components are known or can be reliably assumed.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Critical Path Methods (CPM)
  • Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT)
  • Operations Research
  • Resource Leveling
  • Critical Chain Scheduling
  • Monte Carlo Simulation
  • Earned Value Management
  • Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)

2. The Hard and Soft System Model Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter extends the “hard systems filter” by including “soft” components and their interactions. This filter shows the complete system model of the project. Soft systems require clarification and making sense of the project and its environment.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to understand the dynamics between “hard” and “soft” systems is critical to understanding your project’s overall complexity and dynamics. While relying on the more concrete “hard” systems perspective may be tempting, it has limited validity for projects staffed by humans.

Humans introduce many factors to the project that are not manageable by “hard” systems methods.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Soft Systems Methodology
  • Sense-making
  • Human psychology and development
  • Perception and Cognitive Biases
  • Optimisation of multiple objectives under multiple constraints
  • Lessons-learned
  • Materialisation / Dematerisalition

3. The Governance Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter shows the project as a temporary organisation or “legal entity”.

This project “entity” is viewed in the context of its relationships with other entities or parties. For example, each project has a “principal/agent” relationship with its hosting or client organisation.

Every organisation, and thus every project, is subject to power and decision-making outside its control. In projects, we are subject to Financial/Investment Governance, Audit, Legal and Regulatory Governance and more.

Using the filter

This filter enables you to see those governance points clearly and make plans to have them in place not to delay your project.

Every good project manager understands that they must manage Governance decision points very explicitly and carefully.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Contract management
  • Temporary organisation
  • Project governance
  • Principal-agency relationship
  • Transaction costs

4. The Behavioural Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter exposes project elements that act as a social system made up of people who interact together.

A project is dependent on how people think and work naturally together, both individually and in teams. It also includes how people: communicate, create and share knowledge, manage conflict, deal with cross-cultural issues and develop leadership capabilities.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to separate behavioural dynamics from system dynamics and dependencies

It enables you to identify and apply the types of remedial action specific to human behaviour, cognition and interaction.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Organisational behaviour (OB)
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Team building
  • Creativity
  • Human resource management
  • Knowledge Management
  • Conflict management
  • Virtual project teams
  • Project team diversity.

5. The Process Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter shows the project elements that act as a set of structured processes.

Seeing these processes alone is like reading a road map to the future. If you follow the map, you should end up in desired end state in which a vision of the future becomes a reality.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to identify broken or misdirected processes that will prevent the project from achieving its future state.

It can also be used to see the boundary between processes within the project scope and those that are outside the scope. All boundary interfaces must be clearly understood to ensure data and/or control are not lost.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Process methodologies
  • Process frameworks
  • Process audits
  • Structured processes.

6. The Contingency Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter exposes project elements that are unique and that require a tailored approach.

Contingency theory holds that there is no one way to manage a project. Every project is different so no pre-determined strategy will guarantee success. This is a counter-point to the traditional project management narrative that all projects follow a similar lifecycle that only requires marginal tailoring to be appropriate for any given project.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to find the project’s unique settings.

Each project has unique characteristics and good project managers focus on those to determine the management approach that best suits each project.

We can reuse project tactics on those elements that are not unique, but successful projects require intentional planning and selection of appropriate management techniques.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Contingency theory
  • Project categorisation
  • Project tailoring
  • Capability mapping for different project types.

7. The Success Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter shows project elements that relate to its results (either success or failure) and how success/failure is defined.

This filter includes predecessor components that can affect the way the project is conceived and executed.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to identify success factors and criteria from different stakeholder perspectives.

This filter will also allow you to identify and use Key Performance Indicators that track the progress and performance of a project and tie it to the overall objectives.

Understanding the relationship between project practices and successful outcomes is critical to the effective management of projects.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Success factors
  • Success criteria
  • Risk Management
  • Collaborative teams
  • Stakeholder management
  • Stakeholder satisfaction.

8. The Decision Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter highlights the decision chain from project initiation to conclusions about success or failure.

Every project contains a series of related decisions from end to end, impacting the projects’ conception, execution, and completion.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to identify where and how to make more “good” decisions that increase the chance of success. Or to avoid “bad” decisions that impact a project’s chance of success.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Decision-making
  • Decision criteria
  • Project Uncertainty
  • Uncertainty reduction
  • Investment decision making

9. The Marketing Filter

What the filter reveals

This filter reveals the web of relationships between project stakeholders.

Each stakeholder group is like a market segment with unique interests, perspectives, needs, attitudes about a project and varying levels of power to influence a project.

This network of power and interest must be navigated and optimised to ensure delivery success and perceived success.

Using the filter

You can use this filter to identify stakeholder power and interest.

It’s imperative that a project manager is able to communicate project objectives and progress to satisfy stakeholders need for information and help them form a readiness to view the project as successful. A successful project is one that stakeholders view as successful, and are prepared to “go public” with that assessment.

Key Concepts

The key concepts emphasised in this filter are:

  • Stakeholder management
  • Strategic goals
  • Internal marketing
  • Project initiation
  • Project communications.

The Bottom Line

Of course the “Predator Helmet for PM’s” doesn’t exist: it’s just a metaphor for how we should be able to step outside our projects and view them objectively from different perspectives.

These filters represent specific models of projects that have stand-alone validity, even if they don’t apply to your project.

The models behind these “filters” will prime your thinking and make you look more critically and selectively from each perspective.

You may disagree that all projects have all elements revealed by these “filters”. But I’m sure you agree that projects are complex beasts

Anything we can do to help us understand their dynamics is potentially useful.

References:

Turner, J.R., Anbari, F. & Bredillet, C. Perspectives on research in project management: the nine schools. Glob Bus Perspect 1, 3–28 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40196-012-0001-4

Originally published at https://adamonprojects.com.

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Adam On Projects

Adam On Projects

I want to change the way you think about and do project management. http://www.adamonprojects.com