Side Notes: Practical project wisdom

My Grandma shopped on our farm, as far back as I can remember, we never went to a supermarket. The supermarket came to us. My Mother sent me to school with a red satchel, instead of a black one that the other boys had – the experience was terrifying. Lord Thew (not sure I am spelling his name right) taught me how to play chess at an early age. My Uncle Nigel gave me my first lamb, and taught me how to find it amongst the other new born lambs on our farm.

My point; practical wisdom is not innate. It is learnt from years of experience and from the moral characters of those around us. It takes a lot of experience to learn how to care for the animals, and to be responsible for their wellbeing. Being brilliant (intelligence) is different from practical wisdom. Lord Thew’s chess teachings made a lot of difference in being with my lamb. Intelligent strategies, combined with the wisdom of my Grandma and the courage instilled in me by my Mother, taught me how to spend more time with the animals, how to negotiate and manage my homework.

“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor” … Aristotle


It boggles my mind how rules and regulations are so firmly entrenched within organisations and on projects that we would rather a project fail than break those rules. Incredible, as it may seem, but it happens.

The very moral fibre of knowing the right thing to do, despite the rules of the organisation, is being completely eroded away. I am not saying we need to break the rules. Rules are necessary, but not at the expense of avoiding doing the right thing, the wise thing. If you do not know what the wise thing to do is, then simply keep to the rules. Very few project managers know what the right thing is to do. Very few can challenge rules and procedures within the organisation, because they find it difficult to swim against the tide of incentives that accompany those rules and procedures. Some of those incentives can be threatening.

Incentives are like gold, on the projects. They are handed down by CEOs and their managers. What this means is that there is greater addiction for use of incentives over the use of morality. Everything else then goes out of the window, including practical wisdom. A PwC project comes to my mind here; I was urgently summoned to PwC’s freezing cold data centre in Canary Wharf, London. My team in India had somehow broken the system, and no one could do a roll-back using the backup files. I discovered the truth onsite. A backup had not been carried out. A system admin team member had been bullied into not admitting the mistake whilst on the client premises!

Not all incentives are monetary. Studies are showing that Projects are failing despite the increasing use of high incentives – so what is going on? How are these projects failing? Why are good skilled people leaving the project? The truth is simple. The over reliance on rules and incentives cannot replace morals, they cannot replace improvising, they cannot replace empathy, and they cannot replace good common sense. People do not leave projects where moral skill, moral will (practical wisdom), and empathy prevail. The system admin chap at PwC came and told me the truth.

Rules and incentives cannot exist on their own, and for them to do so means that a project, or an area of the project, is doomed to failure. As international project managers we have to be aware of procedures, rules, different incentives, knowing when and where they cannot be applied. Our projects are filled with Humans, each one with their own unique characteristics. We need to recognise that. We need to engender trust, kindness, hope, patience, and ultimately practical project wisdom to keep our projects healthy. Looking out for my system admin chap (like my lamb) meant I could keep him safe from both the client and my organisation. I positively deflected both, using practical wisdom.

The system admin chap was my responsibility on my project. Practical wisdom determined that he would learn a lesson from this issue. The Client wanting blood, were appeased by my being onsite in India as their direct liaison. My organisation was satisfied that the Client was satisfied. Admonishment by management can be upsetting, demoralising, and cause untold resentment on projects. This is one of the reasons why project managers must accept responsibility for the actions of their teams, and let no harm befall them. It is for us mangers to use our experience, skills, and practical wisdom to ensure that, “artificial intelligence is no excuse for stupidity” … Huxley.


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