Now you’ve lost your first crane …

July 13, 2012

I was thinking about project management today and this cartoon from Hugh came to mind. In part the thoughts (but not the cartoon) were triggered by my preparation for CalmBeta (you only have a few hours before the price doubles) where I want to do something thinking and talking about Cynefin and IT Project Managment.  But just to reassure you, Huw's cartoon is hopefully not relevant to that event!  It was more a memory from  my days in DataSciences when the CEO Andy used to use the phrase hairy assed project managers as a badge of honour.  He had a small number who would be sent in when needed and they were brutal.  I was never on the receiving end, but I witnessed them knocking heads to bring projects back under control.  They didn't, and in fairness really should not have been expected to, take prisoners.  In Cynefin terms they pulled projects back up the catastrophic fold from chaos to simple by sheer force of will, often at considerable cost both in terms of money, reputation and people.  

Some years later and now a part of IBM I was working on an early narrative project for Lend Lease.  There I saw a very different style of project management.  For those who know the company I am talking about the days when Stuart Hornery was leading the company, but towards the end of his tenure.  Now I have met some extraordinary leaders in my time, but Stuart and the team around him (I worked with Neville and Malcolm) were something else.  We were working on a narrative based approach to lessons learnt around the Bluewater development in Kent, but the initial work was carried out by myself and Nick in Sydney.  It was my first visit to Australia, and my first ever Round the World ticket as I came in from KM World in San Jose and went onto Singapore for one of my first visits.

To set the context I'll tell you a story about Stuart from that initial assignment that I got from his own mouth.  One of their junior engineers was on his first job in Sydney Harbour.  He'd been educated in Alice Springs and had theoretical knowledge of tides, but no practical experience.  He tied a floating crane up, didn't allow for the tide and the net result when he returned in the morning was a capsized crane and a massive loss.  His boss phoned Stuart up and said that he should probably be fired, but he felt the guy had potential so would Stuart take a second look.  Stuart took him out for lunch and decided that they should keep the guy on (human judgement is everything in terms of learning) so he said OK you've lost your first crane, so now you are a real engineer but then went on to tell the now relieved junior just what would happen if a similar mistake was ever made in the future.

Now you might think that is the real point of the story, but it isn't.  He went on to tell me that this story and that phrase went round the company.  The net result was that every time anyone made a big mistake Stuart had to take the reprobate out to lunch and go through the whole routine again.  As we went round that organisation and asked people for stories of failure (key for knowledge) instead of shuffling around and finally coming up with a story which made them look good we got something very different.  The person being interviewed would look us in the face and say Oh you want my crane story do you and would launch into a story of abject failure with considerable glee.

Now that is pretty unique, Stuart had created a culture of one time failure, learning and development through very simple actions and basic communication.  No clever guys from Harvard playing MBA games (that came after he retired and the company almost went under).  Instead a human guy with real experience, able to exercise judgement.   They were all like that.  I made the mistake in one presentation in Australia House overlooking Darling Harbour of saying to Neville That's a good question and he shot back I didn't ask you to rate my question you pommy bastard I wanted you to answer it.  I've used that one many a time since!

So now you have a sense of the culture I'll get to the point.  Lend Lease managed some pretty major projects around the world and they had a unique style.  The way they worked is that a small group of very experienced people flew around the world carrying out project reviews.  Those reviews were savage, nothing went unexamined, no project team ever manager to survive the review without discovering something they had missed or forgotten.  I remember one guy saying how he had creating a wonderful system involving distilled water automatic brushes and the like to handle cleaning of glass on the roof of Bluewater.  He finished his presentation and the review (Neville I think) simply turned to him and said How are you going to get the brushes down?  It was the one thing he hadn't thought of and as he said The corporate seagull just came in a shat all over us again.

Now I should emphasis that this was not said with bitterness, but with humour.  Everyone knew they were going to be examined in detail, but everyone knew that the result would not be someone senior telling them what to do.  No once the seagull had shat, it would just suggest some people they should talk too, a book they should read.  No solution was every given, rather they were networked.  A great example of experience passing on knowledge in context.  Interestingly we took the seagull phrase and created some teaching stories around it.  

Now that approach created a culture of learning and a mechanism for knowledge transfer that was people based, fragmented and contextual.  I want to build on that tomorrow and talk a little about different styles of management and project types using Cynefin.


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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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