Autumn is when I first landed in Beijing back in 1995, and for some reason, the September/October time frame always brings back memories of chipped teeth on candied hawthorn, blustery Siberian windstorms – and two week holidays three times a year. In the spirit of the season, I proffer up this story.
A couple of years ago, I was delivering Microsoft Project desktop training for a private client. We were working on site, and using their equipment. I’d done my discovery, and reviewed their project templates prior to the training, and class was going quite well, thank you very much. Midway through, I looked at one of the students’ screen. To my surprise, he seemed to have a custom toolbar with buttons triggering all sorts of custom macros.
I asked him what those were, and he didn’t really know. Then I saw that he actually had an enterprise account configured on his laptop, although he wasn’t using it.
Turns out after discussing it in class that they’d actually implemented Microsoft Office Project Server 2003 several years prior, and had developed all sorts of custom macros and templates to support the implementation. Nobody could remember who had implemented it – and nobody could remember when they stopped using it.
I must admit, at that moment, I kind of felt like the Charlton Heston character when he stood on the beach and looked at Lady Liberty’s hand rising out of the sand.
There was an article I saw a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it, and can’t find it again using the usual search engines. But I remember it was a fascinating paper written by a Qinghua University professor about the application of cyclical concepts to organizational maturity. That’s been a model I’ve kept in the back of my head ever since in many of my customer interactions.
Not being able to find this article, I’ll go ahead and reconstruct my memory of it, imperfect as it is. Needless to say, I’ll take the blame for any potential inaccuracies.
The gist of the discussion was that every organization can be understood in the context of a push-pull between the opposing forces of order and chaos. When an organization tips too far to the realm of process, it becomes hidebound, and restrictive, and there’s a move to reduce the amount of process and unshackle the employees. When an organization then tips too far to the side of chaos, risks abound and the organization loses its focus. So every organization is continuously oscillating in a multiyear cycle between the polar opposites of process and chaos, never truly reaching equilibrium.
In the context of project management maturity, this means that an organization will make a conscious decision to get better at project management, then drive itself up the maturity curve, until it reaches the desired end point, at which it slips over the crest, and back down out of the procedural cathedral and into the valley of chaos. That’s not a objective judgment call, but simply the natural way of things. All organizations will follow this cycle endlessly until they finally succumb to risks and cease to exist as a distinct organization.
Like all models, the cyclical view of organizational development is applicable to some organizations, and perhaps not so applicable to others. I proffer it as an item to provoke thought. Perhaps the actual question is not whether the linear or cyclical views are correct, but really to identify the formula of how to leverage an organization out of the cyclical model and into a sustained linear model.