How to Control Project Chaos

alb0701073424723.jpgIf you’ve never played in a drum circle you really owe it to yourself to find one in your local area and check it out. It’s a fabulous metaphor for shared control in project management. You see, a drum circle is a self-organizing system and is usually without a recognized leader. I say “recognized” because there surely are people who try to lead, but . . . well, mostly people just keep on banging away as they wish, sometimes rolling their eyes that someone would have the nerve to try to control their rhythmic expression. A drum circle happens when people sit down together to make it happen. People tend to join or depart as they wish, and pretty much do their own thing. There is typically no discussion of what will be played. People don’t have any assigned role aside from the instrument that they chose. Sometimes it starts off quite messy, like the front end of an ill-defined project. More people noisily join in, find a way to whack, boom or bang out some kind of racket that makes sense to them, and the group lurches fitfully for a while. Then someone will start laying down a beat that others pick up on and – BAM! The whole bunch is “in the groove” and going for the ride of their lives! You’ve just got to experience the adrenaline rush to understand what a thrill it is to be part of this heaving mass of humanity and vibration!!

Somehow individuals manage to solo without stepping on other people’s solos, and there are always a few people who hold down a solid beat so that others can ornament the music with something more intricate. With ear-popping sound levels, there’s no point in talking about changing the beat, picking up the pace, or working out the parts. Individuals just catch the eye of another drummer and signal their intentions through their facial expression and the rat-tat-tat-tat of their musical expression. And most amazing of all, quite frequently this throbbing hunka burning cacophony manages to stop pretty much all at the same time by some miraculous non-verbal mutual agreement of the whole darn bunch.

So how can an avalanche of sound and adrenaline like this be controlled? Well, there are some terrific metaphors here for leading the many stakeholders in a diverse project team:

  • Play an instrument that can be heard by others. A weak voice will be lost in the chaos.
  • Lay down a clear and steady beat as the foundation that supports the rest of the players.
  • Make eye contact and use body language and facial expression to communicate. Email just won’t cut it in a drum circle!
  • Lead them where they are already heading. If the beat is moving in a new direction that works, go with it, and lead your people where they want to go.
  • If you DO decide to jump in front and overtly lead by conducting you better get their agreement to follow or you’ll just look silly waving your arms around directing while the band plays on oblivious to your leadership.

The rhythm of leadership is much more complicated these days. Project teams are no longer well-defined, orderly groups of people playing clear roles in deference to a project leader. If you want to lead effectively in today’s project environment you might want to get yourself a djembe and drop in on a drum circle to see what you can learn about self-organizing systems like this. And . . . it’s FUN!


1 thought on “How to Control Project Chaos”

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    The drum circle example does provide insight into the dynamics in many projects. With many drum circles, a lot of the participants are not expert musicians but sometimes, there is a high amount of synergy and the rhythms. This is likely to happen when some people trade off the lead while some are content to contribute in a supporting role.

    What is the “upgrade” version of this?

    The upgrade version includes the following:
    – There is an outline. In music, this would be the selection of a song or style plus blocking out the main sections of the piece in shorthand that everyone can understand. In a project, the outline starts as a project plan (which might includes things like the launch plan) that evolves during the project.
    – A high percentage of the participants are masters in their respective areas
    – The masters are mentoring the newbies.
    – The masters don’t just trade off for solos. They do more than re-enforce. The sum is greater than the parts. Creativity by one member inspires creativity in other members.

    When I have had a project team that functioned like this (a great plan, great team members, and great management support), the results were always amazing.

    I have been lucky enough to be a part of projects like this a few times in my career.

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