Let It Simmer: Making Project, Portfolio and Program Management Practices Stick in a Skeptical Organization

project portfolio and program management

It is hard enough to make sense of things when you are in the middle of the action. Harder yet is to perceive the reality behind events that do not conform to your worldview. It is far too tempting to attribute people who do things contrary to your values as “evil,” or at least as unprofessional behavior. The problem with that approach is that it makes it difficult to find points of potential constructive cooperation.

Most project and program managers bring a certain professional and ethical point of view to their work. The Defense Acquisition University maintains statistics on the Meyers-Briggs profiles of the program managers who come there for training. Meyers-Briggs defines four general attributes of personal behavior (extrovert-introvert; thinking-feeling; sensing-perceiving; intuiting-judging). The permutation of those factors yields 16 possible different preference sets. When I attended in 2010, the track record was an astounding 87 percent match on just one of these 16 possibilities! That particular set of tendencies (ISTJ) values facts over opinions, logic over feelings, and following the rules over exploring alternatives.

What that means is that governance professionals have a remarkably common view of how things should be—one that is quite different from the wide range of attitudes shared by the other 93 percent—and because of the “judging” focus, they tend to view those others as slackers, rebels, trouble-makers, or simply incompetent twits.

Combining this observation of widely-divergent views of reality with David Snowden’s Cynefin theory1 explains what happens next. (See figure 1.)

project portfolio and program managementThe model shows four basic conditions that may exist in an organization. When the condition is known, the appropriate response is fairly clear.

There is also what I would call a non-condition, “disorder,” in which it is not clear to anyone what the situation really is. Under that circumstance, people revert to their natural tendencies.

Here’s where Snowden’s work takes on supreme relevance: the boundary between obvious and chaotic is catastrophic: applying an obvious solution to a situation that is actually chaotic will quickly drive that system to complete breakdown, and vice versa.

You can find a more detailed analysis of the applicability of Cynefin to the process-averse organization on the book’s website2.

The essentials of that analysis are:

  • Organizations exist precisely to turn their core business activities into “obvious” situations.
  • Process-averse organizations have failed in efforts to routinize their activities. It devolves into “disorder”: nobody knows what they should do, so they do whatever comes naturally.
  • Driven individuals (the ones we used to call “type A”) are all about taking action. Any action will do. Their world has no concept of cause and effect; every day is a never-ending series of emergencies. Every event requires a new invention and discovery process. A “chaotic” response to non-chaotic situations eventually causes chaos to emerge.
  • Less-driven individuals in these organizations see the disorder and simply lie low, waiting for the storm to pass, hoping for someone to tell them what to do.

Enter the project manager, armed with a set of professional practices that provide the canned response to any situation—a perfect “obvious” response. Since the business processes fell apart, the organization is now acting in a chaotic manner. Again, trying to apply obvious solutions (best practices) will fail miserably in a situation where processes have been thrown out of the window.

In our situation, we do pretty much know what the problem is. What we do not know is how to get the organization to swallow the medicine. That’s the Complex quadrant, in which we push a little here, push a little there, see what is working, and move to capitalize on successes. Now that I have the Simmer system worked out, it gives you a road map to help reduce the number of false starts, but it is certainly the way in which the Simmer system evolved.


1. Cynefin framework
2. The Simmer System

About Douglas Brown, PhD, CEA, PMP 2 Articles
Douglas Brown has provided enterprise governance, data management, and architecture services as a consultant, a federal manager, and an Army officer over the past 20+ years.