What’s The Story?

In the foreword of an excellent book by Sonia Arrison on longevity called ‘100+’ Peter Thiel of PayPal speculates that the origins of storytelling originated when our ancestors first acquired the knowledge of our inevitable death, a somber birth for a very powerful part of our lives. This series takes a lighter look at the benefits of a storytelling approach to communication on projects.

 It would be a sad parent that brings a PowerPoint presentation to tuck their kids to sleep at night.

The Road as a Metaphor

The road is an oft used metaphor by writers and storytellers for life itself.

The long road, the high road, the road less travelled are all used to add value to an understanding of the challenges faced by an individual. A recent movie directed by Emilio Estevez called ‘The Way’ beautifully uses the 500 mile walk across northern Spain, called the ‘Camino of Santiago de Compostelo’ as a picturesque background and metaphor to communicate the trials and tragedy of father losing a son. The story is made more poignant by the casting of Martin Sheen, the director’s real father.

Perhaps we can borrow this metaphor of a road or journey to help communication and conflict reduction on our complex projects. Where are we going? Who are the characters? What are the challenges? We are in desperate need of storytelling in order to simplify but not dumb down the complexities of the challenges we face. Among many ingredients we must include the scope, time and the availability of resources. We also need to manage and communicate the potential costs and risks. Often overlooked are the quality, communications and procurement requirements of this particular venture. Perhaps the most misunderstood and least appreciated aspect is the need for integration. Who is going to tie the whole venture together? Maintain the pace, direction and purpose? Keep the backpacks replenished? And how will they achieve that on the journey?

The metaphor of the road can be made more useful by the introduction and addition of touch points or discreet punctuations within the narrative. A good example of this is the planetary walk in Zurich, Switzerland, or in Ithaca, NY.  On each of these the traveller navigates a road or track that is punctuated at appropriate intervals to illustrate the relative size and distance apart of our planets. In this way the metaphor becomes a simile and the student can engage in a different type of learning experience as they walk from our sun to Pluto.

In 1996, John Feinstein wrote a beautiful book called ‘A Good Walk Spoiled’ about how golf was, in essence, a walk in a beautiful setting spoiled by a cruel game. He carries the reader through the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of many players on the various professional tours. The name of the book and quote is actually accredited to Mark Twain.

In my story I saw an opportunity to borrow from this idea and use the structure of the golf holes themselves to tell the story of a typical project. The walk for each project is over nine holes on a golf course. The first hole would be setting the objectives for the project. The last or ninth hole would be closing the project. The intervening holes would address the stakeholders, requirements, work, risks, schedule/budget, execution and controlling of the project. Three characters play this golf course while discussing the merits of their individual approaches to achieving a project goal:

Bob is from North Carolina and represents a pure process based perspective.

Edward is from London, UK and represents an old experienced ‘trust me’ project approach.

Louise is from Ireland and represents an academic or theoretical approach.

In the story we follow Edward and Bob to Cork, Ireland, for intensive facilitation from the brilliant consultant-turned-academic, Louise, who happens to be a champion golfer.  The dynamic between the three characters combines the best of Edward’s intuitive, soft-skills approach and Bob’s process-centered approach, grounded by Louise’s academic theory.

Together, their journey and discussions illuminate the challenges faced on typical projects both in structure and content. As team members and stakeholders, we can listen in on their discussions, observe the rhythmic structure of their 9 steps and follow the story of their project. We can imagine our own projects following the same walk. We can even imagine ourselves or colleagues, as Bob, Ed or Louise.


So whatever the complexities of your project, you can still benefit by seeing it as a story to be told, a road to be travelled, a journey to be completed. By making an emotion connection, by embracing the power of the right brain we can reach more stakeholders with greater clarity and engagement.

What is the story behind your project?

Frank Ryle, PMP

Simply Leadership

by Frank Ryle, PMP

We all like to hear good news every now and then. Especially as the days are getting longer and the warmer. And so it was nice to hear Bill McDermott, the first US born co-CEO of SAP recently stated that the dark days of the economic crisis are behind us and we need to prepare for and focus on a growth model again. He further mentioned that all good leaders faced with this transition will understand the need to maintain the customer at the center of this new growth model. To satisfy those customers they must continuously ask the following questions:

So just who are our customers? Are they changing?

  • What are they like? Why are they like that?
  • What do they expect from us? Can we continue to meet those expectations?

Previously in order to answers those questions a good leader would have aspired to build an efficient organizational environment and balanced the need for ‘hard’ data with ‘soft’ skills in the various operating functions. That balance was often hard to create as too much reliance on either side was a classical path to failure. When successful, the resulting mix of personal and corporate character was impressive, infectious and quickly imitated.

However it was rarely sustainable.

In this new model, companies that desire sustained growth will need to incorporate the ability to adapt and reorganize to suit the changing needs and desires of their customers without losing their core ethics and values.

Achieving this careful balance will demand more of all new leaders. Instead of trying to develop a leader to understand change, diversity and the global market, perhaps it is best to have a young, diverse and global leadership. Jim Hagemann Snabe, the other co-CEO of SAP is Danish. He brings a different understanding of Europe and its history, culture and potential future. He was asked about his impressions of his co-leader, a very charismatic and presentable American and mentioned his optimism (‘we can do’ attitude) and his execution (‘just do it’ attitude). In turn Bill McDermott lavished praise on his co-leader for his European style and historical perspective.

Both talked about a new environment dominated by an ever increasing speed at which business is conducted and the pace at which change is demanded. We may soon reach the ‘catallaxy’ point coined by Fredrick Hayek in the last century where the rate of change is so fast as to be self generating and spontaneous. In conjunction with this  the complexity of projects is also increasing due to globalization, regulation change, acquisitions and many other factors.

When this point arrives there will be an even greater need for simplification by the customers. The combination of leadership and management that can absorb that speed and complexity and transmit order and understanding will stay competitive and prosper.

Then the leaders can continue to ask themselves:

  • Are we still doing the right things?

And their managers can ask of themselves:

  • Are we continuing to do those things right?


And the customers will continue to enjoy the whole show.




Who Stole the Pillow? Cause and Effect on Projects

by Frank Ryle, PMP

There is the possibility that storytelling began as a response to our conscious awareness of unavoidable death. Some scholars suggest that this gave rise to three major forms of stories or myths – nationalistic (us and them), religious (us and Him) and ideological (why and what). Perhaps after these existentialist tomes we evolved another type of story and storyteller to fill the gap between the unknown and getting through the day, night, week or the season. Abraham Maslow suggested that these stories fulfilled our motivational ‘need to know and understand’. Some less generous people call them white lies.  However it is this type of story that can play a valuable role in the successful delivery of a project.


Imagine a scenario where you wake up one morning and the nice pillow that you laid your head on the previous night is gone. Your breakfast is disturbed, your commute to work distracted as you ponder the possibilities of the disappearance. How well would you work that day as multiple parts of your brain tried to put the pieces of this puzzle together?

Who took it? How did they get it? Where is it now?

This scenario, although rare for adults, happens often to infants who fall to sleep in the arms of their parents and wake up to find a changed scenario. The young brain struggles to reconcile the differences. Our brains are built to search for an explanation, a cause and effect solution that helps to build associated learning connections in the expanding brain – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’.

On projects we too struggle to put a cause with each issue or effect. The PMBOK references many tools and techniques that can be used to help identify possible causes and specifically names ‘Cause and Effect diagrams’ under the steps, Risk Identification and Quality Control.

Another technique available from operations management and systems thinking is the ‘5 Why’s’ technique often associated with Peter Synge of MIT. When faced with a troubling effect or issue we ask ‘why?’ and then ask the same question again of the answer, 5 times. To the novice PM it may sound childish but is an effective approach and is rooted in the idea that each effect has a cause and that by this series of sequential questions we can get to the root cause.

The Cause and Effect Diagram mentioned above is also called the fishbone or Ishikawa diagram , after Kaoru Ishikawa and can be used in conjunction with the ‘5 Whys’ to help identify the root cause.

It is here that we need to provide a word of warning for the novice project manager: The driving need and result sought by the ‘cause and effect’ approach is for better information and metrics to improve decision making. In essence it is the search for certitude. While this may be possible in operations environments it is frequently a futile effort on projects. Projects by nature (and definition) are ‘temporary and unique’ endeavours and therefore do not offer up either sufficient time or the quantitative data with sufficient accuracy to be useful in using this technique to help guide the project.

While the operations manager may have justification in his search for certitude, the PM is simply seeking to reduce the amount of ambiguity of various outcomes on the project. While the operations manager looks for the decimal point (or 6 Sigma equivalents), the PM looks to rein in the boundary conditions and increase the probabilities of various estimates and events. Therefore, in managing the project the PM needs to balance the innate or childlike ‘need to know and understand’ with the benefits of a more broad brush approach.

This difference of approach, often unspoken and poorly understood, can lead to friction and conflict on larger, cross-boundary projects.

In my book ‘Keeping Score’ I have two characters to represent these perspectives. Bob comes from a strong operations background and Edward comes from a purely project background. Neither man is particularly good at articulating their strongly held ideas and concepts. It takes a third character, Louise, to bang their heads together.

The operations manager can insulate the operations environment from the surrounding chaos of everyday life, whereas our project manager must plan to manage the effects of a chaotic world. The project manager must develop a flexible approach to contain possible future boundary conditions.

In my metaphorical mind I see operations management akin to collecting insects while project management is more akin to catching butterflies – a larger net is needed and a lot more energy is expended. This brings to mind the lovely quote:

“Fundamental to chaos theory is the phenomenon of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, commonly referred to as the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, and weather in New York is different.”—Ian Malcolm

Perhaps on many projects the process goal is therefore not to develop and deliver on a detailed plan as much as to find the balance between planning for future environments and dealing with chaotic outcomes within contained boundaries. Most of us may benefit by the use of the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) here with the larger share still going to planning.

And so if you do find your pillow missing one morning then you might do better to contact an operations manager and not a project manager.

What is your Story?


Chief Simplicity Officer (CSO)

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.  – Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

A close examination of the role of management on large and more complex projects has often spawned the creation of a new field to address particular issues. Recent examples include the management of human resistance on projects (OCM) and the field of requirements management (BA). This blog seeks to introduce another subdivision or ‘component’ of management – namely the CSO or ‘Chief Simplicity Officer’.

In any successful company the link between organizational strategy and ongoing business results will depend very much on the clear understanding and communication of project performance. A critical success factor here will be the ability of the PM to fulfil the role of ‘CSO’. He or she needs to find a way to represent and communicate this complexity to all stakeholders, in a way that is simple but not dumb. The sole purpose of this new role will be to enable better understanding and decision making by senior managers.

This search for simplicity is not new. Humans have always sought simple explanations to complex ideas – from ‘Archimedes bath’ to ‘Newton’s apple’ to ‘Einstein’s E=MC2’ – we remember, understand and even transmit these complex ideas through generations with ease partly due to their simplicity, and not their complexity.

Even today, tourists to London and Paris are confronted with very different representations of the respective cities networks of subways lines. Paris is complex and accurate, but London is considered by many to be simpler, and more easily understood.

Our hypothetical ‘CSO’ needs to learn from these and other ideas, to enable better understanding and decision making by those who do not have enough time or interest to get involved in the details, but are needed to make important project decisions.

The CSO will need to study and consider the appropriate use of visualization and simulation techniques, and also consider the idea of metaphors and analogies as agents of simplicity. He or she may also need to delve into the world of the artist and the neurologist to see what we can learn from and exploit from these two very different, but valuable areas of expertise.

As Nelson Mandela is rumoured to have said:

“Speak to me in a language I understand and it goes to my brain. However, speak to me in my language and it goes straight to my heart.”

This marriage of science and art can lead to strife and confusion when done badly – but lead to clarity, agreement and better decisions when done well.

A CSO will need knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to assist him/her bridge the gap between complexity and simplicity. A brief look at the subject might uncover these headings:

  1. Attention – This is the ability to gain the attention of the individuals concerned. Without attention there is no transfer, no learning and no improvement in decision making. Getting attention involves a great understanding of and empathy with your audience.

We must learn how to get to know the stakeholders better.

  1. Motivation – This is a natural follow on from the idea above as maintain attention there must be motivation. Numerous historical studies of motivation have led us from Maslow and Hertzberg to McClelland and Vroom. Many recent additions to the shelves of airport bookstores have also failed to answer the old question “What can I do to motivate you?  The answer is now, as it was then “Absolutely nothing”. All I can do is create an environment within which you can be motivated (or motivate yourself) – whether that environment is fearsome, social, rewarding or whatever.

We must do more to get the horse to drink from the fountain willingly.”

  1. Analogies and Metaphors – This is the intelligent use of visualization and representation techniques will allow the message to reach more audiences and may also generate an ‘ah-ha’ moment by engaging the emotions and the right side of the brain.
  2. Seeing clearly – The visual artists ‘Christo and Jean-Claude’ might cover a bridge or building to make us look closer or put gates on our walk (central park) to make us see more clearly – maybe we too need to cover up or illuminate something to help other see more clearly.
  3. Exposing – sometimes we may need to expose the innards of something in order to appreciate the complexity as in the collaboration of Arup and various architects on the Pompidou Center, Paris, The HSBC building in Hong Kong and The Millennium Bridge in London. Each has stood the test of time as a way to express complexity and maintain beauty and simplicity.
  4. Right Brain Appeal – In order to be successful the PSM will need to engage the attention of each stakeholder. Traditional management communication methods have appealed to the left side of the brain. The PSM can add value by taking the information involved in these communications and ‘represent’ it to appeal to the Right brain. A useful aid to this would be to take some ideas from the excellent book by Daniel Pink’s  called ‘A Whole New Brain’. He outlines 6 key areas to consider in any presentation/ communication.
  5. Learning the steps – all processes have an inbuilt preferred sequence and we need to find a clever way to embed that sequence automatically and subconsciously. In ‘Keeping Score’ I used an analogy of 9 golf holes to represent the 9 basic steps in managing any project for one of the characters. The other character preferred the concept of 9 ‘symbols’ laid out on a river walk in the same manner as a planetary walk.

To make something that is inherently complex appear simple involves a great understanding of the subject matter coupled with a tremendous empathy with the audience – perhaps that is why this role of CSO may be highly valued but extremely difficult to fill.


Project Management in a Brave New World


by Frank Ryle, PMP

‘A physicist, a scientist and a mathematician were traveling on a train in Scotland and saw a black sheep in the distance. “Ah” says the physicist “all sheep in Scotland are black”. “Oh I beg to differ,” said the scientist “some sheep in Scotland are black”. “Oh really”’ said the mathematician “to my observation, in Scotland, there is one sheep of which one side is black”.

Which level of proof do you require on your projects? Do you have a tolerance for ambiguity? Is it shared by your sponsor? What exactly does Red, Amber or Green mean?

This article focuses on the difficulties of managing people and projects across functional areas, global regions and cultures and in particular on the lack of objectivity in the historical approaches offered by management theory. The article also looks forward towards a better world where the latest knowledge gained in science makes its way into the project management discipline.

The new thinking associated with the outputs of the ‘Decade of the Brain’ and ‘The Genome Project’ work is going beyond our previous, basic knowledge of human traits into a greater understanding of the role of genetic involvement in our behavior.

Virtually no behavior is determined by my genes but virtually all behavior is influenced by my genes” as Matt Ridley says in Nature via Nurture.

This new scientific information will enable us to move the proof available for behavior management theories in the soft skills areas of Project Management from the observation models of Myers Briggs, Belbin, Weinberg, Tuchman, Maslow, Hertzberg, McClelland and others towards a more objective and scientific foundation.

Much of the material in this article is based on the writings of Richard Dawkins, Robin Dunbar, Steve Jones, Matt Ridley, Robert Winston, Steven Pinker and many others as well as information from websites including the Genome project (see www.pmpulse.com for a full bibliography).

Perhaps, to paraphrase Steven Pinker in ‘The Language Instinct’ – “It is time for project management theories to submit to science.”

Therefore there are three cases to be made:

  • Case 1 – That significant and important discoveries have occurred in science in the last decade.
  • Case 2 – That a link can be made between these discoveries and areas of project management.
  • Case 3 – That there will be an impact on project management from these discoveries in the near future.

CASE 1 – That significant and important discoveries have occurred in science.

The Human Genome Project (HGP), completed in 2003, was a 13-year project coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

The project goals were to determine the complete sequence of the 3 billion DNA subunits (bases), identify all human genes (approx 23,000), and make them accessible for further biological study. They discovered that only 1.5% of these genes differentiate us from our nearest cousin, the chimpanzee and only 0.1% differentiates us from any other human on the planet.

This in turn has led to a huge increase in specific gene research and a corresponding increase in scientific and non-scientific articles relating to genetic aspects of behavior and instincts.

The ‘Decade of the Brain’ that ended in 2000 was initially seen as unsuccessful by those seeking immediate results. However the weekly outpouring of follow-up advances picked up pace in the last decade to the point where it is hard to open any serious newspaper today without reading of some new understanding of human behavior based on neurological research.


CASE 2 – That there is a link between these discoveries and areas of project management.

The PMBOK® Guide currently comprises 42 steps in a framework to manage a project. It neatly fuses 9 knowledge areas into 5 process groups to produce or deliver a unique product or result. It encompasses the human aspects of stakeholder expectations, skills, motivations, teaming, performance and rewards.  The PMBOK® uses key steps, tools and techniques to achieve this including, Initiation, Scope planning, Organization planning, Staff acquisition, Risk response planning, Risk management, and Team development.

Behavioral Management theories seek to identify, simplify and improve the efficiency of individuals and teams in delivering successful projects. In the last century this has typically been carried out by speculation followed by observation and surveys of individuals at work. This work is then translated into questionnaires that attempt to label and categorize the behavior patterns of individuals and teams.


A brief analysis of the various theories referenced in the training of Project Management include the following:

  • Motivation – Maslow, Hertzberg, McGregor, McClelland, Mayo
  • Team development – Tuchman/ Jensen, Belbin, Myers Briggs. Social styles, Bolton, Robert & Dorothy
  • Organizational Change Management – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, William Bridges

Some management theory has postulated that successful projects are delivered in two parts.

  1. Project Management (PM) is primarily concerned with delivering a product or service to bring about the pre-determined change.
  2. Organisational Change Management (OCM) is primarily concerned with the acceptance of the product or service. As projects become more global, complex, virtual and cross functional, more emphasis is being placed on teams and teamworking.

Belbin, Myers Briggs, DISC and others give ‘labels’ (e.g. chairman, plant, monitor-evaluator, resource investigator, completer-finisher, etc) to work styles or team roles. An understanding of these styles and roles is important to understanding team working and development. The recent discoveries from the Genome project allow us to ‘look behind’ the team role ‘labels’ to see the environment or needs that produced these classifications and the mechanism for their transfer to future generations. As discussed above, genes have played an important role in developing who we are including being the mechanism of transferring previous experiences from generation to generation. Greater knowledge of our genetic make up will enable us to improve our performance in these areas.


CASE 3 – That there will be an impact on project management from these discoveries in the near future.

The primary impacts of these scientific advances on our current lives are medical, legal and ethical. Current medical discoveries are focused in the field of single gene diseases (cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Tay Sachs.).

In project management the primary impacts will come from:

  • A greater awareness of what is to be human. Future genetic testing will allow us to know ourselves better. This will, in turn, enable us to more informed choices regarding career and job opportunities. Genetic information will help to reduce the reliance on psychometric testing as the means to establish compatibility with career, job or team membership,
  • Improved selection of team members. Currently we are faced with a multitude of observation type theories with corresponding questionnaires to assist team selection and development. We are a product of both the ingredients (nature) and the fertilizing (nurture) of our genes. Our genes are programmed to produce as well as respond to social behavior, mostly represented through changes in our brain chemicals. Soon we will have a better understanding and evaluation of Belbin’s team roles and Myers Briggs’s team styles. A simple genetic test will greatly simplify and vastly improve this process.
  • A more scientific understanding of motivation. Currently many theories from Maslow to McClelland seek to explain the intricacies of motivating an individual. However recent studies seem to suggest that motivation is related to a brain chemical called Dopamine that in turn is controlled by many genes including the D4DR gene on chromosome 11. A shortage of Dopamine causes indecisiveness, frozen personality and therefore has an impact on motivation.
  • Managing Stress in the workplace. Currently stress is not very well understood or managed on projects. Due to their temporary and unique nature, projects lend themselves to high stress situations. A better understanding of stress and an individual’s ability to cope with stress would be of great benefit to the project management community. We would need to understand the role of the hormone, Cortisol, in stressful situations. High stress produces Cortisol which reduces immunity. Happier people get fewer colds and people with low control over situations at work exhibit high stress levels (as this has the effect of lowering immune system).
  • Post genome sequencing. This is the evaluation of the 0.15% of genetic material, which varies between humans. It will enable us to understand the real differences in personalities and aid our understanding, particularly in global teams, of what unites us and what divides us. It will help us to overcome prejudice, perceptions and cultural misunderstandings.


In summary, we are on the verge of our own ‘Brave New World’ in Project Management. A greater reliance on science and objectivity will enable us to make more rational decisions and avoid the reliance on primitive, shortcut, gut thinking and decision making.

There will, of course, be healthy resistance to be managed and ethical issues to be resolved and the results need to speak for themselves.

Recently our world population has passed the 7 billion mark. Milestones often have the effect of asking us to reconsider the future based on our understanding of the past.

We are close to the day when neither I nor any team members are again labeled as an ‘INTJ’ any more than a ‘Capricorn’. When no one is judged by either the style of their handwriting nor the answers to a series of inane, multi choice questions.

 Frank Ryle, PMP is an author and Senior Trainer for International Institute for Learning, Inc. (IIL), and the author of Keeping Score: a 9 Step Approach to Managing Any ProjectHe has more than 20 years of engineering and international project management experience. He has trained over 12,000 professionals in more than 20 countries and has also taught PM to engineering students at Princeton since 2012. Frank’s unique approach to project management has been written up in Fast Company, Irish Times, and Business Insider.

How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!


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