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Leading Between the Bars
The Art of Managing Messy Projects

Lon Roberts, Ph.D. and Sharon Roberts
15 August 2013

7th Annual UT Dallas Project Management Symposium
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Presentation Abstract

This presentation challenges project managers to examine and perhaps reframe their outlook on the way projects are planned and executed in view of the fact that contemporary projects are increasingly reliant on human factors—a complex set of interacting factors that often defy logic as well as conventional command and control measures.  Projects such as these are aptly characterized as “messes”—to adopt the label used by the late Russell Ackoff to characterize situations that involve complicated and often delicate human interactions.  While projects have gotten increasingly messier in recent years, as the presenters point out from compelling case examples, this condition is not new.  Nevertheless, these lessons have largely been ignored, much to the detriment of project management as a profession.  Using the Gantt chart as a metaphor, the presenters argue that due to the lingering influence of Taylorism, the profession has focused almost exclusively on the foreground—i.e., the minute details associated with the bars on the chart—while largely ignoring the background—i.e., the critical “white space” between the bars where the human drama of the project is played out.  The presenters also offer a set of empirically-based tenets for project leaders who are interested in creating an environment that fosters and exploits the dynamics of messy projects.

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