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Here is a shameless plug for a public two day Agile Project Management course I will be teaching on February 22-23 in Calgary, Alberta. Today Julien leads an independent IT consultancy, providing IT and project management advisory to leaders in the IT industry. Last week I attended an excellent presentation on “Right-Brain Project Management” by Dr Michael Aucoin.
In these circumstances the old project management approaches that are good for predictable projects break down.
Why Does Project Management Fail?Many people are frustrated by the mismatch between project management theory and its application on real-life projects.
Yet, in many walks of life outside of project management, people succeed in unpredictable environments everyday. 1 Mismatched project model and environmentFamiliar and predictable projects can use a roadmap approach to determine what to do, following a known plan. 2) Projects lack emotional involvementWe are often uncomfortable talking about bringing emotions into the workplace. We need to feel passionate about issues to fully engage all of our creativity in solving problems. We do not need the transcendental emotional maturity of the Dalia Lama, but instead just the experience to be comfortable with not knowing all the details, and when we encounter conflict, the fortitude to step-up and work through it.
The Right Brain Dr Aucoin went on to summarize the classic Left Brain and Right Brain division of duties and roles.
An illustration of the right brain role in decision making was given using the story of “Elliot”; a successful attorney who underwent surgery on the right side of the brain to remove a tumor. Right Brain to the RescueJust as stretch projects break the defined, predictable guidance of traditional, logical, left brain dominated project management; right brained techniques engage the adaptability skills that doctors, teachers and farmers employ to be successful with unpredictable situations.
Bright brained approaches are not a replacement for logical, analytical, left brained defined approaches, but instead complement these techniques with tools for handling ambiguity.
1) Find the compelling purpose – When we really want to do something, we will overcome any obstacle. 2) Make sense of the project – At the beginning of a stretch project, we often have a vague idea of where we are going. 3) Experiment and adapt – When the path is ambiguous, it is counterproductive to expect to develop and follow a detailed plan. 5) Develop and deliver trust – Agile techniques demand that we slash bureaucracy and expect all team members to take leadership roles appropriately. 6) Improvise within the project framework - The stretch project requires us to develop new approaches to problems, but we must always operate within the framework of the compelling purpose and good team and customer service practices. 7) Leave a legacy – If a conventional project fulfills objectives, the right brain project seeks to leave a lasting, positive legacy. Links to Agile and Leadership ModelsWhile these techniques match the agile concepts of progressive experimentation and adaptation. Another valuable insight is the recognition that failed traditional approaches create personal challenges for project managers.

This personal turmoil felt by traditional managers is the self-doubt Dr Aucoin describes due to relying only on traditional, left brain focused approaches for today’s stretch projects.
So, for me, the Left Brain, Right Brain concept was an interesting angle, but the main learning was in an alternative management model. I’ve ordered the “Right Brain Project Management Book” and will post on any additional insights I extract as I read it.
It is an intensive, practical based, small group class that covers the full lifecycle of managing agile projects in the real world.
It employs proven adult learning techniques and a visual learning style to bring the topics to life and help them stick in your mind. The course looks at why there is a growing trend towards using agile approaches and how to ensure you give your project the greatest chance at successful delivery.
I attend lots of presentations during the course of a year, mainly at North America events but a sprinkling of international conferences too, and few presentations stand out as being excellent. Well it outlined a parallel view of project management that supports and reinforces agile leadership and fills in some gaps along the way. He defined a Stretch project as a project that causes traditional project management challenges. Michael did not use the words Traditional and Agile, but he might as well have been giving an agile presentation because through his research he had arrived at the same conclusions, but interestingly, offered additional insights.
This is due largely to trying to employ approaches designed for predictable projects on today’s Stretch projects and seeing them come up short. Doctors, farmers, and teachers all work in difficult to predict environments yet, on the whole, are successful. However, stretch projects often have a lot of ambiguity as if parts of the map are missing and we may not even know if the destination exists or is possible. As Stephen Covey states “We are in a knowledge age, yet most of our management principles are from an industrial age”. Nothing will stop a group of people achieving what they really want to do – they will exhibit extraordinary motivation and overcome almost any obstacle to meet goals they have strong emotional feelings for. When we try to get something achieved and it does not happen, for whatever reason, we feel bad about ourselves.
What was interesting for me was to learn that while the left brain deals with logic, facts, analysis, and sequential processes it is largely incapable of making decisions based on these facts.
While he was able to function normally in many respects, he could no longer make even simple decisions and suffered emotionally too. We must first explore the project environment and make sense of it before we can exploit it.
The ultimate deliverable is a good emotional memory – smiles on the faces of all who are involved with the project and its product. In particular I like the idea of starting the project by finding the compelling purpose rather than trying to find purpose within the project once it is going. They don’t work so well and since people are doing all they know how and still failing, they feel bad.

I think it complements the existing agile and leadership models and adds validation to why these other skills are important too. The course is accompanied by a comprehensive workbook and a CD of tools, templates and resources. You will learn how to set up the project with solid foundations, engage stakeholders with clear expectations of their role in the project and guide the team to success. This one was exceptional from the content (that connected some loose ends in my Agile-Leadership-Project Management mental model) to the materials and delivery. Decisions are made in the right brain along with all the emotions, concepts and metaphors, discovery of new patterns, and synthesis of ideas. To find the compelling purpose, keep asking “why an objective is important” until an answer that resonates with our core principles is found.
As PM’s it is important to identify what the project is really about before we start planning. As PM’s we should demonstrate and encourage experimentation and adaptation within the project. As PM’s we need to create an environment of trust so people know it is safe to fully contribute and not hold-back. It allows us to explore the reasons and motivations behind the stakeholder’s requests and flows into the “Make sense of the project” step. He highlighted the phenomenon that many managers suffer the personal turmoil of feeling a fraud as they struggle to apply traditional management approaches and fail. The solution is to engage in more emotional, synthesis and meaning-focused activities that are the domain of the right brain. One mistakes causes a lot of emotional problem to some of our employees, especially those who are in charge of the project. As PM’s we need to find why the project is so important that we will get people volunteering to work on it. 4) Create the new reality – Stretch projects require a high degree of creativity, not only in the professional domain, but in solving interactional issues among group members. This conscious search for sense before making plans accepts the vagueness in early projects and embraces the futility of detailed plans made too soon. Mastering these self-doubts and learning to accept ambiguity is a fundamental part of our human journey. As PM’s we need to engage the creative side of our team to tap into their full drive and overcome project challenges be them technical, HR, or business. The Sydney Opera House was 9 years last and 14 times over budget – a failure from a left brain project view, but a huge asset for Sydney that has a very positive emotional legacy. Rather than moving to planning too early, a focus on motivation and meaning is a great use for early project time.

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