Integral Theory and Project Management (tenet #3)

This series of posts take the Ken Wilber’s introduction to Integral Theory called A Brief History of Everything and discusses the 20 tenets concerning the concept of a holon and how they can be applied to the field of project management. This post covers tenet #3.

A holon is an entity which consists of components, and yet is itself a component of a larger whole. The reason for the introduction of the concept is that bridges the philosophical divide between those who think that reality is composed of isolated units (atomism) and those who think that it is composed of a large web of interconnected parts). The first two tenets are as follows:

1. Reality as a whole is not composed of things or processes, but of holons.

2. Holons display four fundamental capacities: The horizontal capacities of self-preservation, self-adaptation, and the vertical capacities of self-transcendence and self-dissolution.

To those two tenets discussed in posts from the previous two Sundays, I add the third tenet.

3. Holons emerge

The self-transcendent capacity of holons is a vertical drive, meaning that holons have an innate capacity to organize into a larger holon. Atoms organize into molecules, which organize into cells, etc. But the larger holon (larger in the sense of complexity, and not just in terms of size) not only comprises the smaller holons within it, but adds to it the emergent properties that come from the interactions between them. Molecules can form chemical compounds that form reactions that do not occur between isolated atoms, and cells can participate in biological functions such as reproduction that do not occur between isolated molecules.

What does this have to do with project management? A group of interconnected projects is organized into a program, and a group of projects and programs that achieve the same overall strategic goals is organized into a portfolio.

The program and portfolio manager deal with problems that differ not only in degree but also in kind from the project manager. A project manager needs to report to these managers in such a way that their needs are met as well.

To repeat an example from the previous post in the series, a project manager who tries to get the cost and schedule performance index as high as high as possible should realize that from a program manager’s standpoint, too high of an index is not desirable either. This would mean that the project manager used less resources than he or she was given to work with in the schedule and budget, which would seem like a good thing. But if too many resources pile up unused, the program manager will want to use those resources for the other projects in his or her portfolio, and may see these unused resources as a waste. So releasing unused resources to the program and the company as a whole should be in the back of a project manager’s mind as well as the more usual consideration of not wanting to use more resources than originally given by the program manager.

Going in the downward direction instead of upward, the same principle applies. A project is more than the sum of the people working on it; they must function as a team. This means that creative solutions to a problem will be sparked between members with different perspectives that would not have occurred of the members had thought about the problem individually.

The project manager must reconcile competing ideas, or allocate project resources between members that come from different departments, and who therefore will have different perspectives. A blogger I know named Driftglass once described during a podcast a situation in a company he used to work for in the IT department. The software engineers who wrote the initial programming code would always try to get their code written before the deadline so they would appear as heroes in the organization as a whole. The only problem was with the next group of engineers who would have to patch together the code into a coherent system only to find it laden with bugs and errors that took so much time to correct that they would regularly blow past deadlines. This brought them negative attention from management. “Why can’t you be more like that first group of engineers? They always make their deadlines; why can’t you?” They gave incentives to the first group, and penalized the second group. This incentivized the first group to create code in an even more hurried and slapdash fashion on the next project, and of course the beleaguered second group had increasing problems of morale. This blogger said that the project manager was clueless as to the real reason for their delays, and just thought they were making excuses. The project manager did not understand the interaction between the phases of the project work, and thus failed in managing the project as a whole, which should be a set up as a non-zero-sum game of its members. The wins of one team member or group of members should never come at the expense of others.

The final example comes at the enterprise level. I read in a post by Yves Smith in her blog Naked Capitalism about a hedge fund manager who became the CEO of Sears. Because of his ideology inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand, he had a preconception that “capitalism = competition”, and so thought that his departments should compete against each other for the company’s resources. This management model has proved disastrous for Sears as their plummeting sales have demonstrated. Using the concept if a holon, you can see that a firm like Sears is a part of a larger whole consisting of other similar firms. They do indeed compete with each other and that competition does form one of the ingredients of a capitalist economy.

However, the firm is also at the same time a whole which consists of parts called departments. These must cooperate, not compete with each other, if the firm is to survive. What is happening now is that the mental energy of those in the departments is spent not on fighting the competition, but in fighting each other. The end result is that Sears is losing to the competition which consists of firms that are not embroiled to the same extent in infighting.

So holons at the same horizontal level that cooperate may allow the holons at the next highest level to be stronger in their competition. This is easy to see in the realm of biology where prey can gain survival advantage over stronger predators by cooperating in groups, where they would have no chance to win again the predator on a one-to-one basis.

For that reason the project must always look at the project as a whole, and must always remember that the project is simultaneously a part of a larger whole, the organization which is sponsoring he project. Only by holding these two aspects simultaneously in one’s mind as a project manager can you balance the combination of cooperation and competition that is the truer picture of the life of an organization than a simplistic ideology of pure competition that exists nowhere but in the pages of a novel.


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