About the Uselessness of Projects …

Many years (decades) ago, a well-loved colleague of mine (in those days he was still some kind of “construction chief/department head”) defined the new term “project” in an introductory presentation on the topic “Project Management” as follows:

“Every project has a beginning and an end. The goal is precisely defined. It is the task to reach the desired goal exactly in the frame defined for “time and material.”

In those days, nobody called anything or anyone  “project” or “project manager”. There were tasks and duties we had to fulfil and functions we had to build. We were developers in a team playing various roles in one person: planner, architect, tester, programmer and manual writer.

I was fascinated by the new term “project”. This was not just because I am easily inflammable, but also because it does sound reasonable, doesn’t it? Today, I no longer agree. Take for example my life. According to the aforementioned definition, it is also a project, isn’t it? My birth is the starting point. And there is a clearly defined end: my death. Basically, I entered this world in order to leave it again.

So what is the goal of my project “life”? It cannot be the end of my life, my death, can it? The only goal imaginable is to give meaning to my life – that is the time between my birth and my death. But what meaning?

As I see it, the meaning of my life is to do the right thing most often and to not do the wrong thing.

Isn’t more or less the same true for entrepreneurs? Or even countries and other social systems?

As a general rule, social systems are just temporary constructs. They develop, change and disappear again. Most of the enterprises I saw in my sector had a life span that was considerably shorter than a human life should be.

I only know very few enterprises that survived several generations. And now they are the ones who are most seriously in danger of dying, because they can or will (?) not adapt to the changes to the necessary degree. The only social system I can think of that has survived longer (two millennia) is the Catholic Church. Well, it sells a special product: belief. However, I can easily imagine that here, too, the success story will at some time in the future come to an end. Without humanity being extinguished.

Projects happen in social systems.

The sum of all projects will be swallowed by the evolution of a social system. They can be either part of a continuous improvement, or part of a downward spiral. In order to reduce complexity, the projects of a social system are separated from the context of the entire system. This seems to make it easier. However, due to the isolation, it causes the reaction time to changes in the system to increase.

So what is the consequence? We have to behave “sensibly” as far as our possibilities and frameworks in our real environment allow it. This is where projects are sub-optimal, because they limit you to a pre-defined combination of situation and goal, often totally randomly set.

This means we have to open and improve our perspective and learn to distinguish between what is good and what is evil. It is the only way for us to orientate ourselves in a reality we are confronted with both internally and externally in the system. This is a general truth applying to all humans who are willing to take responsibility in an enterprise or social system. I mean humans who actually want to change and shape the future.

Well, if you look upon it in this way, the projects lead us astray. Life is not about defining a goal and then reaching it. Actual goals and projects always need to be questioned. For instance, it can be a good project result if a project is terminated. To put it plainly: “You do not want to throw good money after bad”. Well, this is only an example.

Instead, what we should do is approach the future iteratively. We should experiment with creativity and fantasy. We should try things, take mistakes as experiences and try again. Because, basically, we cannot plan or mechanically control the world and our social systems.

This is what the suddenly appearing and then radically utilized use of fossil energy in the 19th and 20th centuries suggested. Which led towards the belief that humans are omnipotent and all problems can be solved mechanically. Technology and planning became the belief of the future.

We now live in the 21st century. The last millennium is definitely over. Our dream of using energy at will and for free and without negative consequences for our biosphere is over. To be sure, the mechanists and technologists among us still dream of an endless source of energy at zero cost, but even if – against expectations – such a scenario should come to be, there is no way back to the dream world of past times.

Consequently, we have to radically question all our prejudices and dogmata, along with our habits and what we consider self-evident. We have to try to draw prudent and correct conclusions from these questions. This process might be extremely painful. A lot of courage and greatness will be necessary in order to manage the necessary “turn over” and to integrate ourselves into the already beginning transformation in a halfway acceptable way. In the world, in our society, in our enterprises, in our projects and in our lives.

(Translated by EG)

A short time ago, I published an article that is a little more “down to earth” in Change in Management (Wandel im Management).

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