There Are Projects and There Are Internet Projects

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - Jim Highsmith is a senior consultant at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Massachusetts, and authorof Adaptive Software Development: A Collaborative Approach to ManagingComplex Systems (Dorset House, 2000).

Author and consultant Jim Highsmith has been looking at project management in Internet environments and he says it's a different species. He says a traditional project is planned, disciplined and measured, while an Internet project is improvised, creative and evolutionary. As a result, the Internet project manager is a different animal altogether, Highsmith tells Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka in this interview.

CW: Why do we need to talk about Internet project management separately?

Highsmith: I differentiate between traditional projects, which are very complicated, and new-style projects, which I characterize as complex: high speed, high change and high uncertainty.

CW: High uncertainty?

Highsmith: We don't know exactly where we're going, but we know we have to get there quickly, and we know things will change a lot.

CW: And different skills are needed for these different types of projects?

Highsmith: Traditional projects are characterized by optimizing. They're well planned, have strict processes and can be measured. They grew up in a command/control culture. The complex project world is more adaptive. You have to learn how to be flexible, how to improvise - and you can't get too hung up on measurements and process.

CW: So a good traditional project manager might not do well in a complex project?

Highsmith: In terms of basic personality types, there are people who go toward one side or the other. Some like things planned, they like to work within a fairly rigorous structure, they like to know what they'll be doing tomorrow, and there's a whole set of project management skills and abilities built around that. A whole other set is built around being more adaptive.

CW: What are the characteristics of people who would be likely to succeed in Internet projects?

Highsmith: They have the ability to collaborate, to facilitate group interaction toward some goal. They aren't so much task-oriented as they're able to say, "We have a goal, and somehow we have to solve this problem to come up with what we've got to do." Facilitation is more important, because they can't tell each person in the group what to do because they don't know what to do.

They have agility and improvisational skills - as in a jazz band. They need the ability to improvise, change direction a little bit, but keeping basic fundamentals of values and mission - just as a jazz band improvises around a few basic rules.

CW: What sorts of fundamentals?

Highsmith: They have to have some idea of the direction and the business goals for the project, even though they don't know exactly what the project will turn out to be. It's more of a direction and a set of boundaries and constraints, as opposed to a plan that says specifically what they'll do.

CW: Any other important traits?

Highsmith: The ability to let go - to truly delegate a decision framework to somebody else. It's hard enough to empower employees in the next cube, but to empower somebody halfway around the world as part of your team takes a leap of faith.

CW: Why can't the project manager just make the decisions?

Highsmith: You can do that with six or eight people, but how do you do that in a large project team of several hundred people across time and space? Those are the kinds of challenges we have to face in the Internet era.

CW: How do you identify a person who can do that?

Highsmith: The skill is more influencing than controlling - influencing what's going on because you don't have the same control you used to have. The basic trait is the ability to say, "I don't have to be in control" in the traditional sense of making the decision. Just because you lay out a project plan doesn't mean we can actually do that. In the traditional world, which was slower, we could actually control things. In this new world, we aren't in control.

CW: So what happens to a traditional project manager in an Internet-style project?

Highsmith: A traditional project manager might go nuts, and the people who have been working for a traditional project manager might, too. They come and say, "What do I do next?" They want a task list. Here, all they have is an end goal and they go nuts.

CW: It sounds like the old project manager was a craftsman and this new kind is an artist.

Highsmith: Well, managing in this environment is much more difficult. It's more about creating the right kind of environment than creating a task list. You have to have an innate belief that creating the right environment will create results, even though you don't know how to get where you're going.

CW: And I'll bet creating that environment isn't easy.

Highsmith: You have to hold a creative tension, and that's an uncomfortable place for a lot of people to be. It's hard for the project manager because you don't want the group to be comatose and you don't want them to be psychotic.

Creative tension is in the middle, and it's a fairly narrow place. It's the zone where you work together well, create good ideas, innovate. But the optimizing tendencies of traditional project managers can, if taken too far, destroy that kind of environment.

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