by Eirik Hetland Soleglad - Project Manager and Service Manager for Corporate Governance
| minute read

While project management is based on industrialisation and mass production, agile is very much about solving problems by trial and error - as humans have always done. Can we do both? 

Thinking like rivers  

In his 2,500-year-old strategy manual ‘The Art of War’, Sun Tzu argues that just as a river adapts to the topography and takes twists and turns on its way to the sea, a general must similarly adapt to gain the upper hand. In order to stay on course, you have to change direction from time to time. This is agile methodology in 300 BC. History is full of problem solving based on iteration; whether testing sun stones or making compass needles with magnetic stones, the goal was not to invent the compass, but to cross the ocean. The goal was not to build the aeroplane, but to see the world from the air. 

Our history is about trial and error  

A good example of natural problem solving is Europe after the Black Death, where agriculture was transformed as a result of dramatically changing conditions. The population was more than halved in some places, and the ‘little ice age’ with its colder and wilder climate hit Europe. So farmers tested ideas and scaled up the solutions that worked for their time and needs. They emerged from the Middle Ages with a stronger position, increased trust in each other, great problem-solving ability, and growing scepticism towards central power (and religion).   
It is tempting to say that strong governance held back innovation in agriculture for hundreds of years, and that it was only when farmers were faced with both a crisis and great freedom that their problem-solving power was unleashed. 

Have we put a foreign word on natural problem solving?  

Instead of doing an agile maturity analysis of your workplace, let's think about a group of farmers in France in 1370 who have to figure out how to farm under dramatically different conditions. How do you think they would score on agile principles? Acceptance, ability and willingness to test different solutions in response to the problem? Teamwork skills? Ease of communication? Adaptability?   
To put it bluntly: Is it possible that the French peasants of 1370 were more suited to problem solving than an average Norwegian business? 

How did it come to this? 

The short answer is the industrial society. The Gantt chart was developed to streamline routine operations in industry. The logistical problems of mass production during World War II gave us the work breakdown structure (WBS). From this, the discipline of project management emerged, and was adopted by new industries - in Norway especially in our emerging petroleum industry. Today, the project is a temporary organisation that is committed to delivering a known result, within a well-known framework, governed by a business management team with clear expectations. 

The project management discipline is based on challenges where the problem is already solved 

The essence of the project management profession is not to try something new - but to streamline what we already know. A successful organisation has solved its problem. When agile is difficult, then perhaps is it so because our management rig is not designed for problem solving. We're not enjoying the freedom we've previously had to solve problems through testing. I want to do something completely new, but you ask me when the milestones are, when I'm done, what it will cost, and what you'll get back for your investment.   
This is good governance. But nobody solves problems under these conditions.  
This means that when you want to work agile, you run into 100-year-old invisible walls in your business. You can't install a culture of problem solving. It's not your fault, but you're used to thinking that it's the tool, not the framework, that solves the problem. Taking scrum master courses and using kanban boards doesn't help much when your management framework looks more like Henry Ford's factory than Leonardo da Vinci's workshop.   
You're rigged for mass production, not for building a helicopter in your backyard. 

What should we do then?  

How do we open the door to more agile thinking, when your business isn't set up to think that way?  
Firstly, we need to recognise the need for coexistence. Most of our organisations have frameworks that limit our curiosity, and for good reason. Because we appreciate that we have predictable organisations. Our democracy is based on trust in a predictable public sector. Shareholders cannot live off gambling. Once this understanding is in place, you can get to work.   
The next step is unlearning. The management culture you've had hammered into your spinal cord by every single employer you've ever had, doesn't mind being shaken up a bit. It's not an either-or situation; we need both a framework for management and the freedom to experiment. Where can we start tinkering with the management framework?  
And then it's easier to take small steps. From balanced scorecards to OKRs. From rigid budget processes to Beyond budgeting. From milestones to outcomes. Because many small streams make a big river - and the more we learn to think like rivers, the easier it is to find our way to the goal through the terrain.  

Just like we've always done! 



Related content

Sopra Steria Next adds Copilot for Microsoft 365 counsel and training to drive generative AI rollout for companies

Sopra Steria Next harnesses the arrival of Copilot for Microsoft 365 to speed up the adoption of generative artificial intelligence. 

Sopra Steria commits to the fight against information manipulation

Sopra Steria is sharing its advances in terms of fight against information manipulation, the fight against cyber-influence and information warfare, and formalises the Pégase think tank.  

The industrial metaverse, a real lever for transforming our industries

The first stages of the journey towards the industrial metaverse must begin now, to transform our industry into a smart industry.