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Space Rockets and Kinky Boots

“Kinky Boots” is not an expression one uses very often in the context of project management. In fact, I would be surprised if this article isn’t the first in the history of Project Management to use it at all, let alone offer it as an example that brightly illuminates the fundamental reason for the cultural difference that exists between organisations delivering projects, and those that do not.

Lest you start to think that I have finally lost my feeble grip on reality, I should point out that it is the 2006 film of the same name to which I refer, and not to any particular personal tastes of mine.

The film tells the true story of a family-owned business that manufactures lady’s shoes and the main character is the incoming MD who takes over the reins from his father. His arrival in the boardroom coincides with a severe downturn in the profitability of the factory and redundancies threaten. Unable to cope with the emotional trauma involved in dismissing workers with whom he has known since childhood, he desperately seeks alternatives. The niche market he identifies is the supply of oversized lady’s shoes to transvestites and …. well you can guess the rest.

The fundamental point of interest here is the action of the new MD. It is often only in times of peril, when woeful decisions are forced on us, that we truly realise our own priorities. In such circumstances we learn that the MD’s priority is the survival of the workforce. He is prepared to change the product and he is prepared to change his customers but he is not prepared to allow the demise of his organisation.

Contrast this behaviour with that of another real-life character who has recently graced the screen, though in this case the small screen. BBC2’s recent series “Space Race” chartered the exploits of those pioneers in both Russia and the USA who toiled to be the first to put a man on the moon. The team that triumphed in this, the most iconic and definitive projects of the 20th century, was led by Von Braun. The series eloquently testifies to the genius of this remarkable engineer though it is left to a postscript amongst the final credits to reveal that he actually left NASA in 1974, by his own volition. Why should he do this? Well, quite simply, because there was no immediate prospect of another project to rival the moon-shot.

He was not asked to leave and it is inconceivable to think that he would not have been offered anything other than the most benevolent of employment terms by NASA, but he rejected them. For him the organisation was of no consequence. He was simply interested in the product of his work: the outcome of his project.

The purpose of our work defines our approach to it and in these two men we see the embodiment of very different examples. In the first everything, even the product of their labours, are sacrificed or changed to defend the essential purpose – the survival of the organisation. In the latter it is the delivery of a specific product, or satisfaction of an endeavour, that is the purpose. The existence of an organisation is of consequence only insofar as it supports this: it will deliver and disband.

In the first instance the organisation strives to ensure its survival. In the latter it strives to do away with the only reason for its existence.

These two imperatives represent different perspectives: but perspectives on what? Well, quite simply and fundamentally, it is the perspective on why the organisation exists, and within the perspectives of our two heroes, we have polemic extremes.

Consideration of polemic extremes within organisations, and by it, all categories in-between is not unusual. Indeed the APM BOK invites consideration of the two organisational structures of a “Functional Organisation” and a “Project Organisation”, also referred to as a “Taskforce”. These idealised structures are primarily concerned with the organisation of the workforce and whether they should be grouped into departments on the basis of the function or operation they perform (a verb), or alternatively on the basis of the product or task they work upon (a noun). It is further suggested that real organisations are a blend of the two differing types but tend towards one or other of the extremes. Get the right blend, and you get your ideal structure. It is this blend that defines the concept of a “matrix organisation” and, further, that the proximity of any individual organisation to each of the extremes determines what type of matrix it is: a balanced, weak, or strong matrix. Sadly, it is also this blend that gives rise to the complexity, confusion and discord that characterises the reality of life within such organisations.

Consideration of these structural differences is important, but perhaps it understates the case. Perhaps the differing structural models are not the cause of such discord and confusion, but are a symptom of a more fundamental difference: and that difference is the different perspectives of Von Braun and our illustrious MD. The perspectives on why the organisation exists!

Perhaps these two perspectives have provided a foundation upon which differing cultures have established and flourished and perhaps both these cultures, to differing extents, exist within every organisation.

Perhaps it is worth considering some of our problems in this light. Should we engage contractors or employees? Should we offer completion bonuses rather than career prospects? Should we enhance travel and subsistence allowances rather than pension provision?

Within matrix structures perhaps it is a fault line between differing cultures that a Project Manager must stand astride rather than any notional structural ambiguities.

And if this is the case, and our problems stem from cultural clashes, where is the solution? Is it realistic to believe that opposing cultures can simply be blended to form a perfect alloy?

Is it conceivable that Von Braun and our MD, somehow can be interbred to form the perfect manager?

Is this the only solution we have to inter-cultural problems? Or is there another way?

 

J.A.Taggart 2006

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Article – Space Rockets and Kinky Boots