Beyond Project Management

Dark matter is messing with your projects.

Photo of the Earth from lunar orbit.

I’ve come to understand that projects contain dark matter—unseen stuff that exerts a force on the things you can see (plans, budgets, and people), but is otherwise not directly observable. If you’ve ever thought to yourself: “We all saw that deadline coming at us like it was moving in slow-motion, so why did we miss it?”, “How come the client has a different definition of ‘done’ than the one we all agreed to?”, or “Our project roster hasn’t changed, so why is Project B suddenly being prioritized over Project A?”, then you’ve experienced dark matter’s influence. In hindsight, it’s easy to fire off a bullet-point explanation covering all the bases of what we swear we won’t do next time. But beneath the surface, why are projects constantly being nudged toward failure?

I’ve also come to believe this dark matter has fuelled my occasional bouts with Impostor Syndrome—it drives the sense that something is going on just beyond my comprehension, that I should already know what to do about it, and that I’m ill-equipped to manage the situation. My project management education definitely has gaps, so I thought that addressing these weak spots might help me to better understand dark matter and continue to grow as a PM.

Unknown unknowns

I started my search by looking into certification programs. We recently did a two-day course at my workplace on Agile methodologies and how to apply them, so becoming a certified professional Scrum master seemed like it might be a good fit. I also looked into working toward my Project Management Professional certification, with the hope of getting a better understanding of well-worn best practices. But I think both approaches would have left me somewhat unfulfilled. I already knew what I didn’t know—I was itching to find out what I didn’t know I didn’t know. I needed a less traditional approach to get me moving in the right direction.

I decided to sign up for Beyond Project Management—a one-day course offered by Pyxis Technologies in Vancouver. I wasn’t sure what to expect since the course outline and related materials included things I had either never heard of before or didn’t typically associate with project management—the power of intention, Integral Theory, Zig Ziglar. But if I was going to learn more about dark matter, looking... beyond project management sounded like a good place to start.

Over the course of the day, the facilitators guided the class of seven participants through a series of exercises and discussions. I was surprised at how skillfully they created a comfortable space that made it easy for people to share personal challenges. By the end of the day, two central themes started to emerge for me:

  1. People are hard.
  2. Working on tasks isn’t the same thing as working with intent.

Meaningful specifics vs wandering generalities

We can never really know what drives another person to do the things they do. In fact, they might not even truly understand their own motivations—their personal dark matter. But for the purposes of coordinating a group of people, it’s possible to create a more inclusive, engaging, and ultimately more successful process simply by paying attention to your teammates. Who are the introverts? The extroverts? Who’s reacting to why they’re doing certain work? Who’s orienting toward what the tasks are or how the work will be carried out? We don’t need to see this dark matter, but if we’re aware of its presence and sensitive to how it exerts its influence, we can accommodate it.

Turning inward, how much of what we do is driven by clear intent versus a desire to make sure every to-do gets done? As project managers, we take care of people, and often that means doing whatever it takes. But sometimes our interventions can be too much of a good thing, and other areas suffer. How many of our daily tasks can be tied to a specific goal? Is every step of our various processes in direct service to a specific and meaningful intent? Hazy to-do lists and an unquestioning reliance on process are indications of dark matter. A clear intent cuts a straight line through the fog toward what’s most important.

Next steps

In terms of specifics, here are the top 3 things I’m trying to focus on since completing the course:

  1. Be intention-driven rather than task-driven. Map out clear, overarching intentions and let those dictate my priorities, rather than Slack or email.
  2. Be more people-driven than process-driven. Re-examine processes to cut out anything that isn’t tied to a clear intent, and give the introverts (like me) the time and space they need to prepare for meetings.
  3. Breathe. None of the above is going to be helpful if I’m stressed out. A quick breathing exercise helps to expand awareness from the small scale of the issue at hand out to the big picture, where meaningful solutions can be found.

I won’t pretend that a one-day course has prepared me completely for the challenges of navigating dark matter when managing projects. But I’m now much more aware of how to look for it, and I’m equipped with some basic techniques for what to do when I feel that little nudge toward failure.