The Invisible Lid

From the PMO Bytes Blog
The world of project management through the monocles of culture, design, business, technology, politics, social, education, philosophy and music.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Dog and Pony Show

Risky Business of Einstein

Hello Heisenberg!

Be A Good Patient

The Missing Piece

Categories: Culture

There is this popular flea experiment which was used by many authors and speakers to discuss topics like paradigms, limits, beliefs, and perceptions etc. If you have not heard of it, here is how it goes. 

In an experiment, a scientist placed a number of fleas in a glass jar. They quickly jumped out. He then put the fleas back into the jar and placed a glass lid over the top. The fleas began jumping and hitting the glass lid, falling back down into the jar. After a while, the fleas, conditioned to the presence of the glass lid, began jumping slightly below the glass lid so as not to hit it. The scientist then removed the glass lid as it was no longer needed to keep the fleas in the jar. The fleas have learned to limit themselves from jumping beyond the height of the lid even if the lid was removed as they have been conditioned to the fact that they cannot escape from the jar.

It occurs to me that we might be facing the same conundrum in the domain of project management. Recently, I have seen a number of discussions going on in forums and blog posts which asked questions similar to this – “Should we have more flexibility in our methodologies and processes?”

Isn’t this analogous to what we have just observed in the flea experiment? If we started off by allowing too much freedom, things will go chaotic. It is like putting the fleas in the jar without covering it with a lid, they will jump out and escape in no time. If we tighten the control and governance, people will start to learn and follow the rules just like the fleas that have learned not to jump beyond the height of the lid. Things may go well and in proper order for some time. However, if we do so, are we restricting the potential of individuals to go beyond their limits? Are we stopping them to be creative and adventurous? What will happen if we remove the lid now? Will they still stuck with the psychological invisible lid that hovers above them just like the fleas? People may get accustomed to their comfort zone and stopped challenging the status quo. Are we guilty of turning a good team into a legion of zombies that only follow instructions? We need to be cautious and take all these concerns into consideration when we impose control and governance in our operational processes. It is not just about control anymore. It is also about the kind of culture we want to foster in our team.

Do you have an invisible lid over your team?

Posted on: July 17, 2011 03:47 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item
Just came across this interesting HBR article Job Available: No Experience Preferred that shares the same thought regarding the problem of hiring people with experience. Below is the part I like most.

Dowling explains: "We''re in an industry that needs to change and re-examine almost every facet of how we do business. So people who have been trained and reinforced in the traditional ways of running hospitals and health system departments often don''t look at doing things in new and creative ways. They don''t challenge everything and ask tough questions.Instead they''re locked into the old paradigms. So the last thing we need is someone with that kind of ''experience.''"

There is a strong relationship between culture and control. Culture is, at least in one sense, control... a set of paradigms or constraints. For example, certain types of crime (chaotic behavior) are almost unknown in one cultural setting but common in another. Control is also culture--peer pressure, social hierarchies, criminal justice systems, the church, political systems, and the like.

Controls, however, are static things. Culture is living, changing, evolving... and not always in positive ways. Cultural DNA, much like human and animal DNA, is experimental. Some experiments fail and the culture either fails to survive or changes again in some other way. Other experiments succeed and are retained.

Controls do not halt cultural change. They can affect the speed or direction, but not the evolutionary juggernaut of cultural change. .

In projects as well as cultures, controls optimally exist at the minimum level required to mitigate risk. Any more and a glass lid slams shut. Any less and chaos overtakes us. A critical understanding in the process of defining controls is understanding the organizational culture in which the project operates. Project managers with an ability to understand cultural and its implications are more likely to manage controls successfully.


I love your interesting, and definitely thought provoking, depiction on the interplay between control and culture. It kept me musing for a while...

Very interesting perspective. Thank you!

Great discussion. Leadership and Culture go together. Project Manager as leaders must be able to wade through the sometimes murky culture of their organization. Leaders willing to be open and innovative will foster an organization that will thrive with up, down and across the organizational continuum.

Here's another perspective of the law of the lid from John's Maxwell's book "21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership". The law of the lid simply states that the strength of an organization can never rise higher than the ability of the leader of that organization. Simply put, if an organization is not growing and prospering, then the leader may in fact be the bottle neck that is stifling its growth. Mr. Maxwell states that "leadership ability is the lid that determines a person's level of effectiveness. The lower an individual's ability to lead, the lower the lid on his potential. The higher the individual's ability to lead, the higher the lid on his potential."

Article Source:

This story is the definition of the self fulfilling prophecy. The fleas probably knew up front that they could jump out but it only took a few leaps of faith getting beat down by outside forces to make them believe they couldn't. If people think they can't achieve they will succeed at not achieving. The good news is that the self fulfilling prophecy works both ways. If we help people to build their self confidence so they truly believe they can succeed then they will succeed.

Sam, agree on your point that the invisible lid can act in the positive direction. This reminds me of how we were taught on the technique to do Standing Board Jump. In order to do a good jump, always set an invisible mark a level beyond where you would normally land and push yourself to jump to that mark.

The invisible lid exists in every organisation there are sometimes too stringent methodologies and processes that could hinder progress and success leaving PM's feeling a little helpless - we need a good workable framework, a structure and methodologies and processes for Project Management - at least this way everyone knows what is expected when delivering projects, but, yes there is a but! individual creativity, laterall thinking is also expected some have it some dont! they will always follow the rules - the lid is only visible to those who may not have the courage to jump out of the jar the lid is after all invisible!

the popular video was a PS2 commercial by Sony. Not a real experiment. Good story though and if it helps someone achieve more then it gets the job done.

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics."

- Fletcher Knebel