Project Management

Project Work: The Art of Orchestrating

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Categories: standards

by: Klaus Nielsen, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member



Having dabbled with musical instruments, I remember hearing Walter Murphy’s disco version of The Fifth of Beethoven which spurred a whole collection of up-tempo classic works like the Hooked on Classics compilation. All of these recordings took the notes and rhythms of the classical pieces and updated them for a different sound. And properly guiding the orchestration was key to synchronizing the various instruments with the new beat.

Project work is about orchestrating the range of project activities in such a way that the team aligns to produce the desired result. The conductor does not control the musicians or performers. Instead, that role cues individuals so they know their part is coming up, seamlessly integrates them into the current movement, and signals when some players can conclude their part and rest for a bit.

In a project environment, the project manager, team lead, or other “conducting” role keeps the focus on the sheet of music that links the project team together. Team members know their individual parts and look to the conductor to guide the interfaces within the team, between the team and other parts of the organization, and among the project stakeholders. The conductor ensures the team has or secures the necessary resources to keep the musical score on track, such as stands to hold the sheet music, clips to keep the music in place, lighting at the right levels for reading, etc. The conductor is constantly listening to the team—individually and collectively—to ensure that everyone is playing at the right pace and seamlessly helps the team adapt and recover when the harmony and melody are no longer in synch. Throughout the performance, the conductor and the team learn together to improve the next movement or piece that follows.

It is important to note in this analogy that the conductor is not above the team but rather performs a critical role within the team. There are countless videos on YouTube showing what can happen when a random group of individuals try to make music without any organizing force and how that ability changes once a conductor joins the group. The conductor is always listening to and sensing how the performance is advancing. This involves taking the pulse of not just the musicians but also the audience to discern how they are responding to the music. The conductor has a position from which to spot possible pivot points to keep the performance on track. The conductor also understands the work that is coming in the next movement and prepares the team to seamlessly make the shift.

With a large, multi-instrument orchestra, having a formal conductor may represent the best way to organize and structure the team effort to produce harmonious music. But there are often instances where teams come together without any previous rehearsals or practice sessions and find a way to make music together. Many jazz artists can improvise music on the spot with other musicians. One of the players “conducts” by setting the melody. The other band members pick up the beat, and then they all adapt with each other as they play. When major shifts occur, they use calls-outs and other mechanisms to signal the shift so the rest of the band can follow. If one or two musicians need a break, the rest of the band can keep playing without disruption. Thus, the mechanisms and tools for conducting can be highly structured and formal or light enough to keep all of the musicians aligned.

To make the orchestra or the jazz band function effectively, the musicians needs to understand and appreciate each other’s role in achieving the end result. They need a common musical score or initiating beat that sets the path forward. They use language, signals, and other mechanisms to keep the work on track and adapt to changing circumstances. They learn together so they improve individually and as a team. And after each performance, they reflect on where they are now, how much they have accomplished, and what lies ahead.

The PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition is organized around eight Project Performance Domains, which are a group of related activities that are critical for the effective delivery of project outcomes. Project Performance Domains are interactive, interrelated, and interdependent areas of focus that work in unison to achieve desired project outcomes, just like making marvelous music.

The Project Work Performance Domain focuses on facilitating the production of fantastic music (project deliverables). It includes the work necessary to support the performers as illustrated above in creating music (products, services, results), and achieving beautiful music (the ultimate outcomes of the project). Project work keeps the team focused and project activities running smoothly—without it, no harmony.

Daily, musicians practice their instruments for many hours, they sometimes teach, and now and then play a concert. Their performance runs continuously throughout the year, just like work throughout a project life cycle. Some musicians might be more experienced than others at aspects of their craft; however, all work to create a unified whole, which is what a performance is all about.

I hope you now understand why I think project work is a Project Performance Domain. Let’s turn the music on and the volume to maximum, and let’s perform the project work as a high-performing team.

Posted by Laura Schofield on: April 07, 2020 01:06 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Taking the analogy one step further, perhaps there should also be a concept of "auditioning" for a project before one is allowed to join to make sure the person is sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled, e.g. via training or prior work experience.

Great example

Great analogy.

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