Stages, Phases…and Boxes

May 1, 2017 by
Filed under: People, Project management 

We use models to represent and categorize the massive amount of information we process everyday. This what we do to make sense of the world throughout our lives.

In projects and in life, many models take the form of stages or phases. As with almost everything, there can be good representations and bad representations, the two ends of a spectrum of relative validity and usefulness. When misused, or applied inappropriately these stages and phases become boxes.

Plenty of teams use a stage-based approach to project planning. That’s the basis of the oft-maligned waterfall approach (which I’ve still yet to see in its pristine state in the wild). Particularly with big engineering or infrastructure projects, we need to analyze things before we plan them before we build them before we verify them before we ship them. This makes sense in the detail, but if we try to rigorously apply this to everything on the project at the highest level, we miss opportunities for optimizing the flow of work.

There is much more going on in a project that surrounds that ‘building stuff’ that shouldn’t be constrained to that structure. If we can stay outside the ‘stages or phases box’ while we are planing the overall project, we can maximize the opportunity for creativity and innovation.

In planning, when it’s time to come up with your story of how the project should play out, start with a blank sheet – no timeline, no stages or phases. Simply tell the richest, most compelling story you can, collaboratively, then see how thinking about stages, phases and timelines affects things.

The same is true in our personal lives. You might say “I’m in that phase of my life”, which might be characterized as being an adolescent, or being in school, or a young adult, or married with children, or in your prime money-making years, or retirement.

While it can be true that you are of an age that is generally characterized by a certain set of behaviours, avoid the trap of exclusivity. Don’t let a particular stage or phase become a box that constrains your thinking or your actions.

Don’t allow an early-stage box prevent you from making an early mark on the world – or we might not see another Malala Yousafzai or little Stevie Wonder. Take the opportunities in an otherwise staid and boring retirement stage to rekindle the interests of your youth. Don’t let the presumed money-making years trap you into working insane hours and losing touch with your loved ones. In all these cases, life is far greater than any particular stage we may think we’re in.

Ask yourself what models you are leaning on, particular those that suggest phases or stages, that may be constraining your thinking. What are the limits to their utility, and what valuable parts of the context outside those phases are you missing in that phase-based box you have created for yourself? – JB

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