"...being smart is not so much different from being a bone head. We can,
by the way we judge success, make a bone head out of the most gifted genius."
David A. Schmaltz
I learned that I was not smart in the seventh grade. French undid me. Up
until then I had a reputation for being one of the smart ones. I had been
active in every form of extracurricular activity from square dancing to
extra credit science projects, and I had consistently made the grade. But
the move to junior high hobbled me.
I think grammar hammered me first. I could not figure it out. It seemed
as if everyone else in the class understood the difference between a past
participle and a gerund. Not me. French was a set of perfectly understandable
words strung together in absolutely impossible ways. My stomach revolted.
It gurgled and sizzled and after half a year, my doctor suggested that
I drop the class. I did.
This is when I learned that I was not smart. Sentenced to a semester
of wood shop, which was presided over by a crew-cut, hanging judge of a
man with the creativity of a band saw and the sensitivity of double ought
sand paper. "Mr. Schmaltz," he chided me, "your designs are a waste of
good wood. Copy something out of the book!" I became a reluctant member
of the group bound for industrial jobs, fated to work with deafening machinery
and stupefying supervisors. I was not smart.
I hid out through junior high and high school, taking the bonehead sections
when I could get away with it and adapting when I could not. Typing was
a problem similar to French. How I did it was more important than the end
product, and I could not figure out the how. The typing teacher said that
I would not be able to succeed without typing skills and he was right.
What he could not foresee was that I would learn to type- albeit with two
or three or, on a really hot day, four nearly simultaneously choreographed
fingers. (I hold the others in reserve as insurance against carpal tunnel
Math was a problem, too. No figuring it out. A set of rules, randomly
drawn against an unimaginable back drop. Why is any of this even interesting?
I still don't know. I survived (barely) by guessing and by copying things
out of the book, as my shop teacher had so wisely instructed me to do.
I was clearly not college material and I knew it. College would simply
offer more opportunities to get found out- caught in the act of not knowing
I did eventually go to university- starting seven years after high school,
after riding a career as a single acoustic performing artist- writing and
performing songs while supporting myself with a string of casual labor
jobs. I had tasted many forms of industrial labor. Most were mindless jobs
where sticking to the proscribed procedure was considered to be more important
than the product. An exception was pot washing. I really liked washing
pots. This was a job where they couldn't care less how I got it done. They
just wanted clean pots. They, as the old advertisement suggested, wanted
tuna that tasted good, not tuna with good taste. Same thing with writing
and performing- the end product was the only piece judged by the audience.
They could never have known how that was engineered- and most didn't care
Had they known, had some lab-coated efficiency expert observed me writing
songs or washing pots, I'm confident that I would have been judged a bone
head in those activities, too. The trick to a successful life, I learned
from life, was to hide out from the efficiency experts and to engage in
activities where the product was more revered and more observable than
the process by which the product was produced. I could succeed in this
product-oriented world. In the process-oriented one, the best I could do
is not get found out.
I think the problem started when I taught myself to read. When I showed
up for the first day of first grade, I could already read. I didn't learn
how to do it like everyone else did because I didn't have to. Most things
that I do today I taught myself how to do. I taught myself how to play
the guitar, play the piano, type, write, teach, cook, garden, and manage
projects. I don't do any of these things like anyone else does them. But,
I'm learning rather late in life, this does not mean that I am not smart.
I have lately been working in one of the most prestigious scientific
communities in the world. Even though the closest I ever came to scientific
training was a ninth grade bonehead general science class that I took to
avoid my high school science requirement, I feel a curious camaraderie
there. This last week I tested a hypothesis that has been swimming around
in the back of my head for some time. I mentioned in passing to one of
the scientists that I'd noticed a real difference between engineers and
scientists. Engineers are much more process oriented, focusing upon how
stuff gets done, while scientists are much more focused upon outcomes without
regard to how they are achieved. I explained a bit about my background
and got in return a, "Oh, you too?" response. This guy had taught himself
calculus and had earned a Ph.D. in physics without attending graduate-level
physics courses. I tested this idea with several others and found everyone
I met there personally familiar with the feelings that I had experienced,
hiding out from the process-oriented overseer.
Maybe, I conclude, that being smart is not so much different from being
a bone head. We can, by the way we judge success, make a bone head out
of the most gifted genius. We can, I believe, also make a gifted genius
out of the most obvious bone head.
What does any of this have to do with project management? Lots! Judging
the goodness of a project by how well individuals adhere to a defined process
will disqualify some of the most capable folks on the team. Process for
me is always a guideline, a menu of possible alternatives. I am accused
of not being able to do anything the same way once- and I truly never know
how I will get anything accomplished. I have no sense of time- it is not
a fixed and finite boundary. I accomplish wonderful results, but never-
never- by the method proscribed. I am not being difficult, just me. For
me and for those like me, a plan is what is in the way of doing what I
really should be doing; a set of definite milestones looks like a string
of millstones waiting for me to carry them out of the way.
I think it was George Patton who refused to give process-oriented orders.
He told his subordinates what he wanted them to accomplish and left the
how up to them. This meant that he could never judge the goodness of the
effort half way through. It also meant that the result could be achieved
in whatever way seemed best to those trying to achieve it. He was unusually
The process-oriented engineering perspective that has so influenced
project management theory and practice in modern times is not universally
useful. This cookbook is missing a few recipes. There are some meals that
cannot be created by proscribed method. As I learned in junior high French
class, if the how has to be satisfied, the what is often foregone as well.
Mistaking the process for the product is a terrible misunderstanding capable
of creating boneheads out of geniuses and disqualifying overseers out of
the most well-intended project managers.