As project managers and PMO practitioners, we continually strive to improve our performance by reflecting on those areas where we excel, and critically reviewing areas where we could create more desirable outcomes when faced with similar circumstances.  

“Dilemmas” are one area of conflict where we can all improve our performance. 

Dilemmas arise from internal or external conflicts between goals, values, perspectives, and points of view.  In this post, let’s examine some elements of the conflicts that give rise to dilemmas for project managers.  As you will see, dilemmas provide learning and growth opportunities for project managers to review and choose a course of action.  John C. Maxwell, who is known as a present day guru of leadership, has often been quoted as saying that “leaders have choices and when they make those choices, the choices in turn make them.”  As leaders, project managers are often faced with those same choices in the form of dilemmas.

Here is a story from my life that may provide a helpful illustration of a dilemma:

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I collected insects.  Not because I had a great interest in insects, but because several rising juniors had informed me that the sophomore biology courses required a leaf collection one term, and an insect collection the next term.  Those students who were unlucky enough to get the insect collection assignment in the winter months often could not find good specimens of the most common insects in our geographical area.  Hence, in order to get good marks in the course, we needed to start a collection as soon as possible so that we could be assured of getting a good representative cross-section of insect types.

I rigged up an insect net by bending a wire coat hanger for a frame and using an old sheer curtain my mother had discarded from a window treatment.  The mesh was sheer enough not to let out any insects but transparent enough that you could clearly see your catch.  So, armed with my handy insect manual and my rigged net, I was the “scourge” of the neighborhood and nearby streams and ponds looking for specimens. 

I was lucky that my family took a driving vacation trip from our home in North Carolina to Florida’s Gulf coast during that summer because I was able to find several varieties of Gulf Fritillary butterflies that were native only to that area.  I thought that would give me a decided advantage with the judges of the insect collections.  Several people had also informed me that bright lights would attract insects during the evening hours, and under a lighted sign I was lucky to snare a rhinoceros beetle on that trip. 

When I returned home, I made the trek early each morning to an all night laundromat about a mile from my home to see what moths and other nocturnal insects might be left over from the night before.  Most of these treks yielded very little except for an occasional small moth like a sphinx moth, which has a bright colored pattern on its wings.  Then, one morning as I walked up to a large screen at one end of the laundromat where the exhaust fans seemed to roar on incessantly.  I stopped in my tracks when I saw something at the corner of the screen which was both large and very colorful.  I had never seen anything like it, and I had poured through that insect manual dreaming of catching something exotic which would really “wow” the judges.

It was a greenish-blue color with a wingspan that must have been at least four inches from side to side, and it had curved tails on its wings which extended back from the body and were symmetrical about the centerline of its body.  It must have been six inches long from top to bottom.  What was it?  So, I pulled out my handy-dandy insect manual and I started to leaf through the pages.  It only took me three or four minutes to realize that I was looking squarely at a “Luna Moth.”

Now, if you have ever seen a Luna Moth, you will know that its beauty and sheer size are the most distinct characteristics.  Why do they call it a Luna Moth?   Naturally, because it is out when the moon is out!

A million thoughts ran through my head.  I did not have much time to think about the consequences of my find.  Any time now the sun would be high enough that the Luna Moth would loosen its grip on the screen and be gone. My first reaction was that this was going to be the greatest insect specimen that the school had ever seen, and I was thrilled to think that I would be applauded as the student who uncovered the specimen. 

But, then a second thought ran through my mind.  What right did I have to capture this beautiful creature and inject it with alcohol to preserve it for my collection?

I had to hurry and decide.  On the one side my mind argued that since I had devoted so much time and effort to this project, I needed to achieve the best possible outcome and to share it with everyone.  On the opposite side, my mind argued that my collection with its smaller moths, butterflies, beetles, dragonflies would do just fine without it. 

Looking back on that moment today, I really did not have the option to take a picture.  Digital cameras didn’t exist.  Back then, pictures were taken when there was a deliberate need to take pictures, and disposable cameras were not available in every drug store.  Spur of the moment yielded no camera readily available for a picture.  The only camera I could hope to put my hands on was a clunky camera my family used on vacation and it was in our house a mile or so away.  So technology was clearly a variable that I was not fully aware of at the time.

I faced a dilemma.  My decision was to capture this insect for my collection.  The Luna Moth was clearly an example of an insect in the insect manual and qualified as a specimen acceptable to the teacher in satisfaction of this assignment. To this day, however, I often rationalize my decision to capture this Luna Moth because I had no idea if the biology teacher would even have accepted a “picture” in place of a real specimen.  From what I heard from those juniors, the assignment was to collect specimens—not take pictures of them.

We are faced with dilemmas in our work and our personal lives every day.  How we resolve them is a very personal matter.  But we should all consider that everyone faces dilemmas, many of which are never revealed to anyone else.

Cordell Parvin, my good friend and colleague, provides training and coaching for lawyers.  When we discussed “dilemmas” one day, he said that, in the legal context, one dilemma he faced was “whether to take a client/case when I knew I would be paid a lot of money but I did not like what the client was trying to accomplish.  Another dilemma is when I have had a client who only wanted a lawyer who would agree with him.  I call it a ‘yes’ man.  In both instances, I resolved the dilemma by not taking the matter or client.  I know that lawyers are supposed to represent clients who are bad people or who have done bad things.  But, for me I could not totally separate my feelings from our concept that even the worst of us is entitled to a lawyer.”

Project managers are no exception—you have probably faced dilemmas on several occasions. 

Have you ever stopped to think about the crucial decision elements and the choices that help you resolve dilemmas?  Consider the following dilemmas which project managers may face:

Scenario One:  An SAP project manager is planning his budget for the next SAP project.  He knows that other SAP projects have typically overrun their budgets because of the need for additional resources and project work in the “data conversion” phase.  He also knows that the PMO is controlling budgets closely for upcoming projects so he is reluctant to include a full amount for any data conversion resources which may cause the budget to seem inflated versus previous SAP budgets.  How is his planning for the project affected by these different perspectives?

Scenario Two:  A project manager who is in charge of a design team to provide a major component for a larger assembly has identified a risk in the use of the component, namely, at lower temperatures than the assembly has been subjected to thus far, and which are not normally encountered by the assembly in its usage pattern, the component may lose its elasticity and become more rigid, thus potentially compromising the performance of the assembly.  He knows that the next proposed application for this assembly will likely be in that lower temperature range.  He has alerted the Design Manager, but the Design Manager refuses to inform the contractor of the potential flaw.  His rationale is that every assembly to that point in time has performed flawlessly and there is no need to think that the major contractor would desire a redesign if the risk of a failure were very low.  He asks the project manager to confirm his analysis regarding the identified risk.  Does the project manager confirm that low risk or continue to raise a red flag about a potential failure?

When facing project dilemmas such as the above sample scenarios, what are some key conflict and decision elements which project managers should consider? 

1.  Timing

In the case of the Luna Moth, since I had a limited time in which I could capture the moth, “timing” was of the essence in forcing a resolution to the dilemma.

2.  Goal or Outcome

Often, conflicting goals are an issue.  There may be, for example, conflicts between personal goals and organizational goals, between the goals of two individuals, and between internal personal goals and externally defined peer group goals.  The experience of the individual project manager frames the project manager’s determination as to what are possible choices.  For example, in the case of the Luna Moth, having only the input from former students, I believed that the only way to fulfill the assignment was to actually collect (rather than photograph) the insects. 

3.  Perspective or Frame

We have often stated in this blog that people act in accordance with the truth as they perceive it to be.  Right versus wrong is often based on the truth that an individual defines for himself in the world.  Choices are then defined by those “truths.”

4.  Technology

In the case of the Luna Moth story, did I really at that time believe there was a technology choice to be made between taking a picture and harvesting the specimen?  Or, did I inject that into my story I told myself many years later as I recalled the incident based on my years of experience in facing other dilemmas and choices that had a variety of technologies available for deployment?

5.  Interpretation of the Facts

Two individuals experiencing the same scenario may view the events and actions of the participants in entirely different ways based on their experiences, value systems, and what they consider the “truth.” 

6.  Reality or Wishful Thinking

When reflecting on past events or experiences, we often inject our own stories into the scenarios because we are continually telling ourselves stories based on our observations, biases, values, and what we each consider reality.

Dilemmas provide us with a playground for testing our viewpoints versus others’ viewpoints. 

Roger Martin, Dean of The Rotman School of Management at The University of Toronto, has written a great deal on the topic of “Integrative Thinking.”  Integrative Thinking is a framework for evaluating conflict in scenarios.  I encourage project managers, when faced with new dilemmas, to look upon them as opportunities to grow and develop their own “integrative thinking” framework.  Think of some dilemmas you have faced in projects and share your experiences with others who have faced similar dilemmas.  You will be surprised by how many different viewpoints and interpretations will surface when you discuss your past dilemmas with others.

As I have alluded to before, John C. Maxwell has outlined the impact that “choices” make on leadership development.  The choices that project managers make in the course of their projects, in turn, make them.  Choices like responsibility, accountability, integrity, compassion, and values-based decision making can impact not only other project managers and PMO practitioners around them, but also other individuals in the organization, the organization itself, and those with whom the organization interacts.

Thank you for your attention.

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