The Ocean’s Eleven way to Project Management
What we can learn about adhocracy and flexible management from a popular Hollywood film
Francesco | 14.06.19
When it comes to Project Management, the Rolling Stones had it wrong. 'Time isn’t on your side'. In fact, time is a precious commodity that can never be replenished. This makes what we do with our time so important.
When we are working on a project, managing teams and objectives, knowing how to properly manage time most efficiently can lead to increased performance and results. However, how do you manage everyone’s time, when you might not be optimal at managing your own time?
While this question has been asked for thousands of years, it’s important to understand that there are various solutions when it comes to time management.
A commonly adopted solution is to implement a strict schedule, so that if an objective is completed within the desired timeframe, the individual receives a bonus. This motivates team members to work faster due to the recompense at the end of the effort.
However, this is Pavlovian at its finest. We usually don’t want a bunch of conditioned animals on our teams (*). We need self-sufficient individuals that can handle issues without direct oversight. Ideally, a project manager only needs to check periodically if the results of everyone’s efforts, when combined, will achieve the current objective of the project.
For this, we cannot have people only working towards a “prize” at the end of a goal. Furthermore, there are techniques to prioritise tasks, reduce un-needed steps and simplify the process.
However, as mentioned, this doesn’t deal with the root cause of the issue of ineffective “time & team management”.
(*)Psych-nerd note: Yes yes, I know that the above is an example of operating conditioning (“Skinnerian”) and not of classical conditioning (“Pavlovian”). But you know, writing “this is Pavlovian” is much more understandable and effective than “this is Skinnerian”.
The Hierarchy of Teams
Of course, not all teams are created equally. However, in virtually all teams, there is some sort of hierarchy involved. The traditional approach resembles a pyramid, with the leader sitting on top of the pyramid, and at the bottom your typical “drones” or foot soldiers. Obviously this is not the case for all teams, however, a vast majority of them has an autocratic approach within their leadership.
This means that if a “lower-level team member” needs permission, they have to climb the ladder to get the approval of their leader. Depending on how big the problem is, the higher up the ladder they must go for clearance.
As you can imagine, this is problematic both for the member and for the leader. It takes time to wait for the approval, and for the member this causes a loss of engagement and motivation, as the pause between one action and another makes it harder to keep the momentum flowing. On the leader side, this means yet another interruption and another request to answer.
Indeed, in traditional bureaucracy decisions are made through hierarchy, so there is one leader who makes the final decision on what happens within the team. However, what happens when the leader is out of commission? Or if the leader is busy handling a hundred other things?
Hierarchy brings extra layers of (often useless) complexity. This creates a lag in terms of resolution, and precious minutes wasted on doing absolutely nothing. So, here’s the big question: “How can we change these team dynamics in order to improve the way we manage our time?”
Adhocracy: A new way of Management
The concept of adhocracy is a new approach to the management style of businesses and teams. While in bureaucracy formal authority is privileged and progress is obtained by strictly following rules and procedures, adhocracy takes a different approach.
According to business expert and former director at McKinsey Robert H. Waterman Jr, adhocracy is ‘any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems and get results.’
It is an organisational system designed to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the moment rather than excessively bureaucratic. Rigid systems will hardly survive fast-changing environments, while flexible organisations will be able to adapt quickly to changing conditions.
The Basic Structure of Adhocracy
Let’s forget for a while the rigid, hierarchical design of traditional bureaucracy. In adhocracy, teams are created ad-hoc (hence the name) for working on a project or exploring some innovative ideas.
Adhocracies are characterized by flexibility, employee empowerment and an emphasis on individual initiative. Indeed, adhocracy teams are built upon opportunities and usually are disbanded once activities are completed. People are called in to take part in a project due to their skills and knowledge, not for their position in the company or job description. Moreover, employees are empowered to do whatever they think is needed to reach their objective. The rationale is simple: in your expertise area, you’re the authority. Therefore, make decisions yourself, use your knowledge and skills, take risks, and, unless it’s clearly needed, don’t waste time asking for approval.
There is some hierarchy in adhocracy too, but it’s less strictly defined than in traditional bureaucracy, and it’s mostly aimed at checking that everyone is working towards the same objective, than at making every single decision.
Ocean’s Eleven: an example of adhocracy in project management
A good example of adhocracy applied to project management comes from the popular Ocean’s Eleven film, starring George Clooney and an all-star team of Hollywood actors. Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a master thief, who, still on parole, recruits a team of other 10 criminal specialists and organise a big heist in some popular Las Vegas casinos (side note: it's not an original story, but a remake of an old classic with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack).
Let’s see, what do we have here… there is a big ambitious goal, a team of experts with complementary skills, some sort of director who creates the master plans and assigns tasks and sub-goals to the team members, time constraints (deadlines), and everything should run smoothly otherwise failure is certain.
Basically, it’s a film about project management. A bit peculiar and fictional, true, but still project management. Clooney/Danny Ocean is therefore the project manager, and how he organises the heist is a perfect example of adhocracy in project management.
Instead of a classic, formal team, we have a group of people recruited due to their skills and expertise (a con man, a pickpocket, an electronics expert and so on). The only hierarchy we have is that Danny Ocean is the one behind the main plan and in charge of coordinating the efforts of the gang.
Another key factor is that each specialist is responsible for completing their own sub-goals. There is a well-detailed plan, true, and they know what to do and how to do it, but they are free to do whatever they need to do in order to reach their goal, and this is one of the main differences with traditional management.
The benefits of adhocracy in project management
There are clearly two main benefits of this approach. First, this is a better way to manage time. No more downtime waiting for approval and way fewer interruptions.
Second, it is a smart way to deal with the many uncertainties of the world. No plan survives contact with the enemy, they say, so what should one of the gang do when the unexpected happens? Call Danny for permission to do something? Freeze and pray for a miracle? Go into panic mode? Of course not, they are allowed to improvise and be creative. That damn key should be stolen from the guard and given to the con man before the 20:00, it does not matter how you do it.
Empowerment is a key concept in adhocracy: it reduces the need for micromanagement, helps in dealing with fast-changing environments, and motivates people to do their best.
How to use adhocracy in your projects
Here’s a checklist for applying the main principles of adhocracy in your projects.
- Define the scope of a project and the main objective.
Choose people with different, complementary skills.
Make sure everyone knows the main objective of the project and why it’s so special.
Divide and conquer: create a path towards the main objective, divide it into sub-goals and assign them to the right people (according to their skills).
Set deadlines, maybe a bit tight but realistic.
Make sure everyone knows their sub-goal, why it’s so important and how it will affect the rest of the activities. Pro Tip: a good way to communicate goals and objectives is the Commander’s Intent.
Create a smart updating routine (you’ll receive updates from them every day or every week, depending on the length of the activity) and let them do their magic.
Be ready to give help and advice, if needed, but don’t interfere or micromanage.
That’s it. If it sounds simple is because it is simple. What is often difficult, is to switch to this management system when you are used to more hierarchical and bureaucratical systems.
Adhocracy is especially aligned with the needs of startups and agile companies. Even big companies, however, must adapt and operate in fast-changing environments. What they can do, is to use the best of both worlds: keep a formal hierarchical structure for managing the whole company, but create specific adhocratic units whenever they are needed, for example for tackling specific problems or pursuing innovative ideas.
Let’s say this in full honesty: you don’t have to switch to adhocracy just because it sounds cool. If you are happy with your current organisational system and everything works fine, then stick to it. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
However, if you are experiencing too many lags, idle time, and interruptions, or have to constantly revise your plan because they always clash with reality, or you are managing teams of experts and self-sufficient people and there’s no need to micromanage them, then you can seriously consider switching to adhocracy, or at least using some of its principles.