Open Thinkering


Tag: projects

TB872: Projectification and an apartheid of the emotions

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

This abstract, 16:9 format image captures the essence of 'projectification' and the 'apartheid of the emotions'. It features a juxtaposition of rigid, geometric shapes symbolizing the structured and systematic approach of projectification, against a backdrop of fluid, organic forms or colors representing the realm of human emotions. These elements are distinctly separated, highlighting the division between the orderly, project-driven world and the dynamic, emotional human experience. The overall composition conveys a sense of tension between these contrasting aspects, encapsulated within a conceptual art style.

At the start of Chapter 9 of Ray Ison’s book Systems Practice: How to Act, he outlines “four contemporary settings that constrain the emergence of systems practice”:

  1. The pervasive target mentality that has arisen in many countries and contexts
  2. Living in a ‘projectified world’
  3. ‘Situation framing’ failure
  4. An apartheid of the emotions

The chapter really put into words for me something I’ve felt throughout my career around targets, projects, and the (supposed) benefits of an ultra-rationalistic approach.

My argument put simply is that the proliferation of targets and the project as social technologies (or institutional arrangements) undermines our collective ability to engage with uncertainty and manage our own co-evolutionary dynamic with the biosphere and with each other. This is exacerbated by an institutionalised failure to realise that we have choices that can be made as to how to frame situations. And that the framing choices we make, or do not make, have consequences. In doing what we do we are also constrained by the institutionalisation of an intellectual apartheid in which appreciation and understanding of the emotions is cut off from practical action and daily discourse.

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. p.225. Available at:

To some extent, this links to my voodoo categorisation post, something I discussed as a guest on a recent podcast episode. In that case, the ‘voodoo’ comes from the assumption that creating an ontology and then manipulating it will make a change in the ‘real world’. With Ison’s framing, the ‘voodoo’ comes from targets (e.g. KPIs) which are the results of projects. Without reference to humans as social, emotional animals, nor to the way a situation is framed making a difference both to the start and the end point, real harm can be (and often is) done.

This is probably another good place to embed Prof. Stein Ringen’s RSA talk about systemic failures in UK governance:

Change doesn’t happen just because someone has a cool idea or an organisation has some money to spend. Real change, to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, comes from a mandate from the masses. In this case, stakeholder and user buy-in, based on shared understandings and an acknowledgement of relationships and emotions.

Ison points out that government ministers and bureaucrats often use the term ‘systemic failure’ to wash their hands of responsibility. As he says, without being able to explain how the systemic failure came to happen, it’s a subtle way of distancing themselves from their participation in the system.

He cites a 2009 article by Simon Caulkin in The Guardian, which has helped me realise just how problematic targets in large organisations can be:

Target-driven organisations are institutionally witless because they face the wrong way: towards ministers and target-setters, not customers or citizens. Accusing them of neglecting customers to focus on targets, as a report on Network Rail did just two weeks ago, is like berating cats for eating small birds. That’s what they do. Just as inevitable is the spawning of ballooning bureaucracies to track performance and report it to inspectorates that administer what feels to teachers, doctors and social workers increasingly like a reign of fear.

If people experience services run on these lines as fragmented, bureaucratic and impersonal, that’s not surprising, since that’s what they are set up to be. Paul Hodgkin, the Sheffield GP who created NHS feedback website Patient Opinion… notes that the health service has been engineered to deliver abstract meta-goals such as four-hour waiting times in A&E and halving MRSA – which it does, sort of – but not individual care, which is what people actually experience. Consequently, even when targets are met, citizens detect no improvement. Hence the desperate and depressing ministerial calls for, in effect, new targets to make NHS staff show compassion and teachers teach interesting lessons.

What’s doubly-interesting is that my sister works for Care Opinion (which is the new name for Patient Opinion). I shall be discussing this with her!

In my own career, I’ve seen as a teacher how promises made by government ministers filter down and become an extra tick box on a scheme of work. I’ve seen in tech organisations how the introduction of OKRs mean that people spend less time actually getting anything done. And, as a consultant, I’ve seen plenty of examples of organisations who are more interested in hitting targets so their board gives them less of a tough time, rather than actually serving their audience.

Why are targets so problematic? Ison lists three reasons:

  1. Targets often lack flexibility and don’t adapt well to changing circumstances.
  2. Creating targets is easy, but monitoring and enforcing them is challenging and costly, often only revealing their effectiveness after a failure occurs.
  3. Targets can hinder the creation of locally tailored solutions and more effective performance indicators specific to a particular situation, issue, or concern.

He suggests that often, especially in the case of governments, targets are performative: “we’ve got a target for it, so we must be doing something about it!”. It’s hard not to think of the Tory rhetoric around ‘StOp ThE bOaTs’ which is essentially government by campaign leaflet. In my own life, it’s the never-ending call to “teach this stuff in school” — especially if it’s the kind of thing that was previously instilled by parents or society, or is new and scary.

Moving onto projects, Ison talks about how pervasive they are. Kids start with projects at school, and then we seemingly never stop with them until we die. Even football managers talk about their jobs as ‘projects’ these days, and entice players who are “excited by the project“.

As soon as you think about it, it becomes patently obvious that we live in a projectified world. I can hardly remember a time when a project was not part of what I did – whether at school or throughout my professional life. The word project has its origins in the Latin projectum, ‘something thrown forth’ from which the current meaning of a plan, draft or scheme arises. It would seem that the meaning, now common across the world, of a project as a special assignment carried out by a person, initially a student, but now almost anyone, is first recorded in 1916 (Barnhart 2001). From that beginning I am not really sure how we came to live with projects in the manner that led Simon Bell and Stephen Morse (Bell and Morse 2005) to speak of a ‘projectified-world order’. Perhaps mass education carried forth the project into all walks of life? Whatever this history, my experience suggests it is no longer tenable in a climate changing world to have almost all that we do ‘framed’ by our invention of ‘the project’.

Ison, ibid. pp.230-231

The difference between concept and reality is, for me, exemplified by thinking about Open Source Software projects (OSS). These exist to bring forth something useful in the world, software that people can use — even if it’s only the programmer themselves. However, if we zoom out and think about OSS as an ecosystem, we can see projects begin, fail, adapt, succeed, morph into new things, etc. In this way, it’s almost appropriate to use a biological metaphor.

In my view of the world, which is broadly informed by Pragmatism, everything is a bridge to something else. A project, therefore, does not really have a defined start or end, but is perhaps better thought of as an intervention in a given system. One needs to understand the system before trying to intervene. This is somewhat at odds with ‘project management’.

Ison discusses the PRINCE2 methodology, which I’ve had the misfortune of having to study. I got a passing grade, but I disagreed with the approach with every fibre of my being.

The understandings on which PRINCE-type methods are built perpetuate and reproduce practices that privilege a ‘technical rationality’… In other words we have arrived at a point where those who do project managing are not fully aware of what they do when they do what they do! Ironically this is largely due to the reification or projectification of project management itself. This has major implications for governance and, ultimately, how we respond in a climate-changing world.

Ison, ibid. p.234

Amen to that.

One of the things I very much appreciate is the ability to bring my full self to work. I am, as anyone who knows me well will testify, a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a velvet fist in an iron glove. (By this I mean to reverse the usual metaphors and suggest that I’m hard on the outside but soft on the inside.) I get upset easily. I get angry easily. These are all things that I’ve worked on all of the years, but fundamentally emotion is what makes us human.

To try and ignore emotion when working with other humans is therefore emotionally unintelligent. It’s a denial of a fundamental part of the PFMS heuristic.

Following Maturana et al. (2008) emotioning is a process that takes place in a relational flow. This involves both behaviour and a body with a responsive physiology that enables changing behaviour. Thus, ‘a change of emotion is a change of body, including the brain. Through different emotions human and non-human animals become different beings, beings that see differently, hear differently, move and act differently. In particular, we human beings become different rational beings, and we think, reason, and reflect differently as our emotions change’. Maturana et al. (2008) explain that humans move in the drift of our living following a path guided by our emotions. ‘As we interact our emotions change; as we talk our emotions change; as we reflect our emotions change; as we act our emotions change; as we think our emotions change; as we emotion… our emotions change. Moreover, as our emotions constitute the grounding of all our doings they guide our living’.

Ison, ibid. p.242

I agree that we should not be subject to our emotions, nor should we make policy solely on the strength of feeling. Yet there are ways to be emotionally intelligent and allow emotions to play a role within systems thinking. For example, Ison talks of Barack Obama and his capacity for listening, his encountering other people as ‘legitimate others’, his technique of ‘mirroring back’ the position of others, the ability to move between different levels of abstraction, and his awareness that change comes through relationships.

Ison talks of a “choreography of the emotions” and compares and contrasts this choreography (“one practised in the design of a dance arrangement”) with chorography (“one practised in the experiencing of territory, or situations”). One role therefore involves understanding different situations, like someone who explores new places, whereas the other role is about planning and organising actions, like a dance director arranges a performance.

Both chorography and choreography includes figuring out how emotions lead to certain results and looking at how long-standing patterns of behaviour develop in places like work or in personal life. Part of their job is to keep planning and adjusting how people communicate and act, which is both a creative and important task. They focus on managing emotions because they believe that our feelings and desires are what really drive our actions, more than the tools or resources we have.

Too often change is understood systematically rather than systemically. From a systemic perspective change takes place in a relational space, or dynamic, including the space of one’s relationship with oneself (i.e. through personal reflection). Russell and Ison (2004, 2005) have argued that it is a shift in our conversation and the underlying emotional dynamics that more than anything else brings about change in human social systems.

Ison, ibid. p.246

Particularly in this time of climate crisis, we need new and more joined up ways of thinking and acting. An understanding that projects and targets aren’t going to save the world will help. As will framing the situation in a way that promotes a shared (urgent) understanding. But, in my opinion, more than anything, it’s the emotional aspect that will make the difference. After all, as Jonathan Swift may or may not have said, you cannot reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.

Image: DALL-E 3

Enjoy things while they last (or hope for the best, prepare for the worst)

Note: it’s hot, this post might be be more ramble-y than usual…

Next to my bed I have one of these:

Glass paperweight with image of waves within it

It’s a glass paperweight that serves as a memento mori, a reminder that one day I will die. That might seem a bit morbid, but it reminds me to carpe diem (“seize the day”, to use another Latin phrase) and that things won’t be this way forever.

My kids will grow up and leave home.

My current state of calm will dissipate.

My possessions will stop working, get lost, or be stolen.

The list is long, for good and bad.

But my reason for writing this post is not a personal one, but a professional one. Right now, I’m more interested in talking about projects and initiatives ‘dying’ than me kicking the bucket. There have been multiple reasons over the past week where I’ve noticed that people expect things that start off great to continue to be so.

An OER repository was sold off to a company whose website is blacklisted by many educational institutions. A popular Android launcher was sold to an analytics company that’s often blacklisted by network blocking software. A project I’ve been involved with looks like it could be in danger of betraying its radical roots.

This is all very predictable, and is the reason for the popular phrase “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. Especially in the kind of work I do at the intersection of learning, technology, and community, there are some amazing people collaborating on some fantastic things. It just takes a few bad actors (or people with ‘misaligned incentives’ shall we say) to spoil things.

That’s why setting up projects the right way from the beginning is so important. With MoodleNet, for example, we used the AGPL license, which meant that after I and the team resigned due to some internal drama, the Open Source code could form the basis of the project which has turned into Bonfire.

Even without specific licensing, just working openly can have the same effect. For example, there’s an archive of the work I did with a community that I helped grow at Mozilla around the Web Literacy Map. There’s no reference to it any more on the Mozilla site, but I can still reference it myself.

I’m not bitter about these things. (Well, not any more.) My point is rather than you should set up projects and initiatives in open ways, providing ways for awesome, talented people to get involved. But don’t be naive while doing so. Use defensive licenses, like the AGPL, and the wonderful Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike (CC BY-SA) license which forces derivative works to be shared under the same license.

The same is true of legal structure and governance. WAO is set up as a co-operative with a flat structure and Sociocratic decision-making. It’s not possible for one person to sell out our company from underneath us because of the legal structure we created, after taking advice from more senior members of the co-operative community. And we’ve learned that consent-based decision making allows us to make decisions in line with our values.

Processes (especially around decision-making) work… until they don’t. You have to be intentional about these things. Remember that contracts are for when things go wrong, so cover your back. Imagine the worst thing that could happen, and put in place safeguards. Come up with ways to make decisions in productive ways with other people. Share your work far and wide, but protect it using an appropriate license.

Remember that our time on this planet is short, so let’s be awesome to each other.

In case you’re wondering, I bought my memento mori from The School of Life, and while you can’t get this particular one any more, there are others which are great — if not quite as awesome.

Managing projects is about understanding context

Agile is a verb, not a noun

Ah… projects. There are some people who believe that the One True Way is Agile™. And by that they mean agile development frameworks such as SAFe and RAD and ASD and other awkward acronyms. At least for the kind of work I do with my co-op colleagues, those people are wrong.

The main thrust of the Agile Manifesto is that ‘agile’ is a verb rather than a noun. You don’t “do” agile, you work in an agile way. The difference is important.

Just as a recap, or perhaps for those who haven’t seen this before, here are the twelve principles of agile software from almost 20 years ago:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer
    through early and continuous delivery
    of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

For me, the five bits that tend to leap out at me are those I’ve highlighted above. I believe agile methodologies can be applied to almost everything, so stripping out the references to software, focusing on the parts I’ve highlighted, and doing a bit of rewriting gives:

  • Simplify
  • Establish a sustainable pace
  • Build projects around motivated individuals
  • Create self-organising teams
  • Welcome changes based on feedback the audience you’re targeting

I have little time for people who try and impose a particular approach without understanding the context they’re entering into. Instead, and although it may take longer, co-creating an agile approach to the problem you’re tackling is a much better solution.

So, in summary, investing in people who work within a particular context, while being informed by what has worked elsewhere is absolutely the best approach. At least in my experience. But the best of luck to those who think that Industry Best Practices® and blunt implementations of complicated frameworks are going to save them.

I’ll be watching with my co-op colleagues, eating popcorn, getting ready for the inevitable call or email to help. And, you know what? We’ll be happy to.

This post is day three of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

Header image by Christopher Paul High