Thursday, 3 December 2015

Project Viability – a cybernetics approach, part 4

So far this series I have looked at the idea of Requisite Variety (part 1) in project management communications in terms of assessing the environment (part 2) and internal communications (part 3) within the project. In this final part we return to the environment this time looking at how we get the project messages “out there” effectively.

Systems 1 and 4

You’ll recall that the role of “listening” to the environment falls to systems 4 and 1 of Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (VSM). In the VSM system 4 is responsible for the wider environment and for "horizon gazing” whilst system 1 only looks at the immediate environment in terms of what it needs to deliver.

These same levels of responsibility hold true for the outgoing communications too.

What are the outgoing communications?

These fall into two main types:

  • I want something
  • Let me tell you about…

The former focuses on internal needs where a solution is required from the environment. Using our Reception System project scenario (purchasing an IT system to enable a customer-facing reception desk to log calls (a mini-CRM)).

The immediate environment will include:

  • Suppliers we are using to provide the products/services;
  • Direct customers of the service we’re providing;
  • Any aspect of the immediate environment that will impact on operations.

The wider environment will include all of the above from the perspectives of a longer timeframe (e.g. future customers) and a wider perspective (e.g. alternative suppliers). It will also include other potential areas regarding emerging markets, competition and so on.

I want something

This can range from researching to gather information to conducting tenders and engaging with suppliers. The project and associated methodologies deal with this sort of thing quite well. For example tenders will generally follow well established processes, and researches – assuming they are sufficiently experienced – will have a range of mechanisms at their disposal.

Nevertheless, in my experience things still go wrong – usually because the amplification process is ill thought through. (And part of the problem is that there is no conscious realisation that it is amplification that needs to be achieved).

Let’s take tenders as an example.

At the weighty end of the scale is large scale tendering using European Union regulations (for EU countries – outside the EU there may well be similar schemes). The problem here is that the system is so bureaucratic that it can put off some of the audience you wish to attract.

At the other end of the scale is where you selectively tender from a chosen few suppliers. Here the problem is that your selection may well be cutting out other, possibly better alternatives.

Both of these have amplification problems because the process is actually acting as an attenuator. What is needed is for the initial stages to be amplified – so that we can get the message that we need something to as wide an appropriate audience as possible, and then use the attenuator later on when making a decision about what solution to choose.

Most of us know this instinctively and would carry out some form of marketplace analysis pre-tender. What I’m saying is that this is really essential, and that the marketplace analysis should be properly conducted and resourced so that it’s an effective amplifier.

The basic point here is that we often accidentally use attenuation when we are seeking information when actually initially we need an amplifier to broadcast the fact that we want the information.

Let me tell you about…

When we want to get information “out there”, there is usually no such confusion about the roles of amplifiers and attenuators. The problem is how to amplify effectively so that our messages get picked up by those for whom they are intended. Volume is not the answer because the louder we shout, the louder everyone else will too. Metaphorically speaking, how do we make sure our voice is heard above the hubbub in a crowded room?

Companies still take the “shout loudly” approach – cold calling, bulk mailing, advertising campaigns, etc.. but how effective is it really? What we’re beginning to see, with the onset of “big data” and the tools to analyse it, is more carefully targeted campaigns. Google, Amazon, and the like, are selecting what adverts you get shown depending on your browsing and other web-based activites. Of course this can misfire as well: if I have just bought a new TV online, I don’t want to see adverts for TVs! But it will get better as the technology develops and the learning of how to use it advances (as in the movie Minority Report).

The underlying feature of this is personalisation: the messages are being honed to the preferences of the people they are sent to.

Just as with the “I want something” stream above, the trick is that you need to plan carefully the messaging before you execute it. Wide-channel broadcasting is too hit-and-miss; the personalisation approach is thinking along the right lines.

In project terms, this is about carefully defining who needs to hear your message and understanding their needs. Project management already has great tools for this (Stakeholder Management, for example). What is required, in many cases, is putting more effort into understanding stakeholder needs so that the “personalisation” of the messages can be more effective.

In summary

Project management already has pretty good tools in place for communicating outwards. When using them, the important points to consider are:

  • ensuring we don’t confuse amplification and attenuation;
  • putting sufficient effort into understanding the environment (e.g. market research);
  • putting sufficient effort into understanding the needs of people and organisations in the environment (e.g. stakeholder management).


Over the four articles in this series we have seen that project management actually has many good tools and techniques for handling communications along viable systems lines, but there are some gaps that arise because there is insufficient understanding of the cybernetics involved. Using an approach such as Stafford Beer's VSM and understanding of requisite variety these can be more clearly identified, and the project management tools used to greater effect.