Not being well-known for applying myself as a student, my high-school career was significantly sub-par. While the expectation (both from myself and from others) was that I’d follow in my father’s footsteps and study medicine, I instead embarked on an ill-fated electrical apprenticeship. I don’t regret my path in life, but every now and then I have a few twinges of regret.

My lack of tertiary education has always been one of the many chips I have on my shoulder. In my late twenties, finally buckling under the pressure of that weight, I embarked on a few different journeys to rid myself of that load. One of those journeys involved a few years studying part time, initially at Christchurch Polytechnic (as it was known a few iterations in name ago) and the University of Canterbury.

I studied business, management and commercial law at polytech and my law lecturer was a former solicitor who delighted in playing the role of dodgy corporate lawyer. I suspect Mike actually had a bit of heart deep down but he kept it sufficiently well covered that we, his impressionable students, never saw it. He was the closest we came to a real life view of Suits, Meghan Markle notwithstanding.

Anyway, Mike was fond of articulating little bons mots that we lapped up like, ironically, lap dogs. One of these was a frequent quote of his, one which I have adopted for my own use and still drag out frequently some 20 years later. As Mike said, when we embark on an activity, we should “plan the attack, then attack the plan.” Mike’s quote was related to answering a legal question in an exam, but increasingly I see the wisdom of what he advised in other parts of life.

I was reflecting on Mike’s self-declared Whakataukī recently when sitting in a board meeting. The organisation in question is one which does good and important work, but finds itself buffeted by the winds and waves of change. Thus the organisation in question has embarked on a journey of transformation – seeking a better understanding of its what, why and how such that it can reinvent itself for a different future.

Anyway, at this meeting in question we had a couple of our project management professionals in attendance. These two individuals, Ms. F and Ms. S are tasked with keeping both the executive team and the board in check. They are, to reflect back on Mike’s adage, responsible for both planning the attack, and ensuring that we attack the plan appropriately.

To my own shame, I’d never really appreciated the value of project management. Outside of my vocational activities I tend to work in one of two ways: either individually, as when running an ultramarathon or building a piece of furniture, or in a command-and-control mode as when leading firefighting operations. Even in my governance roles, while collaboration across the board is certainly the right approach, the fact is that the board determines the path forward and hence has a level of control that doesn’t really exist in more collaborative situations. Project management struck me as slightly obsessive-compulsive and more of a barrier to progress than a key to unlocking it.

I’m happy to say that my experience with this organisation, and these two project management professionals has put me on a better path. I’ve been involved in innumerable meetings where much was discussed of which roughly zero percent was actually remembered, let alone executed upon. The role of project management is to take all those random conversation, find the actual points of decision and plan a path way between the current state and the desired ne.

The “attack” analogy is apt – in the field of war, generals know exactly what the desired outcome – “Take THAT Hill!” for example. They then develop strategies which allow for the result to be realised. It’s then a simple matter of actually performing those strategies and achieving the outcome. Fundamentally it makes life so much easier since everyone has a metaphorical map to follow.

I’m now appreciative of what project management does and quietly in awe of people that can herd cats as effectively as good project management pros can. The fact that they often bring biscuits to their meetings didn’t make a difference to my view. Honest.

It’s something that is worth reflecting upon for anyone involved in a change project. Unless you have a good map for the direction you’re heading, and the steps needed to get there, your chances of getting lost are high.

I’d not suggest for a moment that we should take guidance from lawyers, but in this case Mike was right. Plan the attack, attack the plan.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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