Projects and Gorillas!

The Problem

PRINCE2® provides us with a lot of invaluable information about project roles and responsibilities. You can tailor them of course, as long as you follow certain roles. You can merge some of the roles together, but not all of them. For example, you can merge the Project Support and Project Manager, or the Senior User and Executive. However, you cannot merge the Executive and the Project Manager. Therefore, the least you can have in your project management team, no matter how simple and small your PRINCE2 project is, would be two: a Project Manager, and an Executive.

For those of you, who are not familiar with PRINCE2: the Executive is the ultimate accountable person in the project. The one that provides resources, watches the benefits of the project, and so on. The Executive role in PRINCE2 is similar to the PMBOK Guide’s “Sponsor”.

The Executive is responsible for the high-level decisions of the project; for directing the PRINCE2 project. The project manager, on the other hand, is responsible for the day to day management of the project.

This is a common question: why can’t we merge the Project Manager and the Executive roles? What if the PRINCE2 project is very simple and small?

My Old Answer

My usual answer is that this is the human nature that when you have two different responsibilities, you automatically forget about the more abstract one and focus on the concrete, more detailed responsibilities. So, if one person is going to be responsible both as a Project Manager and an Executive, s/he will forget the high-level things and only pays attention to the day to day management of the project.

Here Comes the Gorilla!

It’s a classic experiment: they show a basketball game and ask the participants to count the number of passes between players in a white shirt.

Some of them count it correctly, some incorrectly; that’s not the point. They ask them if they have seen the gorilla! Most people answer no.

Somewhere in the middle of the game, someone dressed as a gorilla passes the screen and even stands for a while, looking into the camera. The point is that when people are focused on counting, they don’t see the gorilla.

I was reading a book titled Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, where the author, Cathy N. Davidson, explains that she was one of the participants, and she was one of the few who saw the Gorilla. And the reason? Because she wasn’t counting!

Then she explains that she’s more interested in resulting that people need to work in groups, with different responsibilities or perspectives, in order to complete each other, instead of concluding that human perception is limited.

The New Addition to My Answer

Those lines in the book suddenly reminded me of this: the Project Manager is the one who’s counting, and might miss the gorillas in the project. We need at least another person who’s not counting, and instead watching for the gorillas: the Executive.

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