Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mystery, secrecy,and privacy

This blog is not about politics, so we'll keep to the knitting and wax on about mystery, secrecy, and privacy in the project management domain.

For today's screed, I took a few thoughts from an unlikely source of PM advice I found in an article by Jill LePore entitled "The Prism" (a term in the news of recent time)

I, for one, had not thought a lot about the subtle but substantive differences of our three title terms insofar as they have their individual effects on governance, understanding, communications, and perhaps even innovation.

By Ms LePore's reckoning, we can divine the following:

  • Mystery is knowledge held by a very few, perhaps only one -- the project's "Almighty" -- with the intent of creating a mystique around the idea or the individual. In other words, the mystical knowledge has no overt operational purpose since it is never to be revealed on acted upon. It's all about aura and mystification.
    Politicians love mystery and mystique, isolating them a bit from challenges. Autocrats love mystery too: mystique amplifies power. And, believe or not, the marketing department loves mystique -- mystique sells!
  • Secrecy is the way we compartmentalize knowledge intended to be acted upon and drive operational outcomes -- but only by a selected few actors. For whatever reason, secrecy can move the project forward when otherwise acting in a fishbowl with this knowledge is judged to be ineffective... some will be inhibited from full discourse; others embarrassed to show weakness or ignorance; and some will use the information against us.

    In business, secrecy often goes by the name "proprietary". In projects, to take one example -- but there are many legitimate examples -- competitive proposals are always held secretly from the competition.

    And, the flip side is that if your project is in receipt of proposals from vendors vying for your business, then you need project protocols to protect their competitive secrets.
  • Privacy is about our own stuff, our own thoughts, and our own biases that we can live with but choose not to share. Although we are social in our relationships, everyone needs their moment and place of privacy.
    (See: issues with open space project space)

    Of course, sometimes privacy crosses over into a personal secrecy to compartment things you are doing. That's where the trouble begins because governance, understanding, communications, and perhaps even innovation are surely threatened by personal secrecy just as official secrecy can have debilitating effects.
Bureaucracy begets mystery
Mystery accumulates around bureaucracy, whether intended or not. The larger the structure the more mysterious are those in the head office -- including, by the way, the PMO. Open door policies and other communications are partial anecdotes, but the real anecdote is a flat organization.

Mystery can be a tool
On the other hand, companies exploit mystery to create an aura in the marketplace and enhance their competitive posture, especially on competitive project proposals. Every proposal I ever led had a marketing guy attached whose job was not only to develop information on the competition but also to create mystery in the marketplace -- scaring the competition and attracting the prospective customer.

Secrecy requires definition
Secrecy is about deliberate compartmentalization. And "deliberate" is the operative term. To be deliberate requires definition in advance of the criteria to invoke compartmentalization. In some domains, the requirements and definition come by contract and are imposed on the project. But there's also a lot of proprietary activity -- see pharma R&D for instance -- where corporate secrecy abounds.

Privacy is a late comer
In the genealogy of these things, privacy is a late comer. As mystery became less religious and more secular as Europe exited the Dark Ages, privacy in personal affairs became more of a main stream idea. But in the United States, it did not acquire a legal definition until late in the 19th century. Now, projects have to address privacy issues left and right, and with all manner of cultural and geo considerations. And, the culture of privacy is a shifting ground, so projects are always in a demand-driven mode vis privacy requirements.

In some respects privacy is a wicked requirement: circular, no apparent point of entry, and self conflicting in many respects. No small matter as you try to contain scope, cost, and meet milestones!