Every project is a screwdriver – or the process inflexibility gorilla

[Thanks to Phillip Chen, for the inspiration for this blog. His discussion thread on “Do you tailor PMBOK or other PM methodologies for your projects?” in the PMP LinkedIn group, sparked a reply by myself that spawned this blog. ]

Things are really looking up. Just got transferred to the newly formed product incubation group. The company is finally putting innovation up as one of the top three business goals for the coming year and you’re on the bottom floor of the new team.


You were worried for a while there, market share was slipping and it just didn’t seem like anyone was willing to break the cycle. No one wanted to point out the Emperor had no clothes and winter was coming. But the board did. Now you’ve got a new CEO and he’s shaking things up. What could go wrong?


“That is not how we do it.”


“But this is totally new product line, it’s nothing like our existing products. If we follow the same process we won’t get to market for two years.”


“No exceptions, we have a process, it works and you will follow it.”

Welcome to the PIG:
And wham, you run right into the Process Inflexibility Gorilla. Hogarth and I have talked about his cousin, PIG, on many occasions. As Hogarth oft recalls “He makes the immoveable object look like a hockey puck in the Stanley Cup.”

PIG generally hangs out in larger, more established companies. He’s at home in long standing businesses that have managed to keep doing what they do, with the minimal amount of change. It seems that sometimes that success is in spite of themselves. As often happens, the process inflexibility gorilla is so firmly entrenched, that he is all but invisible to those around him. He is not just ignored but not even seen. It takes a business change, or a new set of eyes to see him. The challenge that then comes, is how to get those entrenched with him, to actually see him.

A company hired a Director of QA. They had previously practiced a developer QA model, with the philosophy that the best person to test code was the person who wrote it. This director, we’ll call him Saul (I just made it up on the spot folks), was given a broad charter, promises of support and let loose on the engineering organization. Now Saul was an effective executive. He knew he couldn’t just sweep in and “lay down the law” no matter how much air cover he might (or might not) have. Saul took his time, he asked lots of questions, observed, got to know people and laid out his plan. He made some minor wins and changes, but for the most part he spent the first few months collecting data. All in preparation for laying out a whole new QA methodology, just like the charter he’d been given said to do.

Only when it came time to roll it out he ran into a massive wall, one that made China’s Great Wall look like one of those Irish rock walls in a sheep pasture. So powerful was the institution, to the way things were ‘supposed’ to work, that even his powerful executive sponsors backed down. So entrenched was the “way its done”, that no one was willing to consider that the business had changed, or needed to change for it to continue to compete effectively. In the end Saul left the company, unwilling to spend the rest of his career trying to get people to see the invisible gorilla.

So, how do you deal with such a pervasive and hard to see gorilla? It’s not easy and it may not even be possible, but there are some things you can try.

Now one thing you may of noticed in my style, is I like analogies. I’ve found if you can break something out of the now and use something totally unrelated to explain it. When this topic came up in the PMP LinkedIn discussion forums I used the ‘screwdriver story’.

“Yeah sure, that screwdriver is absolutely perfect for that job. But not every job is identical.”

Of course many entrenched people will argue that everything is identical. Yeah that may be their point of view, but I just keep on with my analogy.

      “We both have a budget of $200. I’ll take the money and buy a nice , simple toolbox with all the normal tools in it, you know hammer, phillips, flat head, wrench, etc. You can use your $200 to buy a super whiz bang phillips head screw driver that is exactly perfect for the currently defined job.” “I’ll do this because when you get stuck in a room (project) that has nothing but lug bolts, your fancy screw driver is just a pointy stick.”

Something you have to go back to, in times like these, is the concept of innovation. If you have inflexible process you probably have one of two things. You have inflexible products, which will be unable to compete in the continuing market place. Or you have products that are not being managed efficiently because they are square pegs being shoved in round roles and shaving off parts to fit. If your company is not flexible, how long will it continue to survive?

All right, while a very satisfying conversation it won’t sway every listener. The people who are inflexible in process are often not going to want to consider there might be anything but phillips screws in their company. These kind of people are going to bristle when you imply the company might fail through lack of change. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” So what do you do? Tough question and no easy answer.
One thing you can try, is to work around the road block. If you have good cross organization and seniority relationships, you might be able to push for change from another direction. You have to be careful though, as this steps into the touchy ‘going over/around someone’ politics.

When it comes down to addressing the Process Inflexibility Gorilla (PIG), we once again come back to relationship and influence. While Saul failed in his endeavor, more often than not a strong and broad set of relationships should allow you to get the value benefit of making process change across to people who can affect the change.

Don’t cry “The emperor has no clothes” or in this case “Look an invisible gorilla!” Instead steer people so they can’t help but run into the invisible gorilla. Once you run into an 800 pound gorilla it doesn’t really matter if you can’t see it, you know its there.

Talking with gorillas, I’m Joel BC

One thought on “Every project is a screwdriver – or the process inflexibility gorilla

  1. Pingback: Sometimes a Gorilla is just a Gorilla | The Gorilla Coach

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