Managing people: the H3 paradigm

by Carlos Díaz

We always think about managing ‘projects’. We sometimes think of projects as living entities, as some sort of being that grows, mutates, twists and turns. Sometimes we refer to a project as an inanimated object, something solid that can be owned, collected, ditched, put together with others of the same kind: “I have two projects in this area”. Occasionally, we can even refer to it as a house we inhabit for a while: “I am in this project”. All of this helps us relate to a project, love it, hate it, not care for it, abandon it. But, actually, a project is only a convenient concept. It is just a name that we use to define a collective of people with a common objective. True, the same could be said of institutions. But rarely a complex project has the level of ideology, policy, hierarchy, rules and regulations that define how an institution behaves. From that perspective, a project is a more delicate construct, and therefore it could be argued that managing a project actually means managing a group of people towards a specific collegiate result. Nothing more, nothing less.

If the dynamics of a project are, essentially, those that are established between the individuals that work for it, then our fundamental task as project managers is to facilitate the optimal relationships between project members to reach the desired outcome. But of course, people being people, this is a daunting task. Not only because individuals have their own expertise, personality, interests and ambitions. It is also because people in a project can change, and even if they stay, we all change over time. So our task becomes a moving target as well.

I have often thought that all of the usual project management tools, work plans, charts, monitoring systems, are just ways of trying to try to define such relationships. Don’t get me wrong: they are very useful to communicate about what we are trying to do, to report to others, to provide a snapshot of what we work on at the moment. But, it is very much about providing a framework of reference, a set of rules for the game, a playing field. These tools, however, can also be used against the project objectives. Because they are an illusion of order, people will find a way to slip between the cracks if they want to. No project ever goes to plan.

We define our project plan as a straight line from A to B, from idea to product. In reality, the trajectory is messy, you sometimes make progress, sometimes go back and re-think, drift and go around in circles for a while. A talented project manager will find ways of steer the ship so that, with all our detours, in the middle of regular storms, we finally reach the destination.

For this, I came up with an H3 paradigm. I like the “H” because three of them, one on top of the other, resemble a ladder. And it is this ladder that will get us from start to a successful completion. We need Heads – because we need people to actively think about the project, find workarounds, devise innovative solutions. We also need Hands – because people will need to do things, write documents, perform experiments. And we also need Hearts – because a comon belief that what we do is important, that it has a meaning and a sense of purpose, is essential to call a bunch of people a team. So there you go: Heads, Hands, Hearts – the H3 paradigm, the ladder everyone is looking for according to Prince.

I am told by Wikipedia that triatomic hydrogen is an unstable molecule that breaks up in under a millionth of a second, and that it is commonly formed and destroyed in the universe. Hum. A delicate balance, it seems. Perhaps that’s what makes project management such a challenging and thrilling profession – the relentless pursue of those moments when everything perfectly aligns and fits. And, make no mistake, we need all three Hs; no two will suffice.