Don’t mention the P******

Some years ago I went for a second interview for a testing role. I was meeting the Head of Development at a large organisation. The first interview, with some of his team, had gone well and I was feeling confident. As the interview progressed I felt more so. We seemed to be getting on well and there was plenty of common ground in our discussion. Then something strange happened. In answering one of his questions I used the word ‘process‘, and the interviewer’s demeanour changed.

“Process is a dirty word around here,” he said, leaning back in his seat and folding his arms. His body language said as much as his words. From that point the interview took a very different path. I felt confused and my confidence was shaken. The interviewer appeared to lose interest in my answers and soon wrapped up the conversation. I didn’t get the job.

I was reminded of this experience recently when I saw some tweets coming out of the Agile 2017 conference with the hashtag #noprojects. It seems that ‘project‘ is also considered a dirty word in some quarters too. None of this makes much sense to me.

In the simplest terms, I see:

  • A process as a set of steps taken to achieve a goal
  • A project as some kind of undertaking with a plan and an aim

There is really nothing sinister about this. Any development activity follows some kind of process. It can happen quickly or slowly, steps in the process can be disregarded or replaced and elements of the process can be automated. It is still a process.

A project, meanwhile, can be ambitious and long term, modest and short term, or somewhere in between. A member of my family is working with hundreds of other people on the Thirty Meter Telescope – the world’s most advanced telescope. Work began on this in 2005 and will continue well into the 2020’s. This is a project. Meanwhile, I recently sat down with my young daughter to help her plan for a talk she was to give at school. This was also a project.

A plan for a project can be complex and detailed or as simple as a discussion or a few notes, and the plan can (and probably will) change along the way.

So what’s the problem?

Perhaps it is inflexible adherence to plans or processes which people really object to. I understand this. Like many others, I have encountered Project Managers who are so focused on a plan, and meeting a deadline that they won’t contemplate alternative plans, or they ignore evidence presented to them which tells them the plan will no longer work out. I’ve also encountered people who are so convinced that a particular process works that they won’t consider improving it, or trying a different process.

Maybe there are also assumptions being made about what the word project means for a product; a belief that by calling a piece of work a project (with its negative connotations of inflexibility) we rule out being adaptable and responsive to feedback about the product itself. This doesn’t stack up. A plan can put in place mechanisms and opportunities to get feedback on a product, and what emerges might be very different at the end of the project to what was imagined at the outset. A product can go on changing and evolving after the project has concluded, perhaps through further projects or ongoing processes.

A final P****** word

Regardless of whether we call our endeavours a project or not, whether we like or don’t like to discuss process, and what our product is, there is another crucial seven-letter ‘P’ word: PURPOSE.

With a clear purpose, communicated to everyone involved, a project is more likely to succeed. With a clear purpose, processes can be reviewed and refined. With a clear purpose, products are more likely to meet people’s needs.

For what it’s worth, I’m very happy using the P****** words.



After posting this, I came across an article on LinkedIn from a couple of years back with similar sentiments:

One thought on “Don’t mention the P******

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