Project Management Memetics

Leon sent me a link to this paper a couple of years ago, to which I responded “interesting” – he knows I’m interested in memes. I didn’t actually read beyond the title until today.

The essence of memes is that there is something “self-serving” about patterns of information (*1) which is independent of any rationally intended human purposes in using them. The same is as true of (say) project management procedures and practices as it is of any rational processing of information – my agenda is that this is a problematic feature of management and governance in the most general sense, not just businesses and projects, any decision-making-to-act process, knowledge-management practices, even the rational domain par-excellence science itself. So I have no doubt about the problems of failing to see the memetic aspect of project management activities – it’s is of course where my concerns began in Oil & Gas industry and Information Management projects, 15 or 20 years ago – the reason I’ve been blogging since blogging was invented …. but this is not about me.

In fact none of this is new in management circles, just the new(ish) memetic language, and part of the problem now is that memetics itself is contentious to some people (*1). But even without memetics, the idea that decision-rationality = action-irrationality has been part of action-science management theories (eg Argyris / Brunsson et al) and probably longer before that with (say) Parker-Follett – guru to the gurus in management.

In any “professional” management situation it is difficult (anathema) to suggest that doing a rational thing is the irrational (wrong) thing to do. You’re mad, surely. “Before we make this decision to act, we should study and agree upon this issue – right ?” Wrong. Act and experience the outcomes (with “care”, in the knowledge of the issue). It’s been called analysis-paralysis for years, but it’s not just “analysis”, it’s following any rational, objective process that delays action, because it is the action that provides experience. Experience is worth more than theory, in practice.

Performing rational (project) management analyses, modelling and management decision-making processes tends to lead to more (project) management activities – ie self-serving – rather than achieving the value-adding goals of the enterprise or project. (IT / IM projects, particularly new, integrated business and/or government (civil or defense) systems, are often legendary in terms of project failure, however they are actually post-rationalized. Not surprisingly there are newer “agile” IT project management processes that force the action and feedback cycle milestones.)

(*1) Patterns of information, known as memes because they are copied (not the other way around), come in many levels; patterns (upon patterns) upon patterns of information (statically defined) and patterns (upon patterns) of their (dynamic) relations, procedures, patterns of use, communication and processing. Because genes – the biological analogue of memes – are based on 4-bases (*2) and n-chromosomes in any given species (*3), there is a popular misconception that genetic copying in biological reproduction is well defined in terms of atomically discrete “digital” genes, whereas memes are somehow more woolly – anything from a single word representing an identifiable concept to the whole idea of ideas, concepts, interpretations, representations even internet crazes, fashions, cultural patterns (even whole religions and cultures) etc. Many people baulk at the idea that “cultural units” (memes) can be considered as discretely as “biological units” genes. Now, reducing things to discrete objects (genes or memes, or anything else) is part of a wider issue, but genes and memes, their own definitions and the processes and patterns involving their transmission and reproduction are equally complex and ultimately flaky – just equally useful in describing the processes involved – information processing processes both (*4). The analogy is in fact a very good one. It’s about what IS copied and communicated, not prescriptive about what they should be, or how they might be represented when communicated and processed. Naturally, simpler patterns of information (memes or genes) – patterns of information which are simpler to represent – are communicated, processed (and replicated) more easily, so unsurprisingly discrete objects are much more “popular” than complex patterns of information – another self-serving aspect. Simple ideas rule, but often simple may be dumb.

(*2) Even the 4 DNA / RNA bases are not in any sense absolute. They just happen to be the basis of the most prevalent and most studied organic biological forms. Other biochemical possibilities exist. And of course even in R/DNA based life, there are many other non-R/DNA cell structures involved in the processes too. Doesn’t change the essential pragmatic truth of genetic reproduction.

(*3) And even the definition of a discrete species is highly context dependent and controversial when it comes down to it. Different definitions are accepted for different practical purposes.

(*4) Objective reductionism is full of contentious topics when it comes to more subjective things like free-will and consciousness, but this is true even at the most fundamental levels of physics too. Arguments in these topics need to be conducted extremely carefully – avoiding “misplaced-objectivity” and “greedy reductionism” – more self-serving memes.

[Need to come back and link to the implied sources throughout.]

[Post Note : Existentialism and Evolutionary Psychology – Heidegger, Foucault, Dennett and many more in Jon Whitty’s project management presentations. A man after my own.]

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