Legal Business

Artifacts: The Map Is Not the Terrain

I've hear a lot about artifacts in the past two days.

I saw an interesting list of questions about Legal Project Management from a firm partner. We discussed artifacts more than I anticipated in my most recent Master Class. And I responded to a blog post today that was nosing around them.

An artifact, in project management parlance, is a document of some sort produced as part of managing a project. (There's a formal definition - more than one, in fact - but as is my practice, let's keep it simple.) A budget is an artifact. So is a schedule, a Gantt chart, a status report, a project charter, and pretty much anything else that describes the management of the project rather than the substantive work that the project is supposed to accomplish.

Creating artifacts - however wondrous they may be - is not project management.

Too many project managers, bad project managers, don't get this. They see their job as the production of such artifacts. They turn out beautiful Gantt charts, multi-page budget worksheets, process maps, and hundreds of other such museum pieces.

Some pieces are in museums because they were (or are) useful. New York's Museum of Modern Art has some. Further uptown, the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) likewise has collections of once-useful artifacts. But they are at best maps, tools or patterns for something rather than the thing itself. Indeed, the best maps themselves are museum-worthy.

The map, however, is not the terrain.

The project manager who mistakes her artifacts for actual project management is like the man who mistook his wife for a hat. I'm sure it made sense to him at the time, but most of us, starting with his wife, can spot the error of his ways.

A Gantt chart may or may not tell you anything true about the state of your project. If it does, you're ahead of the game. If it doesn't, you're in deep trouble, for bad data is worse than no data at all. But whatever the truth of its pretty red and blue rectangles, it cannot move the project forward. A Gantt chart can no more manage a project than a picture of a dog can chase a Frisbee in the park.

The map is not the terrain.

I have nothing against Gantt charts, though they'd not be my first (or second or even third) choice of artifacts in managing a legal project. Indeed, I recommend project charters, budgets, risk worksheets, and task lists, for example, as high-value legal-project artifacts. What I do not recommend is that you create these and think that you're managing the project. The hammer cannot drive the nail by itself, without the carpenter's hand taking a very active role.

A good project manager can lead a project to success without the creation or use of a single artifact. A bad project manager can create a hundred artifacts and decrease rather than increase the success quotient of his project. Effectively applied artifacts can assist a good project manager and make her even better, but they can neither substitute for good project management nor save a bad project manager from himself.

By all means use your map.

But get your head out of it while you're walking. You'll wander off course, you'll miss the good scenery, and you'll bump into things.

Because the map is not the terrain. The artifact is not the project.

Read more about Legal Project Management on the Lexician Blog.