Knowing the Unmanageable:
A Short Discourse

Adam Pearson
Consultant, USA


This article tells the story of the change in my management process and style over the last five years. No doubt, in the past, my way of working has changed in various ways from time to time. In the last five years, however, I have made deliberate efforts to move to a different way of working. I will try to make the reasons for this clear as I go on.

The purpose of this document is to help me see where I am now so as to provide a springboard to where I go from here—particularly to do with working out my approach to management.

You will see that the words talk to you in some places. This is because I was prompted to write this by Julia Zimmerman in our first meeting (on Thursday April 8, 1999). So although I am writing this for myself, I am also explaining things to Julia.


Recently, and to my amazement, I passed my sixtieth birthday—amazed not so much that I have survived but that I am now so old, while still feeling about thirty!

I was born in Scotland, went to good schools (what other kind is there in Scotland?) and spent three years doing a degree course in civil engineering at Edinburgh University. I graduated in 1960.

I never worked in Scotland; like many Scots I hit the road down south, working in England for eight years. I then worked in Zambia for five years, before emigrating to Australia in 1973. Working in Sydney until 1977, I was then transferred to Perth, where I worked until 1985. From 1985 to 1987, I worked again in Africa, Malawi this time (next door to Zambia). I returned to Sydney in 1987, transferring to Brisbane in 1993.

About half of my career has been spent in civil engineering and half in building construction, a distinction that may mean little to many. It means a lot to me, however—civil engineering is more inherently useful. I have spent 25 years working for contractors and, apart from the two years on Australian aid work in Malawi, the rest of the time (12 years) has been with management consultants, involved in the management of capital works.

While trained as a civil engineer, my enthusiasm for the science and art of engineering was overtaken after only a few years by my interest in managing people. I came to find concrete and steel pretty boring—while there are many people who will devote their career to the study of concrete matrices, for example, and while I can understand and admire that scientific involvement, my own interests have ended up elsewhere.

For many years, therefore, I have worked in the management of construction works. With hindsight, my enthusiasm for “the management” of these works has really been to do with getting fun out of marshaling all the resources that are needed to bring the facility to a good conclusion and completion. In other words, it has been the challenge of getting all the parts of the organizational and physical jigsaw together that has excited me. Since my mid-twenties, my name for this has been “creating order out of chaos” (originally meant literally, imagine a battleground— deliberate choice of word there—with excavators, concrete trucks, cranes, ditches, mud, people all over the place … ending up with a nicely finished building—bridge, water tower, whatever).

“Order out of chaos”—I might note here that I have had this picture for a long time and it illustrates that I have always had a feeling, a picture of the process of what I am doing. Recently, this has been supplemented by a feeling of the complexity that pervades the process.


Here are some things I observe about myself.

I grew up in a household and a culture that respected and pursued education. My father was a teacher of mathematics, then a headmaster, and last the secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland; my mother was a primary school teacher. The Scots have always loved learning. The subjects I studied in my final year at school were English, Mathematics, Latin, Science, French, and Geography—a broader education than was then given in, for example, English schools. I like learning and enjoy new things. I like the derivation of the word “education,” something to do with “drawing out.” I have had a continuing interest in mathematics, which is relevant, as you will see below.

This theme of breadth of learning has continued—for example, I ensured that I had a variety of work in my twenties, including a year in a design office and two years managing a specialist engineering company.

Another constant in my life has been change: places I have lived, work I have done (types of construction contracts), people I have dealt with (each project brings new people and I must have been involved in about 100 projects).

I like reading, although I tend to choose what my wife disparagingly calls “picture books” (in her teasing way): I skim through novels but really read books on, well, lots of things. Physical things mainly (these are the picture books), but also knowledge stuff, which of course has included chaos and complexity in recent years. I tend to avoid “management” books for some reason, probably because the few I have picked up seem so “trendy.” To give a feel of what I mean here by “knowledge stuff,” I grabbed three from my shelves:

I believe that I do less reading than I should or would like to—time is

short at the end of a hard day!

I think I am honest—sometimes too honest, my boss says.

I am not of a domineering nature. In the past I have probably been too self-effacing. Even today, I think my worth is more than I realize.

I had responsibility put on me from an early age. This I accepted with eye-blinking naivety: “Well, OK then.” Latterly, I have sought it out as I enjoy it and, if I am to be honest, because I usually think that I can do a better job than anyone else!

I am self-sufficient: I like to be left alone to do my job. Luckily, I have had a lot of autonomy in recent years, with authority and responsibility in balance.

I am an optimist and believe in the future.


I note the following turning points in my life.

While my two brothers (one older, one younger) were fixated on the British Navy as a career and, indeed, have spent their lives in it, I had no idea what I wanted to do until my last year at school, when I listened to an uncle (Uncle Adam, actually) talking about the trucks he was then hiring to a construction company that was engaged in blasting the Scottish hills to bits building hydroelectric power stations. There and then (and I can still remember the conversation, the room it was in), I decided I wanted to be a civil engineer, working on construction sites.

When I was still fairly young (mid-twenties), I was given responsibility for the engineering of a large (365-bed) hospital. This was quite a heavy responsibility for a young lad.

I became more interested in people than in concrete and steel.

I (with my first wife and family) wanted to go overseas, which we achieved in 1968, going to Zambia for five years. We only left when the children were of an age to require a standard of education that was not available locally. It is pertinent for me to note that my departure was precipitated by the directors' refusal to agree to my request to increase the car allowance for site managers and foremen, who traveled many miles over bad roads in the course of their work—this being the last straw after a long struggle to look after my staff. (I was by then contracts director of a construction company.)

Having had a taste of a decent life and what we now call lifestyle, we then emigrated to Australia—we didn't wait for the £10 a person assisted passage, I paid our own way out there.

Noticing on our arrival in Sydney (1973) advertisements for “project managers” and having never heard of this animal, I found that I could fit the job requirements, so got a job as a project manager.

One thing I quickly learned was to give no more attention to my area of expertise (engineering) than to the others, such as architecture—my specialty was now to be a generalist.

I began to rely on the advice of others more than I had done so far in my career.

I learned what it is to find out what clients want to do—and the difference between “needs” and “wants.”

I worked for some time attempting to get my teams to perform by force of will. Looking back on it, this took a considerable toll on me, being against my nature.

My carefree attitude to getting and keeping employment evaporated at that time.

I met Donnie, my second wife, in 1977.

We were transferred to Perth in the same year and this later turned out to be a lonely city and a dead end. I was out of work for nearly a year at one time. We could only get out of the place by going to Malawi— though there are far worse things to do than go to Central Africa!

I worked in Malawi as an engineer under a foreign aid scheme. I managed the design and construction of relatively modest works. There is little to relate from this experience that is directly relevant here. One of the greatest pleasures was finding ways to do things with the minimum of resources. Before leaving, I wrote some basic project management procedures.

On returning from Malawi to Sydney, I joined a company (my present employers) that specializes as a management consultant in capital projects.

For six years, I worked as the sole consultant to clients on different projects. I was not managing works but providing project management services.

The founder of the company that has employed me for the last 12 years had the saying, “It may be so, it may not be so.” This has been useful to me.

In the late 1980s/early 1990s, I had problems with stress management, which have taken years to overcome.

It was only on our transfer to Brisbane in 1993 that I once more became a team leader and have been one ever since.

These are what I perceive to have been significant events up to about 1993. I have recorded them here without thought as to their relevance to the object of this exercise! They may help you to know me better.


In 1993, I was transferred from our Sydney office to manage the reconstruction of part of a major urban road. The task was the project management of design and construction. This meant taking responsibility on behalf of the client for identifying the project and marshaling and managing the resources to have it designed and constructed.

We were in a joint venture with an engineering company: we provided the management and support, the other company the engineering resources for the particularly close field supervision and surveillance that these contracts require.

This was my first return to management of teams since 1985.

For much of this project, which was successfully completed in April 1994, I worked in much the same way as I had in past years. But it is timely to define this here.

My management process has been to identify clearly what has to be done to deliver the project, then set up the arrangements to do so. This means making clear plans for such elements of the project as time, cost, quality, risk management, environmental management, communications and information management, and a few others. The process here is to plan, act, monitor and take effective corrective action. Each element of management, therefore, has a plan and a means of monitoring. In the case of time, this consists of a program and weekly or monthly measurements of progress. Effective corrective action is not readily prescribed—this requires staff to be knowledgeable and inventive.

My style has been to devolve responsibility commensurately with authority to the members of my team in accordance with their roles and abilities and as these may change from time to time—to let them do the work, in a sense.

As is too often the case in construction projects, the construction phase starts off “in anticipation of deceit” (as I have described it to some). The constructor thinks that he won't be paid his entitlement; the client's agents think that the constructor will cut corners and compromise the quality of the job. Depending on the personalities, this may or may not be able to be changed.

On the Ipswich Road project, we endured this attitude throughout the project, due to one thing: my construction manager and the constructor's manager never got to trust each other. Most others on the project developed a lot of trust in each other, but not these two. I was unable to find ways of mending this.

What might have been one team was therefore split, or maybe it should be said that the two main components of a potential single team never completely merged.

Within “our team,” relations were very good. I left my construction manager to organize the supervision and surveillance work, with the help of some engineers and inspectors. I had no reason to seek to amend the way that he went about this task.

The principles of “partnering” were applied to this job: we had a workshop at the beginning of the construction phase where everyone agreed on goals and standards. But with distrust at the nexus between ourselves and the constructor, the monthly surveys of attitudes were commonly disappointing. As I have said above, I never found the means of mending this distrust.

What would I do about it now? I believe that, in the intervening years, I have developed enough skill in dispute resolution to handle such a situation with more confidence and success. But this is the thing about construction projects—people who have never worked with each other before come together to work for what is a pretty short time, 16 months in this case. It is thus (obviously) essential to get the right environment as quickly as possible, otherwise things will be over before you blink. In this case, I did not succeed.

I learned one skill from my dealings with my construction manager. This has to do with not having the answer to everything. Colin would constantly bombard me with questions and, while I knew that they were largely rhetorical, for a long time I could not stop myself trying to answer them (they were commonly of a technical nature, which he was better placed to deal with, or day-to-day issues that lay in his hands). The answer was to throw them back to him: “Colin, what do you recommend?” This was hugely successful—he was in any case really only in need of a sounding board. It removed from me the impossibility I had in answering them, while allowing me to help just by listening—a good lesson.

Colin and I developed an excellent working relationship. I visited site maybe twice a week and we had our working sessions. We both soon realized how we complemented each other. Part of this symbiosis was our respect for the physical distance that was between us, even though it was only 20 minutes' drive. This “space” allowed each of us to get on and do what we wanted to but, when we met, we each brought a different perspective to problems. We nurtured this relationship in its different dimensions.

Here is another memory. I had dealings with our client through a liaison officer. This fellow was the biggest pain in the butt you can imagine in the way he used to ramble on about anything other than our project. I used to find this very wearing when I just wanted to get away and “do” things. But, as my boss said, “If that is the biggest difficulty you have in satisfying our client, you're lucky.” He was right, of course.

Maintaining public relations was an interesting experience. Many of the calls from the public ended up with me. And, naturally, it is usually the unhappy people who call, not the happy ones. All I did when people called was listen patiently, let them get things off their chest, give what information I had that might help immediately, and promise to get back to them on anything I could not answer straight away. It was astonishing what results this apparently natural approach had—many a time an irate caller ended up by thanking me for the time I had given and for just listening.

What are the lessons from this project? I sense them to be:

Not a lot to have gained from more than a year's work? Or maybe this is great stuff.


It was about this time (by now April 1994) that I got interested in this new thing called “complexity” (having devoured James Gleick's Chaos first). I have always been interested in mathematics. I had a feel for the subject from school days—rates of change, patterns, pictures, etc.—I could feel and see them.

I did a huge amount of reading about it, so that, by the time I helped tender the next joint-venture project in August 1994, I wrote some principles from complexity into the tender document. This next project was the Yandina bypass, another roadworks project.

Perhaps what struck me most forcefully about complex systems was the importance, the criticality, of relationships and the impact of allowing these to grow. Just as I had a feeling for differential calculus at school, so I found that I could feel the way a system works. This sensation is actually a combination of feeling and seeing.

So, even in the tender for the work, I wrote about working on relationships and what might come out of that in terms of responsiveness, problem solving, and innovation.

Soon after the start of the project, when I had a nucleus of staff together, I called everyone to a meeting. I wanted to work toward some of the behaviors I found so attractive in complex systems.

I can't recall the details of what I said and how I went about it, but I tried to get the message across that I wanted people to take charge of their own destinies—blank looks all round. I put this thought to them in different ways, explaining that I was talking not only about the way they did their presently assigned jobs, but also their freedom to negotiate with others to exchange tasks. I knew that the latter would be difficult, especially in the construction phase. The supervision of construction contracts is a very “tight” process—it virtually has to “map” the contractual arrangements and the requirements of the parties under the contract. There is also a need for a lot of predefined documentation.

Anyway, I did my best to create the feeling of an environment in which people could have a lot of choice in the way they ran their jobs and their lives.

I defined my role as:

I painted a picture of my image of the project and the process we would adopt. Don't ask me know how I did this: lots of qualitative words and gestures and hand movements indicating shapes, patterns, movements—I'm sure it was very non-verbal.

This was at the start of the project. I didn't call people together again—if I were doing it all again, I'm sure that I would.

But I did make every effort constantly to reinforce these thoughts and feelings (keep coming back to feelings, don't I?). It became second nature to me to be vague when others were precise, cheerful were they were depressed, curious always, involved emotionally if not in work details, interested, encouraging, and so on. I hope this gives a sufficient picture.

We organized “golf days” every year, taking over a local course for the day, putting people up for the night, making sure that everyone got some prize or token, and especially looking after people's partners—wives, husbands, live-in lovers.

The team morale was always high. Our joint-venture partner conducted staff reviews each year—consistently my colleagues from the other company said they wanted to continue working in the joint venture rather than return to their own company.

This was, by the way, a very demanding project. Three years may seem a long time to design and construct 6km of rural freeway, but let me tell you, it isn't that easy! Apart from a demanding program to start with, we had to manage:

On reflection, while these were trying tasks, their advent provided a crucible for the trial of “complexity-driven” management.

I should point out that the core of our team was the same as on the previous job, Ipswich Road. We therefore brought to this project a feeling of companionship, goodwill, and understanding. That was in our own organization, of course. We met, as on all projects, designers, contractors, and others with whom we had never worked.

“Partnering” was still fashionable at that time; a little less so today. This expression describes the coming together of the parties to define common goals. Excellent, you may say, and it is in principle. Only too often, however, I have seen it advanced by contractors only to be used (abused) by them at a later date to leapfrog the superintendent and get into the client's ear, whereupon the client is often ill-prepared to defend emotionally launched claims.

Partnering was sought by one contractor who had won two of the main contracts. So we sat down and defined our goals, along with statements about principles of behavior. And we measured our performance against these principles once a month. The results were not always encouraging, but at least we had a background, a framework, for action. As before, we found that there was basic mistrust at the prime interface—Colin and the contractor's site manager. I have still been unable to work out to what extent this was a result of the personalities and the contractual, moneydriven nature of the relationships. When problems (disputes) could not be resolved by these two, they were escalated to me and my counterpart in the contractor's organization. I am pleased to say that we were successful in resolving these differences, enabling me to negotiate settlements of claims, even though it took some time.

These two contracts were only moderately well run. I am difficult to please when I can see things that could be done better. But at the same time, I have “been there, done that” when employed by contractors myself, so am more than sympathetic to their difficulties!

Here is the interesting thing: the contractor for the third contract had no real interest in partnering. “We would just like to use common sense,” he said—a statement with which we readily agreed. And relationships on this third job were excellent and the performance just as good: the contract finished two months early, with no outstanding financial issues or disputes at the time of completion.

What were the results of my scene-setting? Let's try to define them:


1997 was a busy year. The two most difficult parts of a project are starting it and completing it.

Just as Yandina bypass was struggling to a close, we were awarded the project management of the redevelopment of Ipswich Hospital, a $80m job over three years.

I define hospital jobs as complex due to the number of people involved, the meeting of the needs of the healthcare service against a changing background of demographics and epidemiology, and the nature of the physical work itself, usually involving refurbishment of existing premises at some stage of the process and “decanting” of departments from old to new premises, or while their premises are being reworked.

On this project, the main organizations involved include:

And then there are the individuals within these organizations. So, many people, many interactions and relationships.

After what I considered to be the success of my approach to management on the Yandina bypass, I was encouraged to press forward. I had no clear thought as to how to do this except by the devolving of responsibility and authority, the expression of trust and respect, the display of honesty, and similar attitudinal qualities described above. I didn't know what else to do—what other way to go about achieving what I dearly wanted to see, and absolutely believed was possible.

I remember at the very first meeting with the contractor (the firm was appointed within a few weeks of our appointment), when I was listing things to discuss in more detail with the contractor, the contractor said “that's remarkably honest” when I said that the contract documents “are a mess and need to be sorted out.” It's odd how I remember this so clearly. Perhaps I did not realize how refreshing and uncommon is absolute honesty from the first meeting.

There is an interesting sideline here. I have often though that I do not have the skill to be dishonest—how could I remember what I've said to whom, especially in times of stress (which this was)? I've never been able or motivated enough to think this through!

The scene was set at the commencement of this job by the contractor, who wanted to institute a partnering process. Common goals, mission statements, and principles of behavior were adopted in a one-day seminar.

It's worth quoting the principles of behavior here. These form the monthly questionnaire. A typical score sheet is provided overleaf.

Do you strongly agree (1 mark), agree (2 marks), feel indifferent (3 marks), disagree (4 marks) or strongly disagree (5 marks) that:

No.StatementAveraged marks
1Communication among team members is flexible and honest2.0
2We have an environment which allows us to develop our skill levels2.0
3Concerns and issues are being resolved in a timely manner2.7
4Information is reaching the relevant parties in a timely manner with queries and documents being accurately responded to2.9
5We are operating in a productive, flexible and solution-driven environment2.0
6We, as a team, are making decisions at the lowest appropriate level2.3
7There is a close working relationship between all parties that involves a high degree of social interaction2.7
8We, as a team, are applying the principles of partnering to all our endeavors on the project2.2
 Overall feeling toward project1.8

Remember that the score is out of 5, with a low score reflecting better feelings.

Reviewing the team's comments, three questions stand out as being less positive than others: numbers 3, 4, and 7.

We have had many discussions on the matters of questions 3 and 4. It is my belief that these complex projects, with lots of detail to resolve, clients changing their minds, and circumstances changing in other ways are always going to suffer difficulties in the supply of information and the resolving of decisions. I need to investigate this in depth at some time. To me, the critical elements in teamwork are relationships and information. I have lots more to say on these topics, but for the moment I will just note that they occur, we work hard on them, and they continue to be difficult.

With regard to question 7, this is an odd one. One obvious comment is that there is, in fact, very little social interaction. Regarding “closeness of working relationship,” we found when we investigated this more closely that this was a result of the strain on the team in the desperately difficult time of handover and commissioning. (Scores had been higher before.) In such a busy time—commissioning of the new ward block— people were less able to stop for a brief chat, everyone became a little tense under the pressure, and relationships suffered to some extent. The score is not bad, but a little anomalous.

How do we make it all work? There is a monthly partnering questionnaire. Apart from that, we do nothing except be natural with each other. We are able to be do this since over the last 15 months we have all been honest and given and received respect from others. Our trust in each other has been well tested and proved. We all understand one another's positions and problems pretty well. We share common goals. We are all having fun.

What are the results of all this good feeling? Too numerous to list here, just let me say that they are many. Apart from anything else, the job is well within program (may finish five to six months ahead of time), comfortably within budget (as opposed to being $10m over budget and “a problem project” at the time of our appointment), and will include substantial enhancements that we have been able to engineer.

The experiences from Ipswich Hospital can be summarized as:


I feel that this review and analysis form a sufficient starting point for setting down the way to go from here. I make no attempt to define this now—I am saying only that this will give me enough to work with in designing my future endeavors.

Some experiences will no doubt deserve deeper examination. I will do this.

“Knowing the unmanageable”—I know project management and those aspects that have proved intractable in the past. I am determined to find better ways of handling them.

I recognize the unstructured nature of my approach in the past. This document is the first step in the process of making it more structured, or should I say designed. I have acted intuitively in the past and now feel able to go about things to some actual design.

The design will not be for the environment, but for the means of creating the environment. Wish me luck!