Based on the way the human body balances itself, for a sustainable approach to project management.
Observation of nature is often very good advice for engineering projects (architecture, aviation, textiles, IT, neural networks for example...). The functioning of the balance of the human body seems to me to be very enlightening for the management of projects, especially cultural projects. I propose here a methodology for the sustainability of projects, based on an understanding of the functioning of balance in the human body.
So let’s start by defining the processes of balance and support, at the mechanical and physiological level, in a perspective more inspired by the Alexander technique or the Feldenkrais method than by academic anatomy.
What is balance? It is not something fixed, it is a competition of forces, which produce a lasting state. Whether the outward appearance is immobility or movement, the internal energy is the same: it is an active dynamic, which produces this sustained state. The balance is all the more perennial since, thanks to these living forces, it is able to evolve. Openness to change is one of the best guarantees of balance.
Let’s take the example of a waiter carrying a dish full of glasses, at arm’s length, walking at full speed in the large hall of a brewery: the dish is not fixed horizontally, it is in constant movement, around a point of balance, which allows the glasses to remain in place and the liquids not to overflow. If the waiter tried to keep the dish horizontal at all costs, the glasses would surely spill. In this example, balance is achieved through movement. It is therefore clear that balance is a maintained dynamic state, and not a definite static state.
The search for balance is often confused with support management, even in some dance methods. However, they are two essentially materially different (and complementary) notions. Balance is a state, a dynamic of forces, whereas the supports are the points, the zones, on which the system (body, machine, project...) rests.
Differences and complementarities between balance and supports
- The supports are indispensable, since everything is subject to the Newtonian force (the attraction of lighter masses by heavier masses).
- In a state of weightlessness, for example, supports would not be necessary for the construction of a balance.
- Although they are indispensable, supports are much more anecdotal than balance: one can change supports while remaining in the same type of balance. We understand this well with walking: when we walk, we are in balance (we don’t fall), yet we change our supports constantly: sometimes one (one foot), sometimes two, sometimes none (a small jump!).
- I consider the supports in the plural, because they are variable, contrary to balance, which is dynamic but much more constructed.
- The supports and balance are therefore completely independent, even if the balance needs the supports to be embodied.
- In the movement of the human body, balance is built up from the muscles of the perineum (these are the muscles located between the legs, also called the “pelvic floor”, to which the bones of the pelvis are attached, overhung by the spine, then the head). And the supports are most often the feet, at the end of the legs.
Active Approach to Balance
You won’t find this kind of definition of balance in an anatomical method. The anatomical approach will evoke the functioning of the inner ear to control muscle tone. So why approach things differently when anatomical methods are obviously right? Because I treat the subject from the point of view of the action that we can have on our balance, not from the point of view of the physiological observation, on which we have no control. I treat the subject holistically (i.e. as a whole) and practically, not analytically and technically (the explanation of the individual), and it is also in this sense that I will approach the project management method. It is about method, practice, action, not theory. But practice also requires an understanding of things, which is not the same as theoretical understanding.
For information, multiple explanations of the same phenomenon are common and accepted in physics, especially since the discovery of quantum physics. Light, for example, depending on what one needs to do with it, is considered either as a wave or as a set of corpuscles, which is totally contradictory in theory, but verified and operating in practice.
Method for the mechanical balance of the human body
Let’s finish this definition of concepts with a method to work on the balance of the human body, from which we will come up with ideas for project management.
To mechanically balance a physical system, the approach is most often external: for an architecture for example, an engineering work will try to precisely define the forces present to build the tensions that will lead to a state of equilibrium.
But to work on the balance of the human body, even at the mechanical level alone (for example to stand without leaning on the bar in a subway or bus, which is in chaotic motion), the external approach to the balance of forces is no longer operative at all. What is efficient is an internal approach to the construction of one’s equilibrium, because we are the internal actor and not the external spectator. We will find this same opposition “internal approach vs. external approach” in the project management method. Advice given from the outside is most often impossible to put into practice from the inside, or does not lead to anything constant.
How then work your balance from the inside? The Feldenkrais Method (developed by Moshe Feldenkrais from the 1940s), widely used in the field of dance, sport and the arts, uses the “Awareness through Movement” (APM): by making very small movements, little by little one activates an inner awareness of the muscles, their interactions, the vertical stacking of the skeleton, the tensions, the forces present, in order to advance towards a greater balance, i.e. to succeed in doing the same things with less effort and more relaxation.
I give you an exercise, to finish this part, which is not strictly speaking an exercise of the Feldenkrais Method, but which allows you to become aware very simply, through movement, of the nuance between balance and support:
- Stand on your own two legs.
- Raise one of the two legs. Most of the time, it is rather difficult, except if you are a dancer, to stand, you tend to stumble. This is because the body is not actually in a state of equilibrium, but dependent on external support.
- Now, stand on your two legs, and contract your perineum (to put it trivially: “squeeze your buttocks”). Keep the muscles of your perineum strong. This requires continuous effort.
- Then raise one of your two legs, while continuing to contract your perineal muscles. You will immediately notice that you can stand much more easily with one or two legs, almost indifferently.
If you have done the exercise, you have clearly felt, thanks to the “Awareness through Movement”, the essential difference between balance (which is built up internally by the mobilization of the perineal muscles) and support (external, which can be variable: one leg or two legs). An external observer would be of no help to you in building your balance: he could just say “stand straighter, bend a little to the left or to the right, etc.”, which would help a little, but would in no way contribute to the construction of a lasting balance.
How can this awareness of the difference between balance and support be applied to the field of project management and what are the specific benefits?
The balance and support of a project
For project management, I propose this comparison:
- Balance would be the objectives of the project,
- Supports, it would be actions that we would implement.
The most important thing, of course, are the objectives, that is, the why of the project. The actions flow from the objectives, that is the how.
Here is a summary table:
|Objectives, aims of the project||Incarnations, actions for project implementation|
|To “muscle” on a continuous basis||Changing as needed|
|To be shared with teams on a regular basis||To be built flexibly and agilely|
|That’s the most important thing||That’s the most anecdotal|
The essential difference between balance and support for a project is that support is concrete, “heavy” to carry and implement, whereas balance, the purpose of the project, seems more theoretical, less concrete, “easier” to carry, it seems more obvious, stable, and asks fewer questions. In my opinion, the reality is precisely the opposite of this preconceived idea, and this is the cause of many difficulties in the management of projects.
Often much more importance is given to support than to balance in the work, because the support is more tangible, so this is what seems to be “most important”. But then, if you want to do well, you can unbalance the project, and even cause it to fall apart. This means doing things with a gradual loss of meaning; one can end up doing absurd, counterproductive actions, and not being able to do otherwise. All the more so because, because these actions require a lot of work from us, we take a cognitive bias that prevents us from realizing that they go against the objectives of the project. The objectives have become blurred, so we “cling” to the actions, which is actually very destabilizing for the project.
The methodological lesson that can be drawn from this for project management is :
- On the one hand don’t give too much importance to support, to actions, and put yourself in a position to change them if necessary, without fear. Concretely, this can lead us to produce actions that seem to be the opposite of what we had initially planned.
- On the other hand, what leads us to be able to change actions in this way in an efficient way is the fact of always devoting time and energy to question, rebuild, reformulate, share with others, the objectives of the project, its meaning (just as we must continuously mobilize the muscles of the perineum to keep the balance, whatever the changes of support, i.e. the modifications of the external context).
Imagine that the project is your body, that you strengthen both legs very strongly to make sure you remain standing, but in doing so you forget to work the muscles of the perineum. If one of your two legs fails, you fall immediately. Whereas if you had worked your perineum first, i.e. your balance rather than your supports, with legs that may be less solid but more mobile and possibly replaceable, you would have been much less likely to fall if one of your supports was lost, and you would have been able to change your support, thanks to your well maintained balance.
Balance and support in teamwork: the “balance meeting” method
The management of a project in terms of balance and support helps in depth to give the project’s actors the ability to stay in touch with the meaning of the work, and thus to remain motivated and make the most relevant decisions. The project becomes better, more perennial and resistant to the unforeseen, which always occur.
But how, concretely in a team work, how to implement this primacy given to balance, that is to say to the meaning of the project? I propose a method, which I have called the “balance meetings”, made up of a list of recommendations, not hierarchical:
- It is simply a matter of short weekly meetings, devoted to exchanges between the actors on the meaning of the project in which they participate. This may seem at first sight dangerous and potentially destabilizing for the project. This is precisely why this method is effective: you work on the balance of the project in depth, you take the risk, and this is what makes it more solid. Just like the muscles of the perineum, which require real work, not easy, are what guarantees a continuous balance.
- The objective is to ensure that the project’s actors can build the balance, that is an overall vision of the project and its meaning, in a collective and shared way, by allowing them, during regular meetings (which can be short and by videophone), to share their points of view and to question the meaning of the project.
- In the course of these meetings, one realizes that what seemed obvious to one may not be obvious at all to the other (one would not have assumed this because they had never expressed it, it may take time to discover one’s own thoughts).
- This progressive and continuous sharing, on the one hand, allows the finality to be re-founded, and above all to integrate itself in depth in each actor of the project, and on the other hand, to evolve over time, if necessary.
- Each person can have different temporalities of appropriation of ideas, which is quite normal.
- The regularity of the exchanges allows this in-depth integration, at the individual and collective levels.
- These meetings may from the outside seem superfluous, because you cannot see their concrete effect (cf. the outside observer who watched you lift one leg and could not perceive the inner work of balance you were doing).
- There are many concrete things to be done every day for the progress of the project, which seem much more tangible, urgent and important, so these meetings are not easy to hold, yet they are essential.
- These balance meetings in fact allow everyone to arbitrate much faster and better for what he has to do, therefore to decide not to do certain things that prove to be useless and on the contrary to find new ones that are much more useful.
- So, despite the outward appearance that “nothing is happening”, balance meetings bring in the end a lot of time and energy saved, and above all the guarantee that the project will work much better.
- Often, this type of meeting can worry leaders, who, because of a lack of confidence in themselves or in their project, may prefer not to leave room for questioning. But not letting the actors of a project question it means emptying it little by little of its meaning, and opening the door to actions (the “supports”) that are increasingly disconnected, useless and counter-productive. Moreover, leaders may be afraid of wasting the precious time devoted to these meetings, whereas full and complete ownership by everyone, as we have seen, is on the contrary a guarantee of unprecedented time and quality savings.
- Let us not forget that Taylorism (forcing employees to act against their will) was only effective for line work (think of the film “Les temps modernes” - 1936 - by Charlie Chaplin). Today, as jobs are very rarely repetitive, the more the actor of the project (whether employee, volunteer, independent...) finds meaning in his work and the more his efficiency, i.e. his capacity for good initiatives, correlated to his well-being at work, will increase.
- These meetings may not be hierarchical (the “leader” of the project may not necessarily be present, he has to come regularly, and be a good listener above all). What matters is that they are regular (at least once a week, for each given project).
- These meetings do not necessarily bring everyone together all the time, but must be held.
- These meetings do not result in formal minutes. Everyone can write up a report for themselves, but there is no “official” report, so that everyone can appropriate the objectives of the project in their own way, with their own words (if they are someone else’s words in a report, they are experienced as external and undermine our appropriation).
- The process may seem slow. One would think it would be more effective to “give the instructions” from the beginning so that people will carry them out. But reality proves us wrong: if we want to go too fast, we miss the appropriation by the actors of the project, we are in a Taylorist conception, which is the most inefficient and generating psychosocial risks in the contemporary world. And we forget the immense capacities of each person, since the project always makes sense for them, in depth, in interiority, that is to say, it is a balancing factor.
- These meetings can be given whatever name one wishes, in relation to the singularity of the project, so that they will not be experienced as a plated model, but as a force specific to this particular project.
Examples of good balance/support combinations
Here are three examples in the field of cultural projects:
- The evolution of musical practices: Until the end of the 20th Century, “clients”, people who enjoyed music, went to concerts and bought records. At the end of the 1990s, they discovered the possibility of downloading. They now listen to much more music and in a more diversified way than before, because free music is easier to discover (like in a library). To confine themselves to support was the guilt of “piracy”, which led to the bankruptcy of record companies. To work on the balance was to open, from these more numerous musical discoveries, to even more concerts than before, which, for their part, do not pose a problem of payment. The economic support of the music sector in the past was largely based on the sale of records. The new support is mainly the sale of concert tickets. But the objective, the balance, which is to develop the meeting between audiences and musical artists, remains the same, we just changed support. I’m not saying it was easy, but this example illustrates the difference between those who were able to reposition themselves very early on in terms of meaning and balance, to change their actions (support), sometimes very profoundly, and those who had clung to support that had become obsolete.
- A cultural place in which the public no longer comes: if the public loses its attendance habits (for example after the confinement of 2020), one can exhaust oneself trying to solidify one’s former supports, such as making even more communication on paper or on social networks. But to work on the balance is to question the meaning of this theatre, this cinema, this cultural place: why does it exist? Working with the teams to reread the founding texts of cultural policies, rethinking the offer, perhaps making it more evolutionary, even being able to change the nature of the actions that take place in the place. An example: a subsidised cinema could decide, because it has a small audience during commercial screenings, to screen only locally made films, to become once again a place for sharing culture, and for socialising around a cultural requirement that goes beyond academic cinema. This does not mean doing less well, but on the contrary, seeking and encouraging local creation perhaps, thus supporting the dynamics of economic and cultural construction around the audiovisual sector, instead of remaining a cinema that “oars” to seek an audience that does not want to be there. It is not at all demagogic, on the contrary, it is to go further in the requirement, by giving oneself the possibility, thanks to the work of balance (to ask oneself the fundamental questions of democracy and cultural democratization), to make the actions (the supports) evolve in a very important, relevant and collective way. In this field, balance meetings can take place at the national level to work on the evolution of cultural policies.
- Editing a film : Editing a film is a challenge, because there are often tens of hours of rushes, which must be chosen tactfully, to create a film that works, that achieves its initial objectives (tell a good story, make people laugh, make them cry, transmit important ideas...). And sometimes this requires very profound changes in the narrative at the editing stage: we don’t give all the information to the viewer, to create mystery and suspense that will feed even more interest in the film, for example. But also, the content and rhythm of each scene, each shot, each second of the film, is what makes it walk or not. So it can happen that we concentrate, scene after scene, on the details, which little by little make us lose sight of the general balance. When you’ve finished editing, you may have the impression that the film is perfect, when in fact it doesn’t work at all. Why is that? Because we stayed focused on the supports (i.e. the details of each scene, of each shot, which we took care of as best we could). How do you work on the balance of the film? It’s quite simple: watch it in its entirety (at the different stages) maybe once a day. It may seem like a waste of time in each day, especially if it’s a feature film. But, in reality, watching it, over and over again, in its entirety, allows you to never lose sight of your objectives, your purpose, your breathing, your senses, in short, your balance. And that helps to make much better and faster, sometimes hard decisions (like cutting out a successful scene in the editing, which had been expensive to shoot, but which unbalanced the film).
Thanks to Véronique Guiho-Leroux for her careful rereading and proposals.