Why My Back Door Still Isn’t Fixed, or: Project Management and the Human Condition

For those of us wondering why our back door isn’t fixed, ex-project manager and Mockingbird […]

Mockingbird / 7.22.11

For those of us wondering why our back door isn’t fixed, ex-project manager and Mockingbird friend Michael Belote of Reboot Christianity offers a reflection on project management and the spiritual condition:

When I was going for my graduate degree in engineering, one of the things we studied was project management. Afterwards, I served as a project engineer for my first job. Both in the classroom and later in my job, we found the same thing to be true: you must plan for failure in any human endeavor.

In project management, we say that every project must balance Quality, Cost, and Schedule. You can demand that one of the three meet a hard specification, can make one optimal, and must accept deviations in the third. Perfection is not an option. The wise project manager knows that people are people, and they cannot achieve perfection; thus you must choose one thing to demand and another thing to optimize, and you accept variance in the third.

Consider purchasing a house. If you absolutely must move in 60 days, then you are demanding the Schedule. If you want the nicest house you can find during that time, then you are optimizing Quality within your demanded schedule. Thus you must accept that to find the nicest house quickly, you’ll have to pay more. On the other hand, if you don’t care when you move, you can demand a maximum cost of $150,000, you can optimize the quality (“best house I can get for that price”), and you just have to accept the fact that it might take some time to get there.

Car salesmen love this fact, and exploit it. They know that when someone goes to a car lot, they have a demanded Schedule already in mind—they want the car this week or two weeks from now or whenever. If the salesman can push them to a higher quality product (“optimize the quality”), then he can sell it for a higher price. Salesmen hate when someone comes in who “might” want a new car, but is willing to wait; this means that he can price-compare and bargain-shop and drive down the cost while keeping quality high…but only because the schedule is not important.

Seven years ago, my new bride and I bought a house. It’s a nice house—not showy or all that expensive, but we’re happy with it. One of the things we wanted to fix was the back door, where the trim is rotted. We even got the seller to include $500 in the closing to allow us to hire someone to fix it.  Guess where this is going?  The back door still isn’t fixed. We have a “demand” that the door be fixed right; we want to optimize the cost; therefore the schedule is not important. (For what it’s worth, those priorities are soon to change from my wife, if I don’t get my act together…)

The point is that I think we all realize that things are not perfect in projects or in life. You can’t get everything. We say it all the time, in various ways: “there is no free lunch”, “you get what you pay for”, “buyer beware”, etc.  Another way to say it is that humans are limited—we can only achieve so much, and we will always be forced to accept aspects of a project that can’t go the way we want them to. The point is that we can only control so much: a person must pick, in a project, which aspect (quality, cost, or schedule) she is willing to sacrifice.

We all understand this as a natural issue when dealing with our day-to-day lives, but we often have a difficult time translating this principle into our spiritual lives. So I encourage you to think about things as a project manager would do—what is the demand, what is the optimization, and what must you allow to fail?

Want to really be a good theology student? Understand that you either must sacrifice on the quality of your theology education, the timing, or the cost. So maybe you go to the world’s best seminary, and you do it all in one year—that will cost you some serious cash, and possibly a career. Or maybe you want to get a self-taught theology education (slight sacrifice on quality) through the Internet (free)…that’s great, but it will probably take longer to get a really good education.

I think the project management principle also applies at an overall level.  We often expect to become closer with God or better people quickly and costlessly.   This high view of human ability will cause us to be frustrated with the reality of the results, in the same way you’re probably frustrated with the expensive road work in your town that’s been going in for months.  Why can’t they just get it done well, inexpensively, and quickly?  As a good project manager knows this is impossible – because of human limitation – it makes sense to apply that limitation to other areas of life, especially the areas we have the least control, including spirituality.

So why not just sacrifice on the cost?  Why not become an uber-Christian quickly through hours of community service, constant Bible study and unceasing fellowship?  For the local road project, the best thing to do would be to perform high-quality work quickly and pay whatever necessary to achieve it.  Most of the time, however, this can’t be done.  Most of the time, on public projects, quality is optimized within a given budget, which is why those roadwork signs on the local interstate have been there seemingly forever.

In Christian life, the Law tells us to meet a hard demand for ethical “quality” – “Be perfect, just as I am perfect.”  And it demands we meet it as quickly as possible, as we feel guilt urging in that direction almost continuously.  Often, however, something roughly analogous to Cost is demanded to meet a hard specification: our wills severely impair the amount of work we’re able to put into something.  As a result – like the government project – the work of sanctification is creepingly slow, to the point that outward signs of any sort of spiritual “progress” are often rare.  And this is natural – at least from a project manager’s point of view.

The great news about Christianity, as well as the place where it mercifully differs from project management, is in how we are graded. As a project engineer, I had to report out each year on budget, schedule, and specifications: my raise and performance evaluation were based upon it. Thank God, that is not the case with our souls! God has already declared you to meet His expectations, and He has already promised your raise (into heaven, no less).

Understanding this can lead to what is known as “Christian joy.” If you try and get, say, a great prayer life quickly and at no cost, you will be frustrated. You will always feel like you are committing and failing—“God, this time I really am going to get good!”, only to fail yet again. And if you think that God is grading you like an employer, then you will be very frustrated and question His love for you.

Instead, understand that our projects are never going to be perfect, until the day that we are with God Himself. Our projects (i.e. our selves) will always fail in some way—quality, delivery, or cost. But God’s not going to jettison us. In fact, He already has an amazing sort of promotion: our adoption as sons and, if sons, then heirs.