People didn’t understand a thing – but now we can talk

This is a translation of an article by Anders Lotsson on Computer Sweden’s web site. The original article (in Swedish) can be found here.

Even though Projectplace was a success from the start customers didn’t understand the underlying idea. Now social networking has helped us understand Mattias Hällström’s view of projects: dialogue instead of orders.

Mattias Hällström almost had to leave Projectplace.

Now he’s back at the company he once founded, owns 7 per cent of it and is in charge of product development.

Projectplace without Mattias Hällström is like Apple without Steve Jobs, not a great idea.

And he is just as enthusiastic now as in 1998 when he founded Projectplace, a web based platform for project collaboration.

The company was successful straight away but not because of Mattias Hällström’s ideas about project mangement.

-People laughed at me in the year 2000, he remembers.

Now people understand his thinking because of social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook.

– People didn’t understand a thing back then but now we can talk about effective communication.

Projectplace has recently gone through a face lift and become more like the social networks. But for Mattias Hällström this is old news, he’s been thinking this way since he was a researcher at Sisu, which is now part of SICS (Swedish Institute of Computer Science).

– We marketed Projectplace as a shared hard drive because that was what people understood, he says.

The underlying thought behind Projectplace was something he learn to keep quiet about but it was built into the technology. It’s really quite simple:

– Instead of an issue management system where people are assigned tasks to perform, I want a receipt: I commit to doing this.

-That way people don’t commit to too much, he adds.

Mattias Hällström argued that the existing models for project work were to constrained. People used to say: “You get the project you plan for”.

He has never viewed projects as something you first plan then execute but instead as a continuous dialogue. He compares to the view on system development where agile system development and SCRUM have developed as a reaction to traditional waterfall models and other models where you strive to plan everything in detail before coding.

– Where do all these planing theories come from?, he asks rhetorically before answering himself by referring to Henri Fayols (1841-1925) and his theories about industrial production.

– All people should do was move work pieces, he concludes.

Taylorism and the conveyor belt were still the role models when the first versions of computer supported work processes came out, even though the physical situation was completely different; You obviously don’t move pieces of work around from one location to another when working with computers.

The alternative became obvious to Mattias Hällström when he came into contact with Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd’s theories.

-This could change the world, I thought.

Terry Winograd, professor of computer sciences at Stanford and Fernando Flores, former minister in Salvador Allende’s Chilean government, were studying the influence of language in project management. They saw that language does not only describe reality, it can also create reality.

Linguists talk about speech acts: “Do it!”,”I hereby pronounce you husband and wife”. It is pointless to discuss whether these expressions are true or false, the only question is whether they are effective.

-I was very influenced by this when I developed the system, says Mattias Hällström.

But it had to be reduced to a manageable format:

-They described 64 speech acts. What’s left in Projectplace is that everyone can follow what happens.

He describes it as a temporary social system.

-You have to quickly establish trust between people.

As a researcher at Sisu, Mattias Hällström was part of the project CSCW, Computer Supported Cooperative Work. This was an ambitious European project with advanced technology: for instance all participants could see each other via web cams.

-But I was no true researcher, says Mattias Hällström, rather I was a mix of researcher and entrepreneur.

So he grabbed the central ideas and started a new company together with Magnus Ingvarsson and Peter Engstedt. It was legendary entrepreneur, Pål Krüger who helpd him get stared. Pål Krüger, who died in an accident in 2002, had become rich by being the sole reseller of Cisco switches in Scandinavia and had plenty of money as well as a big heart:

-“I don’t believe in this”, he said, “but I believe in you”.

Pål Krüger under-estimated Projectplace because it was almost immediately profitable. During the IT boom, Projectplace was courted by several investors:

-I have been careful, taken the Swedish golden middle way, says Mattias Hällström. We took in quite a lot of venture capital around year 2000, but then we returned 70-80 per cent of it.

He compares to Salesforce who over the same period took in half a billion SEK in venture capital.

-We could never have managed that. I saw no chance of growth in those days.

A steady companion in Projectplace has been Peter Engstedt, who Mattias Hällström describes as a technical genius.

-We built everything ourselves, he describes the pioneering days, because noone else could do what we did.

The company was for many years known as Projektplatsen in Sweden, Prosjektplassen in Norway and Projectplace in English speaking countries, but now the English name is universal.

-Our customers believed that we were different companies. “We are considering choosing Projectplace instead of Projektplatsen”, they would say.

Like many founders, Mattias Hällström is better suited for the role of product developer than manager. He learned this lesson the hard way:

-I was CEO for five or six years, but the role was not for me. I almost crashed. But I had an excellent Head of Board, Robert Ahldin, and he told me to get a CEO.

-I was afraid to loose control, but recruited Pelle Hjortblad, and he loves being a CEO.

Pelle Hjortblad instroduced something called Value Driven Management: fewer rules, more role models.

-We show which values we have by living them. For example we have a star of the month process in the company, but it’s not so important who wins, what’s important is the nomination process. It becomes a pulse that maintains and strengthen the values.

A major dispute a couple of years ago almost ended in him leaving the company:

-I ended up in minority, he says briefly.

An important investor backed him up and saved him. The autumn of 2009 he started a reorganisation which he describes as “starting over”.

-It’s fun to work at Projectplace.

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