Mosh Pit Portfolio Management

Should managing a portfolio of projects be like a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert, or like a waltz at the royal ball?  Maybe both.liturgy

This week showed good progress toward setting up portfolio management at my new organization.  But, by Friday afternoon I was really tired.  You know how your thoughts wander a bit when that happens.  Since I’ve been writing this blog, too often thoughts or experiences click on ideas for blog posts.  When we are really into something, our experiences all feed into our own frame of reference.  I was worried that I’m becoming unproductively obsessed.  Fortunately, I found out this week that I’m not unusual.

Philip Roth, a successful novelist since the ‘60s, was in the news this week.  He turned 80, is about to publish a set of profound works, and is in a PBS special that will air soon.  I heard an interview with him on NPR.  He said he’d retired from writing.  He has post-it notes stuck up around the house reminding him he’s retired.  That’s because it’s now OK for him not to think about everything he observes as a possible story or character in a story.  I sort of get that in my own smaller blogger sort of way.  So many things I see or hear click together and seem like they are part of what I want to write about in “The Other Side of Risk.”  Being retired and not having to think about everything in terms of his work give him a sense of restful peace.  Maybe I’ll do that someday, but for now making odd connections is sort of fun.

NPR got me going this week with a story about physicist mosh pit enthusiasts.  There are these two Cornell physicists who like heavy metal rock and mosh pits.  Watching from the side one day, one of them realized that there are probably patterns in how the moshers slamdance that could be instructive to understand.  So, there you go again, two guys who love physics and love mosh pits putting two and two together.  It’s not just me.  The heavy metal physicists studied mosh pit motion and created a model.  You can see it at the NPR website.

Reading about the mosh pits and looking at the model, I started thinking about portfolio management.  Maybe the projects we do in big organizations are sort of like slamdancers in a mosh pit.  Each slamdancer initiates motion driven by his own motivations.  The interactions create a sort of synergy and positive feedback, but there’s also a sense of risk because of the randomness of it all.  Is it just random, or are some of the motivations collisions that do harm?  And the pit is always surrounded by a set of those less adventurous participants who get involved to some degree and find satisfaction in watching or boosting along the occasional crowd surfer who comes his way.  It seems sort of a big deal to cross over from being an observer to a slamdancer.

When we implement portfolio management, how much should it be like a mosh pit?  Do you want to retain the energy and synergy of the mosh pit?  Participants like mosh pits because they can randomly self-initiate and bounce off one another.  They move to ear splitting music that raises the energy level but masks shouts of pain.  And, there’s the risk of getting slammed by someone twice your size.  But people take the risk.  They like it; and it’s fun to watch.

I think I’m rambling incoherently.  Maybe that’s just the tired in me talking.  People are more likely to create crystal clear vision, devise thoughtful strategies, collaboratively set priorities, share resources, and track progress to be sure that their portfolio of investments is paying off.  We’re organized.  Portfolio management should be like a watching a waltz at the royal ball.  Shouldn’t it?

Maybe I’ll play some Bad Brains and Anthrax at the first Portfolio Steering Committee and see what happens.  I probably won’t, but it’s been fun thinking about it.  If things get crazy, I will check back with the mosh pit pattern research.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2013 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”

The photo is from the NPR website.

6 thoughts on “Mosh Pit Portfolio Management

  1. This is creative! I like it! You are alluding to chaos and creativity, the upsides and the downsides (masking shouts of pain). I think as a portfolio manager you can let it be both but it would be best to be an observer, not a crowd surfer, so you can hear those shouts of pain, along with the allowing the creative energy and trying to direct it all toward a waltz. Nice analogy.

    • Thanks, Nia. It seems like a lot of my posts are inspired by non-project management things. Not sure if everyone else finds it informative, but it’s fun for me. Glad you liked it.

      • Your comments tie directly in with project management, though!

        Portfolio management scares the heck out of me. This post helped me see that maybe I could do it. Because I think you have to be a little loose to manage that much stuff and as a PM I was always in tight control. Of course I had a hard time visualizing how to extend that control to a portfolio of projects. Your creative story suggests the balance of allowing chaos and keep the orderliness behind the scenes, to allow freedom and creativity while quietly providing structure that allows it to be productive work.

        Specifically, I set up a lot of structure on my project, sharepoint sites for sharing information, regular meetings, minutes, and a system for flowing information and keeping track of it. That helps people and once it’s in place as a structure you can duplicate it for multiple projects and other people can help you maintain it. Then you can provide leadership, which is a different part. The leadership is bringing people together and also nurturing independent work, resolving conflict, facilitating communication, orchestrating meetings where everyone gets heard, and that’s the mosh pit part, particularly in the initial stages.

  2. OK. Here are some more ways to look at it. Forgive me, slamdancers.
    Slamdancers have to decide whether to dive into the mosh pit and when to get out of it. Sometimes their judgment is a bit impaired, so as the mosh pit portfolio manager, you help them decide. You stroll around the active part of the pit checking out both the moshers and the moshers to be. Sometimes you see a mosher who shouldn’t be in there – too small, too drunk, too aggressive, too naive. You pull them out and encourage them just to listen to the music so they can get more ready or reconsider. Sometimes you can see that there are too many moshers at once. Even if they are all appropriate moshers, there isn’t enough room and they start having issues with one another because they can’t slamdance the way they want. You either get some moshers to take a break, or get the crowd to make more space for the active moshers. Sometimes you see a would-be mosher on the edge ready to jump in so you sidle over, gaze into their eyes, and do a quick assessment of whether they are ready for the mosh pit challenge. If they pass your test, mosh away. It not, you help them see what they can do to get more ready – grow, sober up, relax, watch some more to see what it takes, or find another mosh pit more their speed. Ideally, they reset expectations. If not and they dive in, you know to keep your eye on them. Finally, it’s a good idea to be friends with the band. After all, they choose the music and decide when to start and stop. They also have the microphone, speakers, and amps so they get heard the best.
    It’s a tough job. But if you’ve moshed enough to know what makes for a good slamdancing experience, can relate that to others without being too conceited about it, recognize that a few bruises are OK but someone getting really hurt isn’t, make friends with the band, and realize that the best thing is for the moshers to self organize with just enough rules to keep it real, then you can rule the mosh pit without the slamdancers realizing it.
    Gotta go. The music is about to start. You’re awesome, Nia. Go be a portfolio manager.

    • Hi Glenn,

      That is so fantastic. I am glad that I was able to draw this out of you!!

      Wow, thanks for the encouragement on portfolio management. It feels good that you see that potential in me.

      I don’t know when it will be expressed as I’m currently working on art, but you never know; if the right opportunity arises, I will consider it now.

      Warm regards,


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