Rumours of a new project management paradigm
Many project managers spend a great deal of time on the technical aspects of project management, often overlooking the “softer”, people-oriented, issues that can derail a complex project. Although many books – including the gospel according to PMBOK – stress the important of soft skills, the current paradigm of project management is essentially mechanistic. In simple terms this means that the discipline is built on the assumption that future outcomes can be predicted accurately based on current information and actions. It is also implicitly assumed that human actions, interactions (and consequences thereof) can be objectively observed and then corrected or controlled.
A paper entitled Mapping the Strange Landscape of Complexity Theory and Its Relationship to Project Management, published in June 2007 of issue of the Project Management Journal challenges this paradigm of project management [Aside: The print version of the paper has an even more memorable title – see the reference at the end of this post]. According to the authors, recent advances in the study of complex systems suggest new ways of looking at the discipline. The idea of applying concepts from complexity theory to the social sciences is not new. In fact, a quick search revealed an introductory book on the topic in five seconds flat. What’s new, the authors claim, is the application of these ideas to project management.
In the paper, the authors start by briefly describing some well-established concepts from complexity theory which form the basis of their proposed paradigm. It would take me too far afield to discuss these in detail, so I refer my readers to Wikipedia for details and further references:
It is broadly accepted that many of the above concepts played an important role in modifying, if not overthrowing, the mechanistic (or Newtonian) paradigm in the natural sciences. In particular, these concepts led to the invention and adaptation of a host of new qualitative and quantitative research methods. Based on this, the authors make the following plea, and I quote : “ …If even pure science is finding the need to become more flexible in its research methods while not relapsing into ‘anything goes’, is it perhaps too much to hope that research into projects and their management will take account of these developments…”.
The authors then proceed to outline how the discipline of project management might take account of the new developments. As a first step, they highlight connections between complexity theory and the recent development of the concept of complex responsive processes of relating (CRPR) in organizational theory. This concept (which I confess, I don’t fully understand) is apparently a means of looking at complexity in organizations in a manner that emphasises interactions or communication among people. As I understand it, CRPR is concerned with how conversation and other communication patterns in specific situations are determined by, and in turn determine or modify, power relationships in organizations. An organization is thus viewed as an emergent property of interaction between humans, who use language to converse and also to negotiate status and power. Basically- again, as I understand it – the organization is created by individuals communicating (or relating) with each other in complex ways.
The outcome of a specific instance of interaction (or relating) between individuals is unpredictable because people are different, and there is an element of spontaneity to any specific interaction, even those that occur regularly. This allows for the possibility of transformation and novelty as the organisation continually evolves via CRPR. The future is thus continually being constructed through processes of interaction. Moreover, since outcomes are not predictable to a fine level of detail, people involved in these interactions experience anxiety. This anxiety has to be acknowledged and managed. However, as all individuals in the organization are linked in a complex web of evolving relationships, managers themselves are participants in these processes of relating. A manager (however high up or powerful) cannot be an objective observer of the system, as her or she is a part of it. An organization, can thus be viewed as a complex system displaying properties analogous to those displayed by complex physical systems (unpredictability and emergence, among others)
Some implications of CRPR for project management include:
Any project structures (work, tools, plans) must be viewed as forming and being formed by interactions between people (in a complex feedback loop). Projects are thus social arrangements, not structures.
Power is located in the processes of relating, rather than individual managers. So, close attention should be paid to importance of local communication between team members.
Managers need a “new” set of competencies that might include: a) sensitivity to patterns of conversations, and the ability to enable conversations that enhance learning and generate knowledge and b) the ability to deal with anxieties that are an inevitable consequence of constant change (i.e. evolving relationships).
The authors conclude by discussing some implications of complexity theory (and CRPR in particular) for what happens when people work together on project teams. This ties in with the much neglected “soft side” of project management mentioned in the first line of this post.
A caveat is in order at this point: although I do know something about physics, I’m no expert in the social sciences. Therefore I may well have misinterpreted the authors’ meaning and intent in areas where they discuss CRPR. What’s presented here is my interpretation of their words. Having said that, I can now venture a few comments on the paper in the spirit of a curious layman. They are:
The word “complex” and “complexity” is used in two senses in the paper: first, in the context of complex projects and second in the context of complexity theory and complex systems. The former (what is a complex project?) is left undefined in the paper. However, from what the authors discuss, it appears (to me, at least) that the ideas from complexity in the second sense apply to any kind of project, not just complex ones.
The connections or analogies between the eight or nine concepts from physics and CRPR are not obvious from a reading of the paper. I can see some connection between CRPR and unpredictability and emergence, and have alluded to this in an earlier paragraph. But the others, I don’t see at all. This may well be due to my lack of knowledge of the social sciences and CRPR in particular.
The physical concepts of complex systems have very precise meanings (as readers might gather from following the Wikipedia links above). However, the social analogues of these concepts are considerably harder (for me) to understand. Again, this is likely due to my lack of knowledge than any fault of the authors.
Despite my aforementioned quibbles, I found the paper very intriguing, as it dealt with issues that are of interest to me as a project manager. I look forward to the day when the social and people aspects of projects become the prime focus of project management, but I think we’re a long way from that at present. To conclude, I refer once again to the title of the print version of the paper : Dorothy and Toto may know they’re not in Kansas anymore, but they haven’t yet figured out where they are.
Cooke-Davies, T., Cicmil, S., Crawford, L., and Richardson, K., We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto: Mapping the strange landscape of complexity theory, and its relationship to project management, Project Management Journal, 38 (2), 50-61 (2007).