Saturday, 17 August 2013

Complexity Theory and Project Planning

We all do a lot of planning. However, we also know that sometimes the desired results are not achieved, despite having excellent plans.

How can we tackle this?

Recently I have been looking at an approach called “Complexity Theory”, and its impact on business in general, and on projects in particular.

You and I might consider that a major task of management is to decide where an organisation is going, and to take decisions designed to get it there.

However, Complexity Theory says that in human situations (such as the average business) the future is inherently unknowable, and so the approach of assuming one’s plans will work can be a dangerous delusion. (My italics!)

Of course we should continue to plan, but we should not assume that what we plan will happen. (This is closely related to Murphy’s Law.)

Complexity Theory says that we are never in total control (for example of a computer project). Mistakes will always creep in, and we have to be ready to cope with whatever occurs.

While supplying services to a large organisation I realised that they were trying to exert strong control over all the suppliers, but they had not considered their own staff.

One person in particular become overworked and consistently missed deadlines.The eventual result was a major slippage in the project timescale despite the overall control the company was trying to exert.

I believe the way forward with a project is first of all to clearly identify the desired outcomes. Then (having prepared a draft plan) it is important to carefully monitor what actually happens and to be prepared to take appropriate action immediately the project drifts off course. (A little like dealing with a supertanker.)

If outcomes are not being achieved, determine why.

Complexity theory explains that there might for example be a conflict between management's expressed desires and the true desires of management or staff. If people – who are already busy – are asked to take on additional work, they might decide their normal daily work is more important and let other tasks drift.

Once we truly understand what is happening and see why outcomes are not being achieved, we can take a fresh look at the problem.

In many projects, a slippage just leads to exhortations to catch up, without tackling the root causes of the slippage.

In the example above, we should have reviewed the project objectives after the first slip occurred, and openly discussed why there had been the slippage. We could then have reviewed people’s workloads.

The role of an external consultant is frequently to help management see why there are mismatches between what they want to achieve and what is actually happening. This examination of such areas can initially be challenging, but eventually extremely rewarding!

For further reading on Complexity Theory see: for a start, or

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