Clocks or clouds? Project Management in the age of Complexity

The Sunset of Linearity and the emergence of Project Leadership

The 21st century, since its beginning, faced an increase in project complexity. This is due to the global changing of social conditions, mainly linked to the seven megatrends that are affecting the global environment (Ross Dawson, 7 megatrends of professional services, 2005). According to Dawson,

  • Client Sophistication
  • Governance
  • Connectivity
  • Transparency
  • Modularization
  • Globalization
  • Commoditization

Are permanently changing the way project managers can successfully lead their projects. All these trends are not totally independent, but they are related and interconnected, so that we cannot face one of these trend without considering the others. The final result is a highly interconnected environment, and, as a consequence, critically complex to handle.

Classic (project) management theory is based on the belief that the environment where the project develops is widely linear and predictable, in which a project manager can plan, since the beginning of the project, a set of deliverables, and deliver them, step by step, up to the project conclusion, and changes are always considered negative and caused by lack of proper planning.

The experience on the last two decades suggest that this paradigm is no longer relevant, and new emerging features of projects must be taken into account. According to Jaafari (Ali Jaafari, Project Management in the age of Complexity and Change, 2006) the characteristics of complex social environments are:

  • Open systems: complex society is made of continuously changing webs of interacting entities, which cause global instability of the system;
  • Chaos: complex systems are affected by uncertainties that make the traditional planning-executing-controlling management attitude inapplicable;
  • Self-organization: complex social environments are affected by self-organizing attitude, following the so called autocatalytic process, which, at the end, make autonomous small and basic units able to manage the complexity better than big entities;
  • Interdependence: the great amount of interdependencies makes any linear reductionist model useless and any prediction almost impossible, due to feedback processes which are very common in a complex environment and almost impossible to face using linear approaches.

In this context, the hard part of project management, related to the classic tools (WBS, Gantt, Budget, Earn Value Management, RAMP etc.) is no longer enough for a project manager to effectively manage a project, and a great variety of soft aspects of project management are becoming crucial in, so that someone talk about project driving instead of project management, and of project leader instead of project manager (Francesco Varanini, Walter Ginevri, Il Project Management Emergente, 2009).
The most used and very vivid metaphor in literature to represent the new complex environment is navigation: the project manager has no much more that the final goal for his/her project (project manifesto instead of Project Charter), the project plan is the route of the ship in the sea of the project environment, and the project manager must be ready to lead the project team (the crew) to the goal, being willing to adjust the route many time, according to conditions encountered while sailing. One key point I want to underline is that, even if the new context is complex and unpredictable, this doesn’t mean that planning is no longer required and meaningless for a project manager: even if a captain cannot plan a route being sure that weather will be always good, he/she is expected to know the weather forecast and look frequently at the barometer, and, consequently take countermeasure whenever required.

In “The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated”(T.Kinni, 2017), the difference between complicated and complex systems is described as following, and a common error made by managers in facing complexity is underlined at the end: “complicated problems can be hard to solve, but they are addressable with rules and recipes” (…); instead, “the solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, because complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes”. “When facing a problem, managers tend to automatically default to complicated thinking. Instead, they should be consciously managing complexity”.

A basic and very effective way of measuring the complexity of a project management network is the one defined by Kaimann (Richard Kaimann, Defining the Complexity of a Project Management Network, 1975). According to the Author, the complexity index of a project network is the ratio between the number of spots on the number of connection: if this index is 1, this means linearity, instead, the farer is this index from 1, and higher is the grade of complexity of the system. This very basic and intuitive approach can be used to determine the level of complexity of any system, and, as obviously appear, the key is the number of interconnections the elements of the network have. There are also more evolved approach keeping into account the strength of each connection (Edoardo Favari, Large Transportation Projects Management – a non-linear approach, 2013).

In this framework, the project manager is no longer the watchmaker enabling, by few calibration, the perfect mechanic system of the project to work perfectly, but it is more closed to the architect of a castle made of clouds. This new approach, no longer deterministic but statistic and based on uncertainty, shifts the focus of the project manager from the technical delivery of the project team to the global management of the cloud made of project stakeholders, most of whom are outer of the project team and with no hierarchic dependency to the project manager, and to keep strong relationship to the project sponsor, whose support become vital to the project manager to keep the empowerment to lead stakeholders. Again, in this framework, can be easily seen, together with the technical competence that was once seen as the key of a project manager leadership, the increasing importance of soft skills, that include a wide variety of humanistic competencies, such as: leadership, team building, motivation, communication and active listening, influencing, decision making, political and cultural awareness, negotiation, trust building, coaching and conflict management.

This changing of perspective can be seen as the transition from the homo economicus to homo psychologicus model in the project management, which become definitely a social science. The results of this approach, as for many researches in social and behavioural fields, confirm that macro-level indicators of a project, such as earn value management indexes and risk assessment, are strongly affected by behavioural processes at the micro-level. So that, a micro-level perspective on human behaviour must be incorporated within the project management model, yielding to a better understanding and eventual management of the processes involved in the project execution.

In conclusion, in this comprehensive paper, I tried to provide a very big picture of project management trends in the last decade, and how the skills required to a project manager to be effective are dramatically shifting to the humanistic area, even though the ability to handle the (traditional) classic hard tools of project management stays foundational for any project initiative. In the next future, we expect these trends to mature, and the hard skills will be more and more covered by specific software, so that the soft skill will result as the core of a project manager’s competencies.

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Edoardo Favari

PhD Infrastructure Engineer with a wide experience in managing large infrastructure projects all over the world. His research interest is focused on project management of large infrastructure and technology advanced projects, economics and social related aspects of transportation.