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Wicked Problems, Mess Management and Leading Complex Projects

2080 StrategyExecution have delivered a training course fully focussed on Agile Project Management for well over a decade. Since before agile was the widespread term for handling complexity. It’s title is Leading Complex Projects.

Complex Projects Means Different Control Choices

Leading Complex Projects’ graduates know that complexity is a label covering multiple converging factors that show-up as…

  • emergence (or the consequences of combinations of un-pre-definable interactions). Emergence is from the mutual reactions between …
  • agents (or ‘actors’) capable of independent and dependant responses filtered or influenced by…
  • attractors (or the rule-sets) that shape behaviours. In people the strong adaptive forces finish with “What’s in it for me?” and often start with inertia against change.

Surfing the Edge of ChaosIn the field of Sociology Bruno Latour calls it Actor Network Theory (ANT). Many other people, perhaps with a more engineering background talk of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). Leading Complex Projects draws inspiration from Pascale, Milleman and Gioja’s excellent book Surfing the Edge of Chaos.

What Pascale and co. show us is that delivering projects, or in their case corporate strategy, requires Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking recognises that everything is connected and affects everything else.

Pascale, and Leading Complex Projects also show us that we should not try to eliminate complexity. Instead recognise it as the source of creativity and harness it. A new way of thinking needs to be added to the analytical approach, a new set of tools needs to be added to the PMBoK. (But amazingly PRINCE2 is probably more or less OK unchanged!)

Mess Management

A whole slew of really bright thinkers have given the challenges of people and change considerable attention. That thinking shows that building Gantt charts is not the way to succeed in volatile contexts.

Professor Russell Ackoff points out that in systems it is the effects of the interactions between agents that is what we need to study.

If one decomposes in a Newtonian ‘understand the parts to understand the whole’ sense then the essence of what it is we wanted to influence has been destroyed in the analysis.

What we need is synthesis; see the whole and the context, look up and outward.

Ackoff calls dealing with problems with many interacting elements that cause emergence of new patterns of behaviour Mess Management.

Professor Horst Rittel in “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” calls the problems ‘Wicked’.

Wikipedia gives a good over view.

The essence is that; ►tackling the problem changes it as you progress, ►you only understand the problem AFTER you have solved it, ►everyone sees the problem differently, ►how you see the problem frames what you can imagine as a solution, ►no solution is absolutely right or wrong ►there is no way to predefine or even confirm “We’ve definitely finished” and ►every problem is a circular facet of another problem.

Capability and Capacity

A quote I like is

“experience shows I can do anything, but it also shows I can’t do everything”.

For me that translates to “so you need good teams around you and you need them at each level of Direct, Manage and Deliver” and in a CAS context “the role of the project manager is to create the culture and forums that stimulate the teams to share debate (and then as much as possible you should stay out-of-the-way)”.

This last bit is crucial. Many project managers want to be in every information flow so they can… well “manage”.

The trick in the complex is making the flows happen but don’t be in them.

Your understanding will be weak, with high degrees of connection your decisions will ripple far and wide, with increased interaction comes reduced time to consider each.

The trick is to lead.

Best PracticesCreate the culture of others making decisions within authorities.

If you want to test this suggestion look at your own organisation and ask “what percentage of project duration is ‘waiting for management decisions’, what percentage handling fall out from ill-informed decisions and what percentage was good valuable progress made?”

The ‘crucial’ bit above flows from success in creating what Culmsee and Awati, in “A Heretic’s Guide to Best Practice; the reality of managing complex problems in organisations” call a ‘Holding Environment’.

They define a holding environment as “a safe place in which individuals involved can discover or invent their own solutions to their problems”.

Rewind & Summarise & Extend

So Complex projects are those where both the problem and the solution can be hard to see with clarity.

Where successful delivery is achieved by aligning people’s “What’s in it for me” with the organisation’s targets.

Then by creating debate so that interaction leads to emergence of solutions that could not be found by traditional analysis, prediction of actions and building Gantt Charts.

This solution approach really is about leading people not managing tasks to schedules (although that is still a component, but now just a part not the whole).

And PRINCE2? Really!?

myers-briggsThe majority of the world’s managers are Myers-Briggs personality type “J” for judging with “S” for sensing or “I’ll believe it if I can see or touch it and then we will plan then act”.

These are Facts and Decisions Made people.

Not the community who has the easiest of times with “Create a little chaos and stand back, something good will come of it, trust me”.

Scrum as an example of an agile method bridges the gap by giving a rigid procedural framework (Sprint Planning Meetings, Daily Scrums, Fixed length timeboxes during which the team are NOT interrupted, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective) that forces customer supplier and peer level dialogue inside a safe debate space.

PRINCE2 is built around two interfaces.

Between Direction and Project Manager where the exchange is “Here is the target and the boundaries of authority, come back to us if you need anything otherwise we expect delivery as agreed” and between Project Manager and technical teams where the exchange is much the same. An excellent skeleton or framework to support freedoms to inspire “chaordic activity” (Dee Hock )

A Conclusion

Leading Complex Projects uses insight from Complex Adaptive Systems or Actor Network Theory to predict that an environment of rich dialogue will throw up solutions to problems that could be felt but not clearly articulated through structured and predictive approaches.

My take is that if you wrap this in a PRINCE2 inspired set of controls then you have an industrial strength addition to the projects tool-kit you can apply to a whole class of the most challenging projects that we face. Even the migration from “J” decision made to “P” options enabled is eased by awareness.

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About Simon Harris

Simon Harris
Simon is a project management veteran with 30 plus years experience of projects gained mostly within large-scale blue-chip environments across finance and banking IT, defence engineering, oil & gas, government and not for profit. Simon has set-up and run PMO for several programmes and organisations. Simon’s passion is to improve the state-of-the-art in organisation’s ability to cope with change. His thinking rests on the observation that organisations have to balance Run the Organisation with Change the Organisation. Project management is necessary but insufficient. Organisations need a broader and deeper response to change whether discretionary, gradual, irresistible or sudden. Simon welcomes Linkedin connections and you can find out more about Simon from his own website - Logical Model

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