Rethinking Project Management and Chaos (The Butterfly Effect)


Greetings Leaders!

The Standish Institute has been publishing the Chaos Report for years which basically says that project outcomes fall short despite our best efforts to manage it. Proponents of PMI and Prince2 will debate their conclusions, and there are others out there who say that Agile is the answer to better project outcomes. While I’m a advocate of project management methodologies, perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place and the answer lies somewhere else.

When you think about life, one of the life’s truisms is that “stuff” happens. That whatever you plan for will likely not come out exactly the way you want it to. For those of you not familiar with the Butterfly Effect, it was developed by Edward Lorenz who is a big proponent of the Chaos Theory. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in South America could affect the weather somewhere else in the world. Basically it is a term used to describe how small changes to a seemingly insignificant thing can affect large, complex systems. When we think about projects, there are so many things that could impact the success of a project that fall outside the general framework of project management. Perhaps successful project outcomes don’t depend upon your methodology, but on how you react to what happens?

When you think about project management, it tries to bring about work in an orderly fashion. PMI has its phases of Initiation, Planning, Execution, Control and Closing. Agile has its own philosophy of sprints and scrums. But what if the secret to managing projects isn’t in controlling the process, but in how to react to the inevitable event that tries to derail it?

When you look at it this way, so many questions arise:

  1. Is the project manager who is good at controlling process (planning, tracking, reporting, sprinting) the best suited candidate to ensure a project gets done?
  2. Is the PMO which typically publishes standards and monitors progress, able to assist in bringing order to the chaos brought about when things get off track. For example, knowing the project team is not aligned is different than being able to bring the team back together.
  3. Is the organization’s culture geared to process and procedure, or is it flexible enough to bring balance back to a project when something tips the scales.

While the process of project management is important, I believe most organizations aren’t capable of handing the certain chaos that happens when a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere. Successful organizations have a DNA that enables them to react positively (as compared to just reacting) to unexpected outcomes.

What are your thoughts?

All the best!
All the time!

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