The High Impact PMO

How do complexity sciences, indirect strategies and human dynamics advance project management at new levels of performance ?

sand pile effect

The Sand Pile Effect

The world is about to breach a critical threshold in the global geopolitical dislocation. And as with every breach of threshold in a complex system, this will generate a suite of nonlinear phenomena: developments that do not conform to the usual rules and the traditional projections, be they economic, monetary, financial, social or political.

LEAP 2020[1]

Imagine you are on a beach of fine, golden sand.

Take a shovel and a bucket. Build a castle by pouring wet sand regularly on what will become the chateau of Sleeping Beauty. The pile of sand becomes higher and higher. Now and then, the heap of sand slides in avalanches from the top. Isn’t it frustrating?

This experiment was built by Per Bak[2], Chao Tang, and Kurt Wisensefeld, a group of physicists at the Santa Fe Institute in the 1980’s. Per Bak was a twentieth century Danish theoretical physicist. He coauthored the 1987 academic paper that coined the term “self-organized criticality.” Their beach was a table in their laboratory where the experiment repeated your sand pile and its avalanches.

What’s interesting is that, when piling higher, sand piles achieve a rest angle and a rough stationary state. As the sand is poured ever more upon the sand pile, we see many small avalanches of sand occurring. From time to time, we see a large or very large slide occurring. The sand rest angle weaves around a critical value without ever stabilizing. Figure 1 describes this phenomenon.

Figure 1 – Sand piles produce avalanches around a critical slope and their size is inversely proportional to their frequency.[3]

There is no typical size for sand pile avalanches.

If you try to estimate the weight of human beings, the more humans you will weigh, the better you will become in ability to estimate their mean weight.

Conversely, if you try to estimate the size of the sand piles avalanches, the more avalanches you will observe, the greater your chance to see an avalanche size bigger than any previous one.

Repeating the experiment long enough, you will see massive avalanches, although these may be rare in occurrence. This remains true whatever the grain of sand.

This is a power law[4]. Per Bak and his friends have shown that it was a law in 1/f. What does it mean? F is the frequency of the avalanches. The function is the size of the avalanches. The more frequent the avalanches, the smaller they are. And the less frequent they are, the bigger they are.

Big events can be triggered by the same tiny (and invisible or undetected) cause.

An example of self-organized criticality.

A sand pile organizes itself until it tunes itself to a critical state of its rest angle. Each small avalanche cascades other small avalanches, thus redistributing its energy information from one group of sand to the other.

Complexity originates from the tendency of large dynamical systems to organize themselves into a critical state, with avalanches or “punctuations” of all sizes.

Large systems do not need massive movers to move immensely.

Ecosystems tune their structure to a poised regime between order and chaos, between subcritical and supra-critical behavior, with power law avalanches. What we observe here can also apply to flooding of rivers, to many biological systems, to earthquakes, and, most importantly for you, and to all kinds of social organizations as well.

Organizations also are oscillating between order and chaos.

They permanently self-organize by importing energy and information while exporting to the outside the maximum possible production of entropy.

In his book The Thermodynamics of Evolution, François Roddier explains that[5]

the universe incessantly strives to maximize the speed with which energy dissipates. That this principle also applies to human evolution should therefore not surprise us.

In 1988, the American scientist Rod Swenson recognized the Law of Maximum Entropy Production (LMEP or MEP) that states

the world will select the path or assemblage of paths out of available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints.

Finally, we know since Claude Shannon that entropy and information are equivalent (though with a different sign). Exporting entropy to the outside is done by importing information from the outside. An organization that closes on itself ends up “lukewarm” and cannot produce any work. Organizations open on their external environment import information on the evolution, the expectations, and the other players of this environment. By doing so, they generate the equivalent of avalanches that are reorganizations, small and large, frequent and infrequent.

This is a lesson for anyone working in the domain of Strategy and Project Management.

Sometimes as a Strategy Management Officer or a (Strategic) Portfolio and Project Manager, you will be part of “something” sparking the avalanche. Sometimes you will stay a spectator or a watchman awaiting the next “Big One.”

Remember though that even if a Big One is a sure event, no one can predict when it will happen.

Yet, getting on board of a Big One is often the opportunity of a lifetime. Do not miss such a chance to be engaged in something big.

Look at the example of bicycles. Bicycles were introduced in the late nineteenth century in Europe (around 1885). This has been a lifetime event. By the early twenty-first century, more than 1 billion bicycles have been produced worldwide. They now outnumber cars. However, only modest improvements have followed the first time humans used only two wheels in tandem as a means of transport.

Key Takeaway

Regardless of the situation, playing with the waves of the inevitable successive reorganizations (avalanches), and especially big ones, is a chance for the Strategy and Project Management Community willing to catch opportunities to favorably surf on these waves and learn to develop favorable impact.

To your continued success


This article is an extract of my book The High-Impact PMO . You can also read some related articles here:

High-Impact PMO

[1] LEAP (Laboratoire Européen d’Anticipation Politique) 2020, GEAB49, November 2010.

[2] Bak, P., How Nature Works, The Science of Self-Organized Criticality


[4] A power law is a functional relationship between two quantities, where a relative change in one quantity results in a proportional relative change in the other quantity, independent of the initial size of those quantities: one quantity varies as a power of another. Source: Wikipedia

[5] François Roddier, Thermodynamics of Evolution, An essay of thermo-bio-sociology, Parole Editions, 2012.

PMO or TMO? 3 Key Differences

Do You Need a PMO or a TMO?

Everyone knows what the various types of PMO generally do. Yet, following the current fad for “business transformations”, many change the name of their PMO into TMO, Transformation Management Office. This misleads everyone since a transformation is very different from mere projects or programs. Accompanying a transformation is indeed radically different from managing a project.

A TMO should obviously play some or all of the traditional PMO roles. After all, transformations present many of the characteristics of large and complex programs. However, because of their characteristics of complexity, transformations result in the emergence of “something” that cannot be inferred from the mere characteristics of the components initially concerned by the transformation. A PMO knows how to support a project delivering a new aircraft. A TMO learns to accompany the transformation of an organizational culture.

Therefore, there are specific roles that a real TMO must play that traditional PMOs do not have to fulfill. These specific roles find their origin in what transformations are as compared to project portfolios or programs.

What Is a Transformation?

The Cambridge dictionary tells us that a transformation is “a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone”.

A transformation is also “the process of changing completely the character or appearance of something in order to improve it”. As a synonym, a metamorphosis is a change into a completely different form or type, a change in composition or structure.

In aerospace, switching technologies from mechanical to hydro-mechanical and then to fly-by-wire control systems are typical examples of transformations.

E-commerce is another example of a transformation that shakes entire consumer behaviors, markets and businesses. Platform companies have revolutionized the way sellers and customers interact.

Transformation Management Requires Studying and Solving New Problems

Transformations clearly belong to the domain of complex systems. Complex systems are made of a large number of components that dynamically interact together in modes impossible to understand and control.

First, these interactions result in behaviors at the macro-system level that individual behaviors at the micro-level cannot explain. Transformation management must therefore develop a set of capabilities built upon complexity sciences.

Secondly, when the system is a social organization, transformation management also requires to study and solve advanced human dynamics. and indirect strategies.

Thirdly, direct interventions (such as mandating individual behaviors) are unlikely to bring about the required change in a complex system. Transformation management needs to study and solve indirect strategies that prove to be more effective because they touch the deeper, more persistent drivers of behavior.

Transformations Result in the Emergence of Something Radically New

During a transformation process, new “things” emerge. Emergence is “the fact of something becoming known or starting to exist”, or “the process of appearing”. Several types of emergence exist.

Example 1 – when you mix and cook sugar, wheat, yeast and other components, you get a muffin that is radically different from its constituents.

Example 2 – a caterpillar hungrily stuffs itself with leaves, grows, and then pupates a chrysalis. When metamorphosis is complete, the pupal skin splits and a butterfly flies off.

The first example is an “emergent behavior” that characterizes properties of a system that are in some way (possibly in a particular way) not captured by the properties of the parts.

The second example is a temporal version in which a new kind of system “emerges” at some historical time without in some way being captured in the previously existing systems.

In each case, the initial system and its components become something entirely new. There is no way to run the process backwards, recover the initial state of the components, and start all over again.

Some transformations require a long and continuous process. Others are explosive.

Transformations Rely on Interactions Between Agents

Interactions between agents are more important than the components themselves.

Emergent properties are a product of the synergies between the agents (components of a system). These synergies give rise to a new macrolevel of organization. Therefore, these emergent properties cannot be observed locally in the subsystems. They you can only observe them at the macrolevel structure.

The key point here is that the behavior of complex systems results more from the interactions (inside and outside the system) between the components than from the behavior of the components themselves taken in isolation.

Do not conflate interactions with interdependencies. Most projects depend on other projects or initiatives to deliver some enabling capabilities that are essential to their successful implementation. This is the domain of interdependencies. An interaction is simply a back and forth action or communication between different agents with some kind of resulting effect.

Example: The properties of water are not apparent in the properties of gasses of oxygen or hydrogen. Neither does an isolated water molecule reveal most properties of water. However, a microscopic amount of water is sufficient to observe these properties.

Phase transitions occur along lines of equilibrium. An exchange of energy and various sets of volume, pressure and temperature transform the water into different states as you can see in the figure below.

Whereas the solid area is well distinct from the other two, the line separating the liquid area from the vapor area ends up at some critical point beyond which the liquid phase can no longer be distinguished from the vapor phase.

In the business world, production, demand and offer are similar to volume, temperature and pressure of the water.

Transformations Concern the Macrolevel and the Microlevel

Due to the development of the different levels of organization within a single overall system, emergence gives rise to a complex dynamic between the different levels; most notably between the macro and micro levels of the system.

All the restaurants in a city give a typical example of this phenomenon. There is a macrolevel looking at how the people in the city eat globally outside their homes. And there is a microlevel that considers the individual restaurants. Running a single restaurant does not say anything about how the network of restaurants in a city works. Nor why you could run this network with some kind of “plan” similar to the management of a single resturant.

As a consequence, you cannot describe the emergent macrolevel phenomena with the vocabulary applicable to the parts. The emergent features require new terms and new concepts to categorize them.

A TMO Should Develop 3 Typical Characteristics

TMOs do differ very clearly from the traditional PMO. Several characteristics distinguish a TMO from a mere PMO. Here are three key characteristics among all of them:

  1. A TMO focuses primarily on the interactions between the components of this system over time, space and depth.
    • This requires that the TMO study and solve problems of network analysis, human dynamics and stakeholder management.
  2. A TMO addresses complex tasks and interactions at different scales
    • A family is not a village, a village is not a large city, and a large city is not a country. This is also true in a business organization. A TMO should study and solve problems of multiscale (from microlevel to macrolevel) adaptive system development.
  3. Finally, a TMO facilitates the emergence of new “things”
    • So a TMO should study and solve problems of newness management, rather than sticking to known “things” (e.g. creating a winning proprietary technology instead of fighting existing competitors by cutting costs).

And if I had to summarize what a TMO is, I would say that a TMO is a sort of farmer who “prepares the ground, plant seeds, then weeds, hoes, and waters the corn, and waits until it is ripe”.

Do you agree? Your contributions to this important question are welcomed here. Thank you.


You can also read some of my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

Do Not Stick to the Iron Triangle in Project Management

Do not stick to the Iron Triangle in Project Management. Only time proves the success of a project. Not the successful realization of the Triple Constraint (scope, time, cost… and quality), the famous Iron Triangle.

Consider the following two examples: the Boeing 737 MAX 8 project and the Sydney Opera House project.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 was an initial project management success. The aircraft was delivered on schedule in May 2017 to catch up with its Airbus A320 NEO competitor. Sadly, this initial success was followed by a huge drawback with 2 crashes that killed 346 people. Since then, the aircraft are grounded, customers lost their trust, and Boeing loses several billions of $.

Une image contenant capture d’écran

Description générée automatiquement

Fig. 1 – Representation of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 Benefits

The Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House project has been an initial failure. Budget increased from AU $7 million to AU $102 million. The delivery was 10 years behind schedule. This project became a study in the domain of project failure. Who remembers the name of the architect, the Dane Jørn Utzon? The overrun on the Opera House, and the controversy that followed, destroyed Utzon’s career and kept him from building more masterpieces. He had even to leave Australia and the Opera House, in the middle of construction and never returned. Yet the Opera House is today a worldwide attraction for millions of tourists and a major success for Australia. the Australian government even recouped the massive cost after only two years. More than 8.2 million people from Australia and around the world visit it each year and some 300,000 people take part in guided tours. Isn’t it a huge success?

Une image contenant capture d’écran

Description générée automatiquement

Fig. 2 – Representation of the Sydney Opera House Benefits

Key Takeaways

What you want in reality is sustainable success, not costs, schedule or scope. Here are my three takeaways:

  • Quality (the “fourth dimension” of the Iron Triangle) must be the priority one. The Sydney Opera House is a superb iconic building that sooner or later would deserve its rewards. Performance was maybe bounded (by its Triple Constraint overrun), yet its success is unbounded[1].
  • The Iron Triangle is nothing more than an excessive set of constraints. Ease them to make sure that you achieve the right “quality”, that is what the users will get from your project. A few more months and redundant systems would have cost more than initially forecasted by Boeing, yet much less than the costs incurred by the tragedies of the crashes.
  • Above all, replace the efforts you devote to the Triple Constraint by efforts to reduce the fragilities of your project. A fragility is anything that does not like uncertainty, volatility, disorder, or time[2]. Never focus too much on efficiency alone. For example, imitate human bodies that reduce their fragility thanks to redundant eyes, lungs or kidneys.  

Do you agree?


Philippe Husser

The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

[1] Read L. Barabasi, The Formula

[2] Read N. Taleb, Incerto

The image of the Syndey Opera House is from Patty Jansen, Pixabay

See Gull

Seven Recommendations for Project Managers Willing to Grow Their Career

In the domain of project management, a career develops over the years with a succession of jobs and projects. Many ask : “What career path can one have in the project management domain as a PMO, a Project Manager, or a Project Sponsor? What could be my next step?”. Here are my Seven Recommendations to grow your career in project management.

1- Get the most possible great opportunities to work in the domain of Project, Program, and Portfolio Management.

Life is a series of vibrations (small moves, peace, continuous development…) interrupted from time to time by big moves (strategic surprises, wars, transformations…). The big moves are the domain of Projects, Programs and Project Portfolios. This is a very exciting domain.

Fig. 1 – Achieve your strategic goals with excellence both in operations and in projects.

As a result, grow through a variety of exposures (sizes, domains, stakes, complexity…) in the domain of project management. Start with small projects. As a project team member, as a project leader, or as a PMO (Office or Officer) role. Go from projects to programs. Become a Portfolio Manager. Connect with the organization and business strategies.

Increase your scope of control and your challenges, until you learn and become a Strategy Management Officer, a Major Program (of the sort of these $xx bn IT or infrastructure programs) leader and / or an Enterprise PMO.

2- Remain thoroughly stakeholder-centric

You do not work primarily for yourself. You work for the community you belong to. Thus, identify each of your stakeholders (individuals and groups) and recognize the needs and the expectations of everyone.

Fig. 2 – Example of stakeholders gains, reluctance, and recommended actions.

Develop trusted interactions with all. Make sure no one has certainty about a project outcome while others have uncertainty. A shared single version of truth creates trust.

Consider that the stakeholders are parts of an ecosystem. Learn how complex systems behave. I will write soon articles on this most important topic.

Finally, do not spend large amounts of project advertising or communication. They will never match the credibility of genuine stakeholders, as explain Nassim Taleb in his book Skin in the Game.

3- Do not fear failure

Do not fear failure nor poor results. Yet, at the same time, beware of success. Both are very relative and time dependant. Above all, prefer intertemporal strategies where you accept to earn less now in order to earn more later.

Fig 3. – Illustration of 2 difficult projects with opposite benefits profiles

You will face difficult decisions. Put your skin in the game. Will you guaranty your project delivery, save your career, at the risk of later dramatic losses (i.g. the Boeing 737 MAX 8)? Or will you be a project manager ready to miss the iron triangle (costs, time, scope) targets, to end his career, yet willing to prepare the foundations for a bright future (i.g. the Sidney Opera House)?

4- Stay as long as possible in the environment of great leaders AND strong communities.

Great leaders are like powerhouses that pull a train toward a certain (bright, but unfortunately not always) future. At all events, leave as soon as possible mediocre ones.

In particular, never get into a bed of Procrustes. Procrustes was a rogue bandit who forced his hosts to fit the size of the bed he offered them for the night. Procrustes is a symbol of standards, bureaucraty, or conformism.

Yet, above all, develop your influence, your network, and the community of agents you need. While hierarchies and managers are important in not-too-complex systems, horizontal influence is necessary in a complex systems.

Fig. 4 – Illustration of a decentralized community of change agents.

A single person may indeed never grasp everything needed to make a single project, program or portfolio successful.  Therefore, identify a variety of talents. And engage them to regularly meet, share knowledge, and support each other in working towards a shared goal. It is a very effective way of learning, working, and achieving results in higly complex environments.

Learn network and complex systems sciences. You will for example discover the power of decentralized and intransigent communities. This may drive you to reconsider totally the way you “manage change”.

5- Always build a mix of on-the-job learning and formal learning

For example, when I worked at Michelin, a great Global-500 company, the average employee had more than 65 hours each year of formal training. That represented the 10% of the famous 70-20-10 equilibrium between on-the-job learning, social learning, and classroom training. Where are you in comparison?

Learn and practice all sorts of methods and tools. Understand what works best where. Get advice from a mentor. Work with a coach. A coach may be the ideal partner of your personal development plan.

Fig. 5 – Illustration of a variety of methods and tools in project management.

And also, read, read, read. Make sure that you explore a variety of domains like history, biographies and memoirs, science, business and leadership. Here is a list of my 12 preferred business books. I will also publish soon a list of my favorite websites and blogs

6- Stay ahead of the wave

The universe is accelerating. So is the business environment. Cope with the Red Queen effect. ” Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Fig. 6 – The law of Maximum Entropy Production and the Red Queen effect.

Go beyond the golden triangle capabilities (technical, business and strategy, leadership) by studying, learning, and exploring three domains: complexity sciences, innovative (neo)strategies, and human dynamics.

Focus especially on human dynamics. Indeed, the world is not flat. And in-depth human understanding is a key succes factor.

Human dynamics comprise the actions and interactions of personal, interpersonal, and social / contextual factors and their effects on behavioral outcomes.

They are influenced by factors such as economics, religion, politics, and culture.

It encompasses languages, history, geopolitics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, cognitive sciences, neurosciences, computer science and other such fields.

7- Always search for the right equilibrium

A Project Management practitioner is often a kind of alchemist, always in search of the best balance between SOLVE and COAGULA, between YIN and YANG, or ORDER and ABSENCE of ORDER.

Systems that endure – that is, are sustainable – lie in dynamic balance somewhere between these two poles of order and disorder, efficient performance and adaptive resilience

  • Order leads to greater efficiency (usage of resources).
  • Absence of order, with means of interconnectivity and diversity, leads to greater resilience.

This is really something that must engage the project management community. The figure below shows this search of balance between order (planning) and diversity or interconnectivity.

Fig. 7 – Nature selects for a balance between efficiency and resilience.

An excess of either attribute leads to systemic instability and collapse. Ecosystems that survive and develop are those that achieve a balance between the mutually exclusive attributes of efficiency and resilience.

This is a “universal conversation between structure building and dissipation” that project management practitioners must engage when looking for their career moves.

Summary of my seven recommendations

As a conclusion, a career develops over the years with a succession of missions and projects. Some succeed. Some fail. Learn from each.

  • Try different functions (R&D, M&S, IT, Business…), companies, countries, and roles.
  • Develop customer-centricity
  • Do not fear failure, yet beware of success
  • Follow great leaders and build wonderful communities
  • Learn, learn, learn
  • Explore complexity sciences
  • Find your equilibrium between order and non-order

Move from one role to another one. Favor indirect and roundabout routes. Read the stories of people who made an impact. Discover how their journey has been a series of “vibrations and big moves”, including long periods of dessert and silence. Trust also that serendipity and providence will help you. And above all, never give up. Little by little, you will learn, grow, and better serve the world around you.

To your continued success


The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

an indirect strategy

An Indirect Strategy Fits Best In A Complex World

An indirect strategy fits best in a complex world. This is is something “people with white beards” have learned during the course of their career. Conversely, they also learned that direct strategies mostly fail in complex environments.

There is a book that you may want to read: it is the “Treatise of efficacy” by François Jullien. This book is inspiring me, here is why.

Complexity doesn’t like direct approaches.

The direct strategy says: “let us define a goal, identify means, and select ways to achieve the goal.”

The direct approach imposes the will of an architect, of a politician, or of a particular leader.

The Babel tower is a symbol of this approach. The tower was more than a mere technical project. It was a “social project” with stakeholders who had different views on the project to say the least. You all know how it ended up.

An indirect strategy fits best in a complex world

Consequently, there is a question for project managers: « Can one continue to operate as a technician when it comes to determining social behaviors? »

In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, our actions cannot cover its contingencies with general deterministic laws. The world may indeed not be fully receptive to the order that we wish it to have.

The traditional direct approach is subject to the contingencies of complexity. The more a project deals with social environments, the less a direct approach is going to work. The more a project moves up into the hierarchy, where politics play a role, the less the direct approach works.

The indirect strategy says: “let us understand the situation, detect a potential, and take profit of opportunities to benefit from the potential.”

Indirectness requires sensibility, agility, and adaptability.

Potential consists in sensing the circumstances with a view to profiting from them.

When it is the case, circumstances are no longer something unpredictable and threatening to ruin any plan imposed upon them.

Instead, thanks precisely to their variability, circumstances can progressively be turned to advantage by the propensity emanating from the situation.

It is key to notice that, instead of imposing your will, you recognize a situation as a whole and you build your approach with an intertemporal mindset. You invest now for a future that is not yet determined.

As a symbol of this approach, you see an ear of corn. You weed, hoe, and water the corn. Then it is best to wait for the moment of ripening.

Indirectness also requires humility, patience, and equilibrium

It requires humility (you do not impose your will), acceptance of an ecosystem on which you have no power, and it requires that time may be longer.

A direct strategy may be glorious, and indirect strategy may (or should) be invisible to others.

But the direct one loses in complex environments, the indirect one may win.

Yet, a mix of directness and directness is an excellent approach to success.

In the domain of project management, using “roundness” early on is a winning strategy. Most project indeed show characteristics of complexity. As a result, an indirect strategy fits best in a complex world.

Indirectness allows project stakeholders to learn and adjust to the situation with flexibility not possible with “square” approaches.

The approach becomes direct or “square” when the indirect or “round” approach produces results that look ripe enough, that means, when they are secured enough, if we can talk of secured enough results, to make them “square.” 

So here is a table that shows some of the key characteristics of both approaches:

And as a conclusion, read what François Jullien explains in his book “The treatise of efficacy”:

“One should be round before a situation actualizes itself and square once it has become actualized”.

To Your Continued Success!


The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

What Can We Learn From Complexity?

Join me and Keyedin Solutions for this exciting and thought provoking On Demand Webinar

“Three Capabilities

for Strategy, Portfolio, and Program Managers

in a Complex World”.

Here are some of the topics explored during this webinar

Why we dissipate our energy ever faster

The emergence of new phenomena and transitions

Maximum resilience lies between order and non-order

Life is full of strategic suprises

The accountant and the rock star

What the Chinese wisdom can teach us in strategy

Understanding the culture of others

Analyse your network, influencers, and allies

Explore social dynamics of your allies and opponents

To Your Continued Success!


The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

How Can Project Managers Navigate a World That Runs Ever Faster

Nature Always Selects The Fastest Route

Nature always selects the fastest route to get somewhere. For this reason, Project Managers must navigate a world that runs always faster.

Imagine that you are walking along a river bank. All of a sudden, you notice that somebody is drowning 500 meters below. Do you first jump into the river and swim? No you first run along the bank until you get close to the drowned person. And only then you jump into the water. Thus, you swim the shortest distance to the person.

In technical terms, the universe incessantly strives to maximize the speed with which energy dissipates.

In 1988, the American scientist Rod Swenson recognized the Law of Maximum Entropy Production (MEP) that states that:

the world will select the path or assemblage of paths out of available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints.

That this principle also applies to human evolution. It especially applies to human organizations and businesses.

This is the famous Red Queen effect. It arises from a statement that the Red Queen made to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. This novel is a sequel to Alice in Wonderland.

In the novel, Alice crosses a mirror. She enters an alternative world. There she meets a White Queen and a Red Queen. Alice grabs the Red Queen, believing her to be responsible for all the day’s nonsense she finds in this world.

At some point, the Red Queen tells Alice:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

A Window As The Fastest Route For Heat

Let us see how this Maximum Entropy Production law works through an example. This example is how heat squeezes outside your home.

Imagine you live in a nice cottage. It is summertime. Under these circumstances there is a temperature gradient between the fresh air in the cottage and the hot air outside.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us something important. Over time the gradient or potential will be dissipated through walls or cracks around the windows and doors of your cottage. The cottage will soon become as hot as the outside. The whole system is in equilibrium.

At the beginning, hot air was outside, fresh air was inside. There was some kind of order. At the end, outside and inside air have the same temperature. They mixed up. Disorder has increased among the air molecules.

Now, if we open a window or a door a portion of the heat will now rush through the window or the door and not just through the walls or cracks.

In short whenever we remove a constraint to the flow (such as a closed window) the cottage / environment system will exploit the new and faster pathway thereby increasing the rate the potential is minimized.

Wherever it has the opportunity to minimize or ‘destroy’ the gradient of the potential at a faster rate it will, exactly as the Law of Maximum Entropy Production says.

A Growing Complexity As A Consequence

The universe follows this optimization algorithm supported by a positive feedback loop. It constantly thrives to maximize the dissipation of its energy or the entropy production rate. It does this by forming ever more complex structures. This is what the Nobel Prize of chemistry Ilya Prigogine explains:

The universe evolves by forming physical structures capable of dissipating ever more efficiently energy. Stars, planets, plants, animals, and humans form such a series of structures.

And projects are what contributes most to this acceleration in the field of business affairs. Hence the question: how can project managers navigate a world that runs ever faster?

Human organizations are dissipative structures. They are patterns which exhibit dynamic self-organization. Such structures are necessarily open systems: energy and/or matter are flowing through them.

These systems are continuously generating entropy, but this entropy is actively dissipated, or exported, out of the systems. Thus, they manage to increase their own organization at the expense of the order in the environment.

Such systems circumvent the second law of thermodynamics simply by getting rid of excess entropy. The most obvious examples of such dissipative systems are living organisms and social organizations. The business world today is a perfect example of a highly complex dissipative system maximizing the speed with which it dissipates its energy.

A Window As The Fastest Route For Information

A window also lets external sounds get inside. If closed, you may not hear anything from the outside world. If your neighbors discuss, open the window to get a chance of listening to their conversation and memorizing some of the interesting news they discuss.

Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer became “the father of information theory.” He is the first to have linked entropy and information.

Shannon developed information entropy as a measure of the uncertainty in a message. Entropy is thus a measure of our lack of information, our ignorance if you prefer. Since Shannon’s works, we know that entropy and information are two opposite aspects of a same concept. Major consequences affect all of us.

In the same manner, the dissipative structures import information from the outside.

A dissipative structure exports energy to the outside and imports information from its environment. It memorizes this information.

What About Natural Selection (Competition)?

These laws have a consequence on natural selection. Natural selection is a physical process that maximizes the flow of energy. This is the “Red Queen Effect” as we have seen earlier.

During self-organization, systems design, develop, and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.

By dissipating energy, a system modifies its environment. Since the environment has changed, the dissipative structure must adapt to the changes. It does this by dissipating ever more energy.

Mankind develops its well-being by maximizing the speed with which it dissipates energy, memorizes information, modifies the environment, and adapts to these changes. We self-organize and diminish our internal entropy by exchanging energy and information with the outside world.


Similarly, to species or civilizations, we can arguably apply this selection principle to organizations that become ever more advanced before eventually collapsing.

This clearly relates to project management in complex organizations. Project environments are equivalent to dissipative systems maximizing the speed of exchange of energy, information, and matter with their outside world.

A Few Tips Helping Project Managers Navigate a World That Runs Ever Faster

As a result, how can project managers navigate a world that runs ever faster? What can Project Managers do to navigate the Maximum Entropy Production law?

If the Maximum Entropy Production law is an universal law, there is only one way to navigate it safely: understand how it works, consider this wave as promising, and surf on it. It is surely not an easy journey.

Yet, here are a few tips that I learned during my career. I hope they will help you too.

a) Give your project a structure that maximizes the dissipation

  • Create, develop, accelerate interactions (number, volume, speed).
  • Yet create thresholds focusing on the most productive interactions (if you do not want to let you overwhelm by “noise”)
  • Empower people and eliminate or replace unnecessary, outdated or opposing constraints that may limit the dissipation.

b) Implement a nimble governance system

  • Establish governance that is nimbler than the ecosystem’s (Ashby law).
  • Look for the right equilibrium between planning and agility (Ulanowicz)
  • Co-evolve with your environment (and the changes you generated) with frequent changes rather than less frequent yet larger changes (Per Bak and the sand pile avalanches)

c) Import information from the outside, memorize it, updated it

  • Develop business / ecosystem intelligence.
  • Adapt culture, policies, and leadership beliefs in harmony with the changes.
  • Develop education, learning and development (transmitting memorized knowledge).

To Your Continued Success!


The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

Features That Foster Project Adoption

Making a complex project take off and be adopted by its targeted population may be similar to getting a tipping point. Tipping points refer indeed often to rapid and irreversible favorable changes. Tipping points make a project, a program, or a portfolio performance  take off in an unexpected and favorable way.  You surely do not plan their emergence. Yet, you can profit from a variety of specific features that help this emergence. Let me share with you seven of these features that I learned by experience.

1 – Sand Piles And Tipping Points

Imagine first that you are on a beach of fine, golden sand.

You have a shovel and a bucket. You build a castle by pouring wet sand regularly on what will become the chateau of Sleeping Beauty. The pile of sand becomes higher and higher. Now and then, the heap of sand slides in avalanches from the top. Isn’t it frustrating?

Per Bak[1], Chao Tang, and Kurt Wisensefeld, a group of physicists at the Santa Fe Institute built this experiment in the 1980’s.

What’s interesting is that, when piling higher, sand piles achieve a rest angle and a rough stationary state. As the sand is poured ever more upon the sand pile, we see many small avalanches of sand occurring, and from time to time, we see a large or very large slide occurring. The sand rest angle weaves around a critical value without ever stabilizing. Figure 1 describes this phenomenon.


Figure 1 – Sand piles produce avalanches around a critical slope.

2 – Weights And Frequency Of Adult People

Still more interesting is the finding that there is no typical size for sand pile avalanches.

If you try to estimate the weight of adult human beings, the more people you will weigh, the better you will become in ability to estimate their mean weight.

Summarize your findings with a graph that displays different body weights on the horizontal axis (the X-axis) and the frequency (% of subjects) of each weight on the vertical axis (the Y-axis).

Figure 2 shows the results. It is bell-shaped with a single peak in the center, and it is rather symmetrical with at the center the mean weight.

Figure 2 – The bell-shaped curve of weights in a population of adult human beings

3 – Size And Frequency Of Avalanches In A Sand Pile

Conversely, if you try to estimate the size of the sand piles avalanches, the more avalanches you will measure, the bigger the maximum size of the avalanches will become.

Repeating the experiment long enough, you will see massive avalanches, although these may be rare in occurrence. This remains true whatever the grain of sand. The same tiny (and invisible or undetected) cause can trigger very big events.

Per Bak and his friends have shown that the size S of the avalanches is inversely propotional to the frequency f of these avalanches. What does it mean?

It means that the more frequent the avalanches, the smaller they are and the less frequent they are, the bigger they are. This is a power law where very big but improbable events happen.

The graph of such avalanches has a “fat tail”. Figure 3 shows this graph with linear axis. The green part comprises almost all avalanches. In the yellow part, you find rare but big, or even some day, exceptionally big avalanches.

Figure 3 – A power law shows how the size of avalanches varies in 1 / frequency

Power law graphs prefer logarithmic scales. They deliver a straight line on a log–log plot. The Figure 4 illustrates this avalanche frequency – size relationship on such a logarithmic scale.

Figure 4 – Avalanche size distribution in the two-dimensional BTW sandpile model by Christoph Adami.

4 – Avalanches in Social Organizations

Per Bak’s experiment applies to catastrophic events (like snow or sand avalanches) but also to favorable events like tipping points in projects or in business. Malcolm Gladwell proposed such examples in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Can we help to generate (or avoid) large avalanches in social systems? This is a question everyone leading change in an organization considers one time or another.

Such an avalanche is that point in a system’s development where a (sometimes invisible) small change leads to a huge effect, in a very rapid time frame, and spreads through the system in a contagious fashion.

For whoever wants to foment rapid change, the principles or components of an avalanche or a tipping point model are worth examining.

The rapid growth is usually started by a handful of people who exhibit some kind of exceptional behavior.

A small number of people (like skateboarders) have the ability to “infect” a large number of other people with a new idea (like a style of clothing or an interest for a new singer).

Yet this is not enough.

A tipping point may require a certain number of favorable features to have a chance to produce. Here are indeed the seven key success factors I learned myself in projects that took off in an unexpected way.

5 – Seven Features Favorable to Tipping Points in Projects

The presence of these seven elements does not guaranty the emergence of a tipping point. But there absence puts it at risk. I identified them late in my career. It was by “looking backwards to connect the dots” (Steve Jobs), and especially after the success of the implementation of a new Global-500 company Project Portfolio Management Platform (PPMP).

a) A cause and its social value.

Only the strength of a cause can make a change program succeed. Projects fail when they are not solving a big customer problem. While your organization controls all tangible sources of power, your cause is the intangible strength of the problem you want to solve. Make it absolutely powerful. For example, “get rid off Excel in project portfolio management”. In the case of the PPMP, people did not care for a new PPM (their company had already 11 of them!). They cared for “dividing by 2 the number of boring coordination meetings”.

b) An emotional benefit.

The change must create a positive emotion. For example, your PPM Platform must be beautiful, user-friendly, and an “All-Seeing Eye” solution everyone will envy to get on their smartphone. Offer this emotional benefit to the community of people using the platform. They will feel like belonging to a “Porsche Club”.

This may not be enough. Your project should also hook the users. This is what the PPMP team discovered after a while. The secret sauce was Nir Eyal’s 4-step Hooked model. People loved especally to check their PPMP application and discover the latest updates of the portfolio status.

c) A rational benefit of high value.

The solution must also bring rational benefits. Users of the PPM platform are even more important than the executive team members. If users recognize that using it saves time and stress, they will use word of mouth to spread this good news very quickly. They will explain how the new PPMP eliminates the painful need to build, share, consolidate spreadsheets and reduces, by 50%, the number of preparatory transversal meetings for Project Management teams.

d) Several connectors 

Connectors have a large number of connections, a wide reputation, and a strong interest in your project output. They act as influencers. In the case of a new project portfolio platform, they can be an Executive Vice President or a highly recognized thought leader that appreciated the benefits the platform offered to them and their (large) teams. When implementing an organization-wide transformation, focus your efforts on the most connected employees rather than on the most powerful ones to help generate momentum and accelerate impact.

e) A high level of visibility.

At a certain moment, a project needs to become highly visible. This visibility comes from its high level, or its large scope. For example, the project portfolio performance platform will be used in real time during leadership team meetings or during an executive team meeting. Everyone must have it installed on their personal Smartphone.

f) A certain level of adherence.

Users will adhere to the platform because they easily memorize the message it carries. This is the “stickiness factor” of Malcolm Gladwell. In a typical example such a platform was named PIMS for Progress Initiative Management System. However, PIMS is also a delicious cookie with as a base an orange marmalade layer added to a chocolate layer. This single name gave the tool the stickiness factor no PPM will ever get on its own.

Figure 4 – The project name PIMS evokes a lovely cookie and creates adherence

g) A favorable context.

The context is placed at the end of the list. However, its importance is the biggest. It is the context that allows avalanches to produce. Most tipping points are achieved because the environment and the solution converged at a certain favorable time with a level of ripeness on each side. The urgent need for a single version of truth related to a new vital strategic initiative can be the trigger for implementing a new PPM System.

6 – More About the PPM Platform Tipping Point

These seven features served as key success factors in deploying a new Project Portfolio Management System in a large global company (120,000 employees, 75 countries, 4,500+ projects)

The initial PPM goal was to support a critical program (context) based on a portfolio of around 300 projects.

A strong community of local PMOs run portfolios of 10 to 50 projects. They all looked for the easiest way to monitor and share progress and impact of their portfolio (cause and social value).

The executive committee required a single version of truth for this program (the high level of visibility).

The PMO community installed a Saas (Software as a Service) platform with very simple functionalities, just enough to offer everyone this 24X7 single version of truth. Project data were as simple as “are we going to deliver on time” and “will the project deliver the promised benefits” (a benefit). But above all, customer support was outsanding.

The platform name became PIMS for “Progress Initiative Management System”. Yet, as said above, PIMS was also the name of delicious cookies with as a base an orange marmalade layer added to a chocolate layer (the adherence).

Seeing that, two unexpected champions (a regional EVP and a functional EVP) loved the platform (the connectors). They asked that all projects under their responsibility be monitored with the platform.

As a result of these lucky factors, 4,500 projects were on board a few months later. The platform achieved its tipping point.

7 – Your Call to Action

Why not apply what you read to your own life?

What is your current top project? What do you want to achieve? Which is your target population? How do you intend to make people adopt your project, use its outputs, and benefit from its outcomes?

Why not sense your own environment and see if you profit from one or more of these seven features?

What can you do to develop them further?

Trust they will help you anticipate and benefit from the next big avalanche!

To Your Continued Success!


The article is inspired from my book the High-Impact PMO that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

An Attitude Of Openness To What Happens

Here is the story of the three Princes of Serendip

A long time ago, a King named Giaffer had three sons whose education he entrusted to the best tutors.

Once he found that they were excellent in virtue, sciences, and wisdom, he invited one after the other to accept to reign at his place as the King. But each one refused at his turn with modesty the crown.

Thus, the King sent them to find the magic formula of the death of the dragons.

Follow a long series of fortuitous events that they successfully used to show their wisdom, compassion, and support to others.

The story ends well. Tears of compassion they shed for poor villagers they met killed the dragons forever.

This story of three princes who are regularly making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of is an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip attributed to the Sufi poet Amir Khusrow (1253-1325).

A Key Takeway

Life makes you gifts while you walk your journey towards your vocation. You respond to them with the sagacity and the humility you have at the time of these gifts.

It requires maintaining an attitude of openness to and acceptance of what happens despite the goal you initially defined.

Do you like this story?


This article comes from my book The High-Impact PMO a series of real-life stories of quirky solutions adopted by complex project sponsors, managers and PMOs to better deliver value.

Buy the High-Impact PMO on Amazon or read my most successful articles:

High-Impact PMO

3 Secrets Successful PMOs Learn and Apply

More PMOs than many believe deliver exceptional value. Yet, they support projects, programs and portfolios in a VUCA* world. Studying their real-life stories taught me three secrets that made them successful. Here is my most recent version of these three secrets.

*VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

Secret #1 – High-Impact PMOs Ceaselessly Develop Their Capabilities

Project management requires to develop capabilities in the traditional technical, business and strategy, and leadership domains.

Complex project management requires complementing these capabilities with new skills in three areas:

  1. complexity sciences
  2. multi-modal strategies
  3. human dynamics

Complexity sciences reinforce the comprehension of system dynamics, nonlinearities, uncertainties, network analysis among other domains.

Explore in particular why things go ever faster and why there is an optimal equilibrium between planning and agility.

The figure below shows for example that an equibrium exists between order and non-order with an optimum in sustainability.

Ulanowicz complexity

Multi-modal strategies help to design project approaches that take into account real world behaviors.

They consider the need for different levels of squareness and roundness during the project lifecycle. They help for example to understand what a black swan is and what serendipity can do for you.

The figure below illustrates how you should hedge your strategic initiative portfolio. The light blue A group of initiatives contains those promising the biggest, lower-risk, and most regular benefits (the blue surface) that make the portfolio perform. The dark blue B part contains risky initiatives that could deliver very large benefits compensating for potentially deceptive benefits in the A group. B initiatives must outperform A initiatives in case these initiatives underperform.

Human dynamics develops the understanding of individuals, teams, and social groups behaviors.

They study their history, their culture, their geopolitical situation, and their interactions. You will apply human dynamics to project fatigue in your organization, to posture-adjusted interactions, and to the gains and reluctance that your stakeholders have regarding your initiatives.

Here is an example. It is important to understand and accept cultural differences if you want to develop trust between project stakeholders. The figure below visualizes a few country profiles against six cultural dimensions: interdependence, status, risk adversity, indirectness, relationships, and time horizon. It is inspired by Richard D. Lewis’ When cultures collide, leading across culture, and the internet site Aperian Global founded by Ted Dale and Ernest Gundling

Secret #2 – High-Impact PMOs Develop a Premium Customer / Stakeholder Orientation

Complex projects primary purpose is to serve a population.

These projects have a great many of stakeholders that are strongly intertwined. A myriad of interactions links them all in an impossible to precisely understand network. They form a complex adaptive system. New behaviors emerge that are impossible to predict. Most evolutions are non linear.

Yet the High-Impact PMO establishes a map of all these stakeholders. It constantly analyses their network and looks for important connexions and interactions, influencers, allies and opponents.

The figure below shows an example of a social dynamics map.  This map evaluates the degree of synergy and of antagonism of key stakeholders.

Socio dynamics golden triangle
  • The “Golden Triangle” contains key supporters who at the same time are challenging the project.
  • The red domain has the strongest opponents who do not show any synergy.
  • Each sector requires a specific stakeholder management plan.

The PMO understands that interactions are what makes the whole system behave. Working on the quality of these interactions becomes a key activity.

All sorts of techniques are available, from techniques designed for the individuals, to those available to teams and to large groups of people.

By doing so, the PMO considers stakeholders as “customers”, and its focus becomes customer-centric.

Secret #3 – High-Impact PMOs Are Result-Oriented

Traditional PMOs focus their activities on processes, methods and tools, monitoring and reporting.
High-Impact PMOs focus on delivering value and impact to their stakeholders.

Stakeholders (from team members to customers) are in a recursive loop. They expect and contribute at the same time to personal gains and to organizational benefits.

As individuals they look for personal gains (more wealth, new friends, a better health…) (hence the famous WIIFM What’s In It For Me question).

As members of a specific community, they want collective benefits (a favorable work environment, a market growth…).

The High-Impact PMO focuses its work on maximizing both these personal gains and the benefits for the communities.

They consider that money is a secondary result they get when and if the population adopts the program goal. Not vice-versa.

A Strategy Map Visualizes a Typical Application Of the Secret #3

PMOs can develop program strategy maps and balanced scorecards placing the “customer” dimension on top, as the target of the value creation process, while the “finance” or “resource” dimension is at the bottom as an enabler.

This is what the figure below shows as the example of an aerospace / avionics project aiming at providing an excellent turn-over time to airlines. Note that there is a specific “people” dimension since people are different from mere “resources”.

Strategy Map PMO

Yet, it understands from complexity sciences and game theory that it is useless to search for a global satisfaction of all. The goal becomes a trial and error journey towards optimizing the impacts of the project.

A Simple Reporting Format Focuses On the Results Expected At the End

Instead of reporting on compliance to standards and pre-established plans (that are never followed in a complex world), they constantly maintain a forward-looking view of the expected value.

For example, as shown on the following figure, these PMOs focus on a forward-looking view of progress and impact (or benefits) of the components of their project. They add a WIN or What’s Important Now [to do] (black if the solution is in your hands, red if you need help from others).

Such PMOs detect roadblocks, send alerts about milestones, benefits, and risks. They also prepare tough decision-making when needed.

Their support goes beyond getting the promised project output. These PMOs expand their support to the project sponsorship in order to make sure the project outcomes (benefits) are achieved. Above all, they strive to generate an impact.

Key takeaway

Whatever your role, your spans of control, or your current impact, you always have the opportunity to develop your competencies, your customer-centricity and result-orientation.

By following these secrets, you will sooner or later become a high-impact PMO.

To your continued success !


Buy the High-Impact PMO on Amazon or read my most successful articles:

High-Impact PMO